SINGAPORE - While 2020 has been peppered with prominent and high-profile court cases - from matters involving Lee Suet Fern to Parti Liyani to Hin Leong - no list of contenders for the legal case of the year would be complete without the one involving an alleged Nigerian drug trafficker who was freed by the Court of Appeal after nine years behind bars.
The five-judge court - in a 4-1 decision in October - reversed its previous decision in 2015 to convict Mr Ilechukwu Uchechukwu Chukwudi, now 34, of a capital drug offence, ruling that the past judgment was "demonstrably wrong" and can no longer stand, after new evidence surfaced that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress symptoms when he lied to narcotics officers in 2011.
"This was a case of many firsts, with many ups and downs. It was also the first time in Singapore's history where the Court of Appeal reopened a concluded criminal appeal to re-examine the case and rendered an acquittal," said lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam, who was the assigned lead lawyer for the case under the Legal Assistance Scheme for Capital Offences.
"Ilechukwu was arrested in 2011 on suspicion of trafficking drugs into Singapore, and I was appointed his counsel in 2013. Naturally, when we first obtained his acquittal before the High Court in 2015, we were ecstatic," added Mr Thuraisingam.
"This turned quickly to disappointment when the prosecution appealed to the Court of Appeal, which overturned the acquittal, convicted Ilechukwu and sent the case back to the High Court for sentencing. In the Court of Appeal's view at that time, there were many lies in Ilechukwu's contemporaneous police statements which were suggestive of his guilt rather than innocence."
The defence team then sought medical evidence to establish whether Ilechukwu would qualify for life imprisonment instead of death under the alternative sentencing regime in Section 33B of the Misuse of Drugs Act.
It emerged that an Institute of Mental Health psychiatric report prepared for sentencing found that Ilechukwu had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of witnessing a brutal tribal massacre during his childhood, and suggested that this may provide an innocent explanation for the lies in his police statements.
"This gave our client a providential lifeline. In the light of this new, potentially exonerative medical evidence, we asked the Court of Appeal to reconsider and set aside its previous conviction of Ilechukwu," said Mr Thuraisingam.
The top court agreed in 2017 to reopen the case to prevent a potential miscarriage of justice and sent the matter to the High Court to evaluate the medical evidence.
A further gruelling trial followed in the High Court, where four expert psychiatrists gave evidence about Ilechukwu's mental state.
This concluded with the court's finding that he suffered from PTSD symptoms during the statement-taking process, and that his lies to the authorities may have resulted from an overestimation of the threat to his life in being accused of a crime carrying the death penalty.
The previous conviction was then set aside.
Ilechukwu left for Nigeria late last month after travelling issues due to Covid-19 restrictions were sorted out.
Mr Thuraisingam said: "When I first interviewed Ilechukwu in prison, he could barely speak any English. After his release from prison, over a small celebratory meal before his flight home to Nigeria, I was amused to detect what sounded like a slight Singlish accent when he spoke.
"Having fought alongside him through all the ups and downs, this case is one for the books and will always have a special place in my heart."