Innocence is the Best Defence

By Chan Min Hui, Vincent Ho and Qua Bi Qi

The Greek playwright, Euripides, once wrote: “Ours is a universe in which justice is accidental, and innocence no protection.” Given the stereotypical harshness and efficiency of Singapore’s criminal justice system, it is paramount that the accused persons can rely upon their actual innocence as a refuge against wrongful convictions.

The seminal case of Yunani v PPthus provides ample reassurance — even though the accused had previously pleaded guilty to his alleged deeds due to varying pressures, his factual innocence eventually exonerated him, allowing justice to be served.

In Yunani, the accused was ferrying his friend, Aziz, on his motorcycle when Aziz was found to be carrying cannabis at a routine check. Upon discovery, the accused sped off with Aziz. The accused surrendered himself to the police soon after, maintaining his ignorance about the drugs and his innocence. Eventually, given the paucity of evidence as well as Aziz’s escape, the accused was given a discharge not amounting to acquittal. However, some 15 years later, Aziz was arrested and charged. Aziz then implicated the accused, who was then rearrested and charged with drug trafficking.

At this point, the accused caved in and pleaded guilty due to the immense pressures he faced — he was given the choice to claim trial and face a minimum sentence of 20 years if convicted, or plead guilty to a charge carrying a mandatory sentence of only 5 years. In addition, the long lapse of 15 years contributed to the uncertainty regarding the strength of the accused’s defence, a concern also highlighted by the accused’s counsel.

Fortunately for the accused, the court held that he was placed in an exceptional circumstances which induced his eventual plea of guilt, furthermore, the prosecution had a rather tenuous case, which rested entirely on this circumstantial plea of guilt. In a historic move, the High Court exercised its revisionary power to quash the accused’s conviction based on his guilty plea and remitted the case back to the Subordinate Courts for a re-trial, where the accused was acquitted.

Suffice to say, the safeguards established by Singapore courts have been effective in separating truly invalid and unfair guilty pleas from mere attempts to distort the criminal justice system, as highlighted by the contrasting cases above.

Yunani highlights the potential of a guilty plea to jeopardize the propriety of convictions and thus undermine what the legal system so dearly strives towards — justice. There can also be cases of serious injustice is when law enforcement authorities are over-zealous in extricating incriminating statements from the accused, with the effect of inducing a guilty plea from the factually innocent.2

Given the immense potential of a guilty plea to lead to a conviction, it is apposite to delve deeper into the perimeters of a valid guilty plea, to determine when a guilty plea can be retracted.

Generally, an accused person would not be allowed to retract his guilty plea at whim, lest it compromises on the integrity and efficiency of the criminal justice system. To retract a guilty plea, the accused has to convince the court that his plea of guilt was equivocal or not given willingly. This would necessarily depend on the facts of the case. The court in Ganesunhas concretized several useful safeguards which must be fulfilled before the accused persons guilty plea will be held against him for the purposes of conviction. First, the accused himself must wish to plead guilty. Second, the accused must understand the nature and consequences of his plea. Third, the accused must intend to admit without qualification the offence alleged against him. In scenarios where the guilty plea was pressurized into by law enforcement authorities, a guilty plea will also be invalid if it was caused by an inducement, threat or promise.4

Thus, in the case of Gao Hua5, where the extreme external circumstances induced the plea of guilt, the court allowed the conviction to be set aside. In that case, the accused was pressurized into pleading guilty in various ways. This included the accused’s counsel telling the accused that the prosecution was confident of securing a conviction, accused counsel’s assurance that prosecution would proceed on less charges in exchange for a guilty plea and most importantly, the accused’s counsel assurance that the accused would only have to pay a fine if she had pleaded guilty, while repeatedly boasting of his expertise and experience.  At trial, the accused pleaded guilty and was convicted and sentenced to a total of 10 months’ imprisonment. As the accused had been clearly misled by her counsel, her guilty plea did not satisfy the first two safeguards espoused in Ganesun. In fact, given the overwhelming pressure faced by the accused in her exceptional circumstances, the accused only had one viable, but unfortunate, option.

In contrast, in Ganesun, the High Court dismissed a petition to reject a guilty plea. In the case, the accused wanted to retract his guilty plea, arguing that he pleaded guilty as he was afraid that documents that could potentially exonerate him would not arrive on time. However, in the nine months that had elapsed between the accused’s first mention and his ultimate conviction, he did not mention any such documents. His counsel had not applied for an adjournment of the case, an unlikely move if the accused was indeed waiting for any such documents. Thus, the court held that the accused was being dilatory and had no valid reason for the retraction of his guilty plea. Indeed, using the safeguards as mentioned above, there was every reason to believe that the accused’s guilty plea satisfied all 3 safeguards, especially given that the accused had the assistance of a competent counsel during the whole course of his proceedings.

Given the limited space in this article, it is impossible to highlight every case which has petitioned for the retraction of a guilty plea. Suffice to say, the safeguards established by Singapore courts have been effective in separating truly invalid and unfair guilty pleas from mere attempts to distort the criminal justice system, as highlighted by the contrasting cases above. It has been especially heartening to see cases such as Yunani and Gao Hua, where the Court maintained the integrity of the criminal justice system by quashing wrongful convictions based on invalid guilty pleas.

Thankfully, it seems like Euripedes might have been wrong — innocence is the best defence after all.

Chan Min Hui, Vincent Ho and Qua Bi Qi are second-year students at the National University of Singapore (Law).

1Yunani bin  Hamid v Public Prosecutor [2008] SGHC 58, [2008] 3 SLR(R) 383 [“Yunani”]

2Bhaskaran s/o Sivasamy, The Criminal Appellate System in Singapore, [1995] 16 SingLRev 319 at 330

3Ganesun s/o Kannan v Public Prosecutor [1996] 3 SLR 560; [1996] SGHC 210 [“Ganesun“] at [15]-[16]

4This is having reference to the charge against the accused, proceeding from a person in authority and sufficient, in the opinion of the court, to give the accused grounds which would appear to him reasonable for supposing that by making the statement he would gain an advantage or avoid any evil of a temporal nature in reference to the proceedings against him. (Section 258(3) of the Criminal Procedure Code 2010)

5Gao Hua v Public Prosecutor [2009] 3 SLR(R) 800; [2009] SGHC 95 [“Gao Hua“]