Saturday, July 12, 2008

Judge: No question of 'factual guilt' after acquittal

July 12, 2008

Justice V.K. Rajah takes issue with Govt's position on guilt and innocence
By K. C. Vijayan

A HIGH Court judge has taken issue with the Government's position that people acquitted of crimes may not necessarily be innocent.

Judge of Appeal V.K. Rajah said it was a cornerstone of the justice system that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and it was for prosecutors to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

He said: 'If the evidence is insufficient to support the prosecution's theory of guilt, and if the weaknesses in the prosecution's case reveal a deficiency in what is necessary for a conviction, the judge must acquit the accused and with good reason: it simply has not been proved to the satisfaction of the law that the accused is guilty, and the presumption of innocence stands unrebutted.

'It is not helpful, therefore, for suggestions to be subsequently raised about the accused's 'factual guilt' once he has been acquitted.'

To do so, he added, would be to undermine the court's not-guilty finding. It would also 'stand the presumption of innocence on its head, replacing it with an insidious and open-ended suspicion of guilt that an accused person would be hard-pressed to ever shed, even upon vindication in a court of law.'

His remarks on acquittal, innocence and guilt came near the end of his written judgment explaining why he acquitted former teacher William Ding, 36, of molesting several schoolboys.

While he did not say so, his comments appear directed at the position taken by the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) in The Straits Times on May 8 and May 14.

The AGC was quoted in the first article as saying that a judge was bound by law to acquit a person if the prosecution could not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

'This means that if there is any reasonable doubt, the accused gets the benefit of it. It does not mean that the accused was innocent in the sense that he did not do the deed,' its spokesman said.

The AGC later wrote to the Forum Page and said that the nuance of an acquittal was often not clearly appreciated by the public.

'(The accused person) may be guilty in fact, but innocent in law because the evidence was not there,' its spokesman said.

That position took many, including lawyers, by surprise. Lawyer N. Sreenivasan wrote to the Forum Page saying such a view was of 'grave concern'.

'If the prosecution, with the full resources of the police, the power to interrogate accused persons, interview witnesses, seize evidence and rely on various presumptions, cannot prove a case beyond reasonable doubt, then the prosecution should not cast any cloud on the acquittal of the accused,' said Mr Sreenivasan.

In his written judgment, Justice Rajah said he had no doubt that prosecutions are begun only after careful investigation, but emphasised that 'the decision of guilt or innocence is constitutionally for the court and the court alone to make'.

'The court cannot convict if a reasonable doubt remains to prevent the presumption of innocence from being rebutted,' he added.

'In that result, there is no room for second-guessing or nice distinctions; there is only one meaning to 'not proved' and that is that it has not been established in the eyes of the law that the accused has committed the offence with which he has been charged.'

The question a court has to decide on is not whether it suspects the accused has done the deed, he added, but whether the prosecution has proven it beyond any reasonable doubt.

'Objective and not subjective belief is the essential touchstone of guilt and there is simply no place for subsequent speculation or implication that an acquitted accused may be 'factually guilty',' said Justice Rajah.

He noted that Singapore's adversarial system was not flawless, and perfectly proper prosecutions may sometimes fail for unexpected reasons. But the system was 'eminently credible, pragmatic and effective'.

'The rules are clear and precise, and neither the prosecution nor defence can or should complain if they fail by them,' he said.

Justice Rajah, who has been on the bench since 2004, was made a Judge of Appeal last year and also headed a committee to undertake a comprehensive review of the legal sector.

The judge also said that the doctrine of reasonable doubt was neither abstract nor theoretical.

'It has real, practical and profound implications in sifting the innocent from the guilty: in deciding who should suffer punishment and who should not,' he said.

Calling it a 'a bedrock principle of the criminal justice system' here, he said it was one which served public confidence that Singapore's system punishes only those who are guilty.

[I understand the AGC's point, and I also appreciate the distinction made in the written judgment as well as the "grave concern" by the lawyer. No doubt the AGC and the prosecution seriously and honestly believe in the guilt of Mr Ding. That they failed to convince the judge is a probable outcome of any trial. But as the judge noted, it is highly insidious to continue to cast aspersions as to the "factual guilt" of the person. As members of the society, any one accused of such heinous crimes as Mr Ding was would be subject to speculation and innuendoes. It is as much a matter of the service of justice to convict the guilty as well as to exonerate the innocent.

Acquittal means not guilty. Because in Singapore there is also discharge not amounting to an acquittal. Now that is a sword hanging over one's head.]

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