CORONER'S INQUIRY INTO AMERICAN RESEARCHER'S DEATH

Fact-finding proceedings begin with more than 60 witnesses lined up

WAS American researcher Shane Todd murdered over his work at the Singapore Institute of Micro- electronics (IME), or did he commit suicide by hanging?

That is the question a coroner's inquiry, which starts today, will attempt to answer as it reviews what is set to be voluminous evidence on the case. This will include testimonies from more than 60 witnesses who have been lined up for the inquiry, scheduled to last until May 28.

Senior State Counsel Tai Wei Shyong, the lead counsel for the inquiry, will launch the Government's case today with an opening submission that will include details of police investigations and evidence collected.

The 31-year-old Dr Todd was found hanged in an apparent suicide in his home near Chinatown almost a year ago last June.

His parents Rick and Mary Todd believe he was murdered because of his work for IME. Their claim revolves mainly around a hard drive they found in Dr Todd's apartment.

They said a computer analyst they engaged had established that the hard drive was accessed between Dr Todd's death and when they found it days after his body was discovered.

The Todds, who are here for the inquiry, said the hard drive contains their son's work files, including one on a project between IME and Chinese telecoms giant Huawei Technologies, which has been suspected of espionage by the United States government.

A coroner's inquiry is a fact- finding process, and the proceedings today are "solely dedicated to determining the cause of and circumstances surrounding Dr Todd's death", said Mr Tai.

However, the hard drive remains a key piece of evidence, which is why forensics experts and police officers involved in the investigations will be expected to testify about the hardware.

Another set of evidence that will come under scrutiny is the separate pathology reports tendered by the Singapore state and the Todds. These reports typically document the cause of death after an autopsy has been conducted.

Besides pathologists from the Health Sciences Authority (HSA), independent experts from overseas are expected to testify. It is also understood that the Singapore state has offered to facilitate the presence of the pathologist engaged by the Todds to testify, but it is unclear if he will show up.

As with most inquiries into suspected suicides, Dr Todd's state of mind - particularly in the period leading up to his death - will also come under close examination. This is why Dr Todd's then girlfriend Shirley Sarmiento and his IME colleagues are expected to be among the witnesses.

The Todds, who had refuted claims that their son could have killed himself because he was mentally unwell, will also testify. They will be represented by five lawyers from three firms, led by lawyer Gloria James.

Other witnesses will include a psychiatrist Dr Todd consulted while he was here, and a handwriting analyst from the HSA.

The case has attracted international scrutiny, with US senators calling for blocks on US funding to the IME until the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has full access to the investigations here.

The FBI, however, has no jurisdiction over the case, but it has been cooperating with the police here on the investigations.

Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam, who has met US counterpart John Kerry over the matter, has also promised a full and transparent investigation.

The state coroner will review the evidence and independently determine the cause of and circumstances connected with Dr Todd's death.

But the Todds may ask questions about the investigation, and forensic and medical reports, during the hearing in open court.

A decision by the coroner is expected to be delivered in three to four weeks after the inquiry ends.

There are no provisions for an appeal against the coroner's decision if the family is dissatisfied with it. The Attorney-General's Chambers, however, may direct further investigations if needed. Lawyers say such a move is rare.

zengkun@sph.com.sg