Written by Ng E-Jay
27 Aug 2008
Law Minister K. Shanmugam has reiterated a stand made previously by Attorney-General Walter Woon that “not guilty in law” does not mean “innocent”. In other words, a person may not be factually innocent even if the law acquits him.
My immediate comment is: What is the point of reiterating and repeating this? Isn’t it a matter of common sense that no judicial system in the world can ever perfect, that sometimes guilty persons go scot free and innocent ones can be unjustly convicted?
K. Shanmugam told 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. I emphasise this: No serious lawyer will question this possibility.” He also said that witnesses may have changed their evidence, or a technicality may have got in the way, and these could result in the prosecution being unable to convince the judge that the man had done the deed. (ST, “Govt defends A-G’s stand on acquittals”, 26 Aug).
All these comments to me seem superfluous and needless, and could encourage the public to unnecessarily speculate on cases after the courts have passed a verdict.
Appeal Court Judge V. K. Rajah had also weighed in on the issue earlier. He did not refer to what the Attorney-General said, but made it clear that such comments could undermine confidence in the courts’ verdicts and the criminal justice system, which is based on the doctrine of “innocent until proven guilty“.
I am in full agreement with Judge V. K. Rajah. Attorney-General Walter Woon’s and K. Shanmugam’s latest comments could open a pandora’s box in which the public is encouraged to openly doubt the verdicts passed by courts or even to regard the so-called “Court of Public Opinion” as being of equal legitimacy as the actual courts.
Such open speculation would indeed undermine confidence in the courts’ verdicts and the criminal justice system.
But Mr Shanmugam re-affirmed that the presumption of innocence as an “important and fundamental principle” which the Government is “absolutely committed to upholding”.
But if so, why is he convoluting the whole subject?
The “not guilty” does not mean “innocent” remark is unfair for those who are indeed factually innocent. It puts this group of people permanently on the defensive, as their associates could well take Mr Shanmugam’s remarks as a license to doubt their true innocence.
Mr Shanmugam said that the reverse also applies: where a person is factually innocent but legally guilty. “This happens where the accused wants to plead guilty to a lesser charge and end the case … because his interest is to walk away as quickly as possible,” he said.
But isn’t this a clear miscarriage of justice? Why is Mr Shanmugam apparently taking such a light-hearted view of this?
I am unsure as to the whole point of the Law Minister and the Attorney-General remarks. Perhaps they have in mind certain cases in which they felt the accused was guilty, but the judge has to acquit him due to lack of evidence or because of technicalities.
But even so, the Law Minister’s rehashing of the subject could open a pandora’s box in which the public is given free reign to speculate on cases already closed and openly challenge verdicts. That would wreck havoc on the lives of those who are factually innocent but had to endure a trial to clear their name. The trial for such people could well become permanent, lasting the remainder of their lives.