Guilt by public opinion

“I hope both of them gets the 100+ stabs as their death sentence.” – “Lentor“.

Picture credit: Straits Times

The comment above is in response to a news report about the murder of a woman in May of 2005. Two brothers – Ismil Kadar, now 42, and Muhamad Kadar, 35 – were found guilty and sentenced to death in 2009 for killing Madam Tham Weng Kuen, 69, in her Boon Lay flat.

On 6 July 2011 – six years after the murder and 2 years after their conviction – the Court of Appeal cleared Ismil Kadar of the murder and ordered his release from prison. Justice VK Rajah “issued a strongly worded judgment highlighting ‘serious lapses’ by police and prosecutors.”

While some have highlighted these “serious lapses” on the part of the police and questioned if improvements could be made, it is perhaps even more troubling how members of the public can be easily led to conclusions, as can be seen in the postings on the forum highlighted above. This is even more so when our reporters and journalists are not sharp enough to ask questions, or to delve deeper into such cases, and ask questions even of the verdicts rendered by the courts.

As you can see from the report on the case, it was done in a matter-of-fact manner. Reporters covering such stories more often than not seem to only report what the courts or the authorities say, without looking deeper into the cases and issues which may shed light on them.

This leads to simplistic and shallow reporting which then leads to an misinformed or ill-informed public.

Ismil was saved from the gallows simply because of one person – his lawyer, R. Thrumurgan. And what is even more fortunate for Ismil is that Thrumurgan was a lawyer appointed by the courts and assigned to Ismil’s case.

As some have asked, how many such lawyers would devote six years to a case as a legal aid lawyer?

Here, we should ponder on those who receive the mandatory death sentence for crimes such as first degree murder and drug trafficking.

There is a huge problem when it comes to mandatory sentencing.

With lapses in police work, as highlighted in Ismil’s case, it is disturbing that there should even be mandatory sentencing. If Ismil, who by the way is of low IQ, were a drug trafficker, he would have been hung by now, given the “efficient” and “swift” manner in which we hang these people, all in the name of “deterrence”.

Drug traffickers especially get it worse, in terms of the law and public opinion. All it takes is a compliant media which echoes the state’s position, reports the “facts” of the cases without delving deeper into them, and slant it such that anyone who is charged for drug trafficking is considered and made to be perceived as guilty.

How many innocent Ismils have we hung?

No one knows.

Being a criminal does not pay and it should not. Criminals should be punished. But this does not mean that there is no limit to the type of punishment we should mete out. There should be. There must be simply because our police is not perfect, our justice system is not perfect and certainly our legislations are not perfect.

I am not saying we do away with the death penalty.

I am saying we must do away with the MANDATORY death penalty. (I am putting the word “MANDATORY” in caps here because this important difference seems to be missed by pro-death penalty advocates and even the ministers.”

And as I have said elsewhere, even those in the legal profession have been calling, either in private or in public, for mandatory sentencing to be abolished.

The Law Society. The Workers’ Party. High Court judges. International NGOs. Singaporean activists. Academics.

Why is our government not listening?

What is it about mandatory sentencing which seems to appeal so much to our lawmakers?

You simply cannot have mandatory killing of an individual when cases like Ismil and Zai Kuning happens. [Zai Kuning was also found guilty of murder and sentenced to death some years ago. He even signed a confession admitting guilt. He was only freed and found not guilty when the late JB Jeyaretnam took up his case.]

You simply cannot have mandatory killing of an individual when your police and justice and legal systems are imperfect, which they will always be.

I truly hope the government will swallow its pride and have the courage to put a stop to these state-sanctioned murders.

And we as members of the public should not be too quick to jump to conclusions and pronounce guilt on someone just because our media – and the courts – say they are guilty.

We could, really, also do with a more intelligent and brave media, while we’re at it.

And we should refrain from forming any kind of convicted opinion without listening to both sides of a story.

[The above article was written quite hastily in half an hour as I’m rushing out for an appt. Might edit it at a later time. Just wanted to say something about this before I forget.]