Why lawyer Josephus Tan defends the ‘bad guys’

Everyone has the right to a proper defence, says lawyer Josephus Tan

The case of Ms Annie Ee (above) sparked public anger against Tan Hui Zhen and Pua Hak Chuan. PHOTOS: ANNIE EE/FACEBOOK, SINGAPORE POLICE FORCE

For defending the couple who fatally abused 26-year-old Annie Ee, lawyer Josephus Tan was not only heckled online, but also questioned by friends and relatives.

Mr Tan, who defended them pro bono, may be upset by the reactions, but said too that these also showed a civic-minded public who cared strongly about the tragedy.

Speaking to The Sunday Times yesterday, he said some members of the public had gone up to him to ask why he had defended Tan Hui Zhen and her husband Pua Hak Chuan.

On Dec 1, Tan was sentenced to 16½ years' jail, while Pua was given 14 years' jail and 14 strokes of the cane by the High Court after they pleaded guilty for their "extremely cruel and inhumane abuse" of their flatmate, Ms Ee, over eight months.

An autopsy report showed that Ms Ee suffered fractures to seven vertebrae and 12 ribs.

Tan and Pua were initially charged with murder, but Mr Tan's representations as their lawyer helped reduce the main charge to voluntarily causing grievous hurt.

Mr Tan said: " Not only people on the streets, but even my family and friends asked me why I took up this case. They asked me because they themselves were hounded by others."

He said he explained to them that as a lawyer, he has to take on all cases regardless of their nature when he is doing pro bono cases.

Mr Tan, 38, of Invictus Law Corporation, was conferred the Pro Bono Ambassador of the Year award by the Law Society in 2013.

He had said in a previous interview that he is seen as an "outlier" among lawyers for his passion for pro bono work and even his appearance - he keeps his hair long .

Tan Hui Zhen (left) and Pua Hak Chuan. PHOTOS: SINGAPORE POLICE FORCE

He said then: "I believe that a powerful discipline like law should never be used to enrich oneself but rather, to empower the society as a whole. Especially the underprivileged among us."

On the furore over his defence of Tan and Pua, Mr Tan cited the saying of one of Singapore's best known criminal lawyers.

He said: "I am mindful of my pupil master, the late Mr Subhas Anandan, who said that however heinous his offence is, I think he deserves a proper defence. 'Why should anybody say that he is guilty when the court has not found him guilty yet?'".

The tragic case of Ms Ee, a waitress who had intellectual disabilities, sparked much public anger against Tan and Pua. There was even an online petition, with more than 35,000 signatures, seeking harsher punishment against them.

Netizens also flamed Mr Tan, who had taken the case pro bono together with Mr Cory Wong.

The public outrage prompted the Attorney-General's Chambers to explain why it could not press murder charges. It noted that the prosecutor's duty was to prefer charges supported by evidence. And in this case, evidence showed that while Ms Ee was beaten severely, she died of fat embolism - which would not normally result from her injuries.

The Law Society also wrote in to The Straits Times Forum pages to stress the role of defence lawyers in safeguarding the due process of the law, while Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam urged the public not to pressure judges over their sentencing decisions.

Mr Tan said he was upset that some people were "blinded by their anger" and he feared that this may discourage other young lawyers from doing pro bono criminal work.

But he was also heartened, as the reactions also reflected how Singaporeans are a caring lot who wanted to voice their outrage against the appalling abuse.

Mr Tan said even the couple themselves felt they should not appeal. He said both stopped him when he was analysing their case for appeal prospects earlier this month. "They told me they wanted to pay their dues in jail, seek closure and move on," he said.

Mr Tan, who was called to the Singapore Bar in 2009, is seen as a criminal lawyer whose star is rising. Next year, he has a few high-profile cases, such as defending Teo Ghim Heng, a property agent charged with murdering his pregnant wife, Madam Choong Pei Shan, in their flat in February, pro bono.

Mr Tan has taken on about 30 homicide cases in nine years but said the case of Ms Ee was one of his hardest as it was "emotionally draining".

While other cases averaged about 18 months, this one took him two years and seven months, the longest time that he has spent on a pro bono case.

When he first met the accused couple, they looked visibly shaken as they had not come to terms with the impact of the murder charge.

He said Pua was quiet but Tan looked a bit emotionally unstable.

"It was very difficult getting through to her because of her condition and at times, we could not see her in prison because she was not ready to be interviewed."

The run-up to the eventual hearings took a long time, given psychiatric examinations, forensic probes of the various items of evidence and the preparation of documents.

Mr Tan said it took at least a year before the murder charges were reduced and he remembered the visible relief on the faces of Tan and Pua when he told them.

Now that they have been sentenced, Mr Tan said they are getting used to life in prison.

"I could see they are adjusting to prison life although Tan has difficulty and will take some time," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 24, 2017, with the headline Why lawyer Josephus Tan defends the ‘bad guys’. Subscribe