News analysis

Death of Annie Ee: Tragic case highlights conditions needed for sound court system

Ms Annie Ee, the young woman who was abused to death, drew a postscript for her tragedy as three parties came out to clarify the issues behind the court outcome for the offending couple.

The Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) explained why it could not press murder charges, the Law Society stressed the critical role of defence counsel in safeguarding the due process of the law, while a "troubled" Law Minister urged the public not to put pressure on judges over their sentencing decisions.

Ms Ee, a 26-year-old waitress with intellectual disabilities, died after daily beatings by her flatmates.

The couple, Tan Hui Zhen, 33, and her husband Pua Hak Chuan, 38, who were initially charged with murder, pleaded guilty to various charges for the extensive torture of Ms Ee over eight months.

High Court Justice Hoo Sheau Peng sentenced Tan to 16½ years' jail, while Pua was given 14 years' jail and 14 strokes of the cane for their "extremely cruel and inhumane" abuse.

In pressing for a deterrent sentence, the prosecution said: "If appropriate punishment is not imposed, or if it is generally perceived as being proportionately inadequate, the wider community will be left with the sour taste of injustice and grievance."

Disquiet did, indeed, follow with more than 35,000 appearing to have joined an online petition seeking harsher punishments. Netizens even flamed the defence lawyers.

Clearly, the public was baying for blood. But - and this is the issue central to the legal aspects of this tragic case - emotion on the ground cannot be allowed to influence the proceedings in court.

People wanted the couple charged with homicide or murder. But the AGC explained that the prosecutor's duty was to only prefer charges supported by evidence. And evidence showed that while Ms Ee was beaten severely, she died of fat embolism - which would not normally result from her injuries. "(So) the offences of homicide and murder cannot be proved against them," said an AGC spokesman.

The Law Society drew attention to the ire directed at the pro bono, volunteer lawyers who represented the couple. Its president Gregory Vijayendran pointed out that it was the duty of criminal defence lawyers to give voice to their clients and to extenuating circumstances. "We should not shoot the messenger because we neither like the message nor the client he represents," he said.

And yet, it is also true that the public keeps making its voice heard, ever louder, on high-profile cases in Singapore.

In an opinion piece for The Straits Times in August, Senior Counsel Tan Cheng Han noted that in this highly wired city, "anyone in Singapore has the means to weigh in on a court case, and to have his or her comments widely amplified with the help of social media".

In that sense, it was refreshing to see the AGC go the extra mile to explain the decision to prosecute for grievous hurt.

The AGC said on its website: "We do understand that there may be a desire to understand in some detail our decisions in certain cases. As we have noted before, we may issue statements to explain our position in a specific case, and to address misconceptions that may arise... about the law and the legal process."

But the matter went beyond legal explanations. A line was probably crossed when an online petition tried to put pressure on judges to impose harsher sentences on the couple.

It was perhaps this that prompted Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam to step in and put things into perspective.

He said: "As a society, we have to try and avoid putting public pressure on judges to impose harsh/lenient sentences. We have a well-functioning court system. We must have the confidence that our judges will do the right thing."

Mr Shanmugam also reminded those fanning the flames to remember that, one day, they could find themselves on the other side of the divide. "Someone known to anyone of us could be charged for any offence at any point in time," he said.

The tragic case has brought many issues to the fore. It has invoked righteous anger among people.

But it has also served as a reminder that for the court system to stay sound, prosecutors must be allowed to frame charges as they see fit, defence lawyers must be given the freedom to speak up for their clients and the judge left alone to mete out appropriate sentences.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2017, with the headline Death of Annie Ee: Tragic case highlights conditions needed for sound court system. Subscribe