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On the 22nd of October 2020, we had the pleasure of engaging with Mr Sunil Sudheesan and Ms Diana Ngiam to learn more about their experience as defence lawyers and the role of forensic science in their practice. Mr Sunil Sudheesan and Ms Diana Ngiam are both practicing criminal lawyers in Quahe Woo & Palmer LLC and had the privilege to work under the guidance of Mr Subhas Anandan.
What is the one thing you look forward to in each case?

Mr Sudheesan: While a win is ideal, we primarily look towards obtaining a good result.

Ms Ngiam: Yes, a win is a good result. In pleading of guilt scenarios (“PG”), the focus is more on ensuring that the accused receives a fair sentence.
Having done so many cases, what is the most memorable case that you were a part of?

Mr Sudheesan: For me, it is the case of Took Leng How v PP, which is also in Mr Subhas’ first book. In this case, the accused, Took, killed and stuffed the body of an eight-year-old girl in a cardboard box, before disposing of the box in Telok Blangah Park. Despite our expert saying that he was schizophrenic, the court disagreed with us, drew an adverse inference, and eventually convicted him. As a case that I undertook during my first year of practice, it was pretty traumatic.

Ms Ngiam: For me, there are a few memorable cases that come to mind. The one that hit me hardest was PP v BDB. In that case, the victim was abused by his mother to such an extent that he died. At the PG hearing, we engaged in a “hot tubbing” session and further discussed the issue of psychiatric evidence.  In the “hot-tubbing” session, both experts, the psychiatrist from IMH and our private psychiatrist, went to court and talked it out. Whoever had questions would ask the experts, and the experts would give their answers and exchange their views. These “hot-tubbing” sessions make it much easier for parties to understand and digest the information and make a decision as to what expert evidence to refer to.

The Judge that presided over the PG sentenced the mother to 8 years imprisonment. We were asking for less than 10 years, while the prosecution was asking for at least 12 years, so naturally the prosecution appealed.

The way the Court of Appeal works is that there are multiple judges asking the questions one after another, this required a lot of thinking on my feet. The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal and imposed a heavier sentence of 14 years and six months. The sentence hit me very hard because I didn’t know if I could’ve done better. I think such experiences are good because it makes you think and work harder.

[In the case of PP v BDB, the Court of Appeal allowed the Prosecution’s appeal, and eventually imposed a heavier sentence of 14 years and six months’ imprisonment.]
How do you use Forensic Science findings to aid your cases, and how often do you use it in criminal trials?

Mr Sudheesan: My experience is with 2 cases, Eu Lim Hoklai v PP, as well as PP v Constance Chee. That was quite early on in my practice, so I had to go and find the experts myself. For Eu Lim Hoklai, we flew in Johan Duflou from Sydney, and he came in twice to give evidence. We had to go and get his report to refute the prosecution’s experts and we succeeded in the end.

[In the PP v Constance Chee case, the accused, Constance Chee faced charges of kidnapping and causing the death of a four-year-old girl by causing her to fall from a HDB flat.]

For Constance Chee, the HSA experts used bags of pork to simulate the victim’s fall. On our end, I got a physics expert from NUS to create models on how the body fell. This is because the issue in that case was whether there was a struggle resulting in the fall or whether the young child was thrown over the ledge. In that case, we didn’t succeed, and it was accepted that Constance Chee intentionally killed the toddler. She was ultimately sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment.

[Having been heavily involved in the case, Mr Sudheesan wonders if the HSA experiment could have been conducted in a more controlled and rigorous manner. Nonetheless, he acknowledges the importance of forensic science in criminal trials over the years and indeed, for the future].
As a defence lawyer, how do you get access to the findings of the forensic scientists? How do you then deal with the forensic evidence presented to you in the case?

Mr Sudheesan: Most times they give us the report that they are going to rely on. We then have to get our experts in and ask for the source material. The tricky part is when source material is missing or no longer available.

Ms Ngiam: The tricky part is also getting and locating private experts in Singapore. This is because there are many different aspects of forensic science and we don’t have many experts in Singapore apart from those working for the government. So, we are sort of at a disadvantage. There’s been a group of experts that have left the HSA to form their own team (TFEG), so that’s helpful for us, in terms of finding handwriting experts and so on.
Are there any difficulties in presenting forensic evidence in court? Do you then think that the use of forensic evidence in court can be improved in any way?

Mr Sudheesan: Ideally you have a slide presentation to bring the Court through your evidence. Some Judges are technical experts. For example, Justice Chan Seng Onn who was a former engineer and thus able to grasp the physics side of things pretty quickly. However, for others, it may be harder for them to understand how particular aspects of forensics (eg. blood spatter) work. In such cases, we need to get the expert to avoid convoluted terms and reduce the content to a form that can be easily understood.
How has the use of forensic science in court changed over the past years? How do you think forensic science will change in the years to come?

Mr Sudheesan: Over the years, scene reconstruction has been done less frequently; this is because the accused often agrees to a certain set of facts early on in the investigation stage. On a more general note, while forensic science will likely be used more frequently in the future, it is our hope that it is used in a controlled manner. 
Both of you worked on the case of PP v Kong Peng Yee together. Could you tell us a bit more about that case and how forensic science played a role?

Mr Sudheesan: The forensic evidence involved in this case was psychiatric evidence. There are 2 stages to things. Firstly, the information gathering conducted by the expert. This will depend on how meticulous they are and what questions they ask to get more information from the accused as to their state of mind at that time. The second stage is the analysis, where you get the facts you have and apply it to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). This will give you a general outline of what the symptoms reflect, and you form your conclusions on possible underlying psychiatric conditions. So for the hard sciences, most of the time you do reconstructions, what kind of angles, what kind of blood spatter patterns there are, and so on.

Ms Ngiam: So, for the case of PP v Kong Peng Yee, we didn’t have to get our own expert, because the reports prepared by IMH were favourable to the accused.
When do you decide to look into the psychiatric evidence?

Mr Sudheesan: In all capital offences the accused gets sent to IMH for a review. However, sometimes when there are a few indicators but IMH doesn’t say that there was a full psychiatric condition present, we can get a private professional to do a more in-depth study.
Is there a difference in the way you deal with the forensic evidence for rape cases (in terms of the sensitivity of the evidence) such as in the case of Ong Mingwee v PP?

Ms Ngiam: For rape cases I think it becomes more sensitive when for example the alleged victim says there was rape, while the accused says there was no sexual intercourse at all. Then it becomes a lot more sensitive because you have to look into possible injuries that were found on the alleged victim. But if the positions on whether there was intercourse are not that far apart and it goes down to a matter of consent, then it may not be as sensitive.

In the Ong Mingwee v PP case, the issue was consent, rather than whether there was sexual intercourse. Consequently, for that case, we focused more on the behaviour of the victim during and after the incident.
Is forensic evidence important in scene recreation of smaller cases, like road traffic accidents?

Mr Sudheesan: Extremely. Especially in accident reconstruction and in alcohol back-counting for drunk driving. Reconstruction is all your physics, and what control elements are there. There are multiple causative factors and multiple conclusions that can be drawn from a set of facts.
Closing the seminar, Mr Sudheesan and Ms Ngiam advised aspiring criminal lawyers to be ready to face failures, but to remain headstrong and keep working hard to achieve a good result for the defendant. Through our informative and engaging chat with Mr Sudheesan and Ms Ngiam, we learnt much about life as a criminal lawyer. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, as we also learnt more about working as a criminal defence lawyer. We would like to express our deep gratitude to both Mr Sudheesan and Ms Ngiam for taking the time and sharing their experiences.

*The views and opinions expressed in this article do not constitute legal advice and solely belong to the author and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the NUS Criminal Justice Club or its affiliates.

Authors’ Biography

Megan is currently pursuing a double degree programme in Law and Life Science. Having completed 2 years in Life Science, she is now in her third year of the programme. Megan took an introductory module in Forensic Science in her 2nd year of university which sparked her interest in the field. She is currently pursuing this interest by being a part of CJC-F.

Kiria Tikanah is a Year 2 undergraduate at the Faculty of Science. She is a Chemistry major, minoring in Forensic Science. Studying Chemistry has helped Kiria to understand better the works of Forensic Science, and she hopes to put her knowledge and experience into good use as she aspires to pursue a career in Forensics. Kiria is also involved in the NUS Chemical Sciences Society as a Projects Executive, and is involved in planning and organising many projects like the Chemistry Camp. Outside of school, Kiria spends most of her time training, as she is part of Singapore’s National Fencing Team. As Singapore’s top fencer in her discipline, she has brought glory to Singapore and NUS, even being a SEA Games Champion in 2019.