Monday, August 25, 2008

Not guilty = innocent?

Aug 25, 2008

A MAN is charged with a crime. After a trial, he is acquitted and goes free. Does that mean he is innocent?

Not necessarily.

Witnesses may have changed their evidence or a technicality may have got in the way. The end result: The prosecution is unable to convince the judge that the man had done the deed.

And once there is a reasonable doubt as to his guilt, duty requires that the judge acquit the man.

Said Law Minister K. Shanmugam in Parliament on Monday: 'It is entirely possible for a person to have committed acts which amount to a crime and yet, there may be no conviction. No serious lawyer will question this possibility.''

He was responding to two lawyer-MPs, who wanted him to clarify the position of the Attorney-General on the subject of acquittals.

The issue of guilt and innocence has been in the air since mid-May when AG Walter Woon stated that an acquitted person may be 'not guilty'' in law, but guilty in fact.

Two months later, Appeal Court Judge V K Rajah weighed in on the issue, noting that such comments could undermine confidence in the courts' verdicts and the criminal justice system which is predicated on the doctrine of 'innocent until proven guilty''.

Not so, said Mr Shanmugam.

He described the presumption of innocence as an 'important and fundamental principle'' which the Government is 'absolutely committed to upholding.''

'There is no intention to question or qualify that principle in any way. I am surprised that any doubt should at all have arisen about this,'' he said.

Nor does the Government have any intention to encroach on the functions of the Courts.

'It is for the courts, and the courts alone, to exercise judicial power and decide the question of guilt, in a trial.''

The position taken by the AG was a logical one, the same as that taken by his predecessor Chan Sek Keong, now the Chief Justice, he said.

CJ Chan had pointed out in a lecture in 1996 that the trial process was designed to prove guilt - not innocence.

Quoting from the lecture, Mr Shanmugam reported the then-AG saying that the presumption of innocence is a presumption that an accused is 'legally innocent."

'It is simply an expression, that in a criminal trial, the procesecution is obliged to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt,'' said Mr Shanmugam.

The AG's position was also consistent with jurisprudence from Commonwealth countries, such as England and Scotland.

[Yes, we appreciate the distinction, but Judge Rajah's point is also valid. There has to be closure and resolution for the accused as well. The prosecution had their day in court. And in Singapore if the prosecution can't prove their case, it is really saying something about the evidence they have. There is no wishy-washy, emotional jury for the defence to con. The law tends to be prosecution-friendly. And accused are most of the time poorly represented.

So while factually, it may well be that just because someone is not legally guilty, he may not actually be innocent. But he may also be. Then again, just because someone is legally found guilty, he may actually be innocent too.

But at some point, when due process has been exercised, there must be resolution, and there must be closure. And all that should matter is that factually, guilt was not proven and so he is not legally guilty. And that's a fact.]

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