In an unusual case of a convicted drug trafficker declining to be considered for a sentence of life imprisonment — as opposed to being sent to the gallows — the High Court on Monday (Mar 7) ruled against his wishes and jailed him for life.
Chum Tat Suan, 68, was convicted in August 2013 for importing not less than 94.96g of diamorphine, or heroin, into Singapore. While his offence previously carried the mandatory death penalty, changes to the law from 2013 gave drug traffickers a chance to escape the gallows under two conditions.
First, a judge must be satisfied that the convicted person acted merely as a courier whose involvement in the offence was restricted to transporting, sending, or delivering drugs, or offering to do so.
Secondly, the prosecution must also certify that the person had rendered substantive assistance to the Central Narcotics Bureau in disrupting drug trafficking activities within or outside Singapore. Alternatively, the person must prove he was suffering from an abnormality of mind that substantially impaired his mental responsibility for the offence.
Although both conditions were satisfied in Chum’s case, he had informed the High Court through his lawyer Mr Nandwani Manoj Prakash that he “(did) not wish to be considered” for the sentence of life imprisonment — just minutes after Mr Nandwani submitted a mitigation plea on Feb 12, asking the court to impose a term of life imprisonment instead of the death penalty. The prosecution had also tendered a certificate of substantive assistance that day.
COURT'S FUNCTION IS NOT TO OBLIGE PRISONER'S DEATH WISH: JUDGE
Delivering his verdict, High Court judge Choo Han Teck found that Chum’s case did not differ from precedents, where the court had exercised its discretion to mete out a sentence of life imprisonment instead of death.
“There are no particular factors in the present case which may justify the imposition of the death penalty,” he said.
Although the amount trafficked was several times higher than the 15g threshold to invoke the death penalty, there have been several similar cases where the court saw it fit to impose life imprisonment in lieu of death, said the judge.
“I am of the view that if I should impose the death penalty on the facts and circumstances of this case, there will be very few cases that might merit a life imprisonment,” he said.
Weighing in on Chum’s decision, Justice Choo said life imprisonment may seem like “a fate worse” than death for the accused who may not see the world as a free man until he is at least in his 80s, but he is not in a position to make a personal choice.
“He is here to be sentenced and it is not the function of this court to oblige a prisoner his death wish,” said Justice Choo, adding that his duty is to mete out a sentence according to principles consistent with the law.
“(The court’s duty is) not to evaluate the individual offender’s choice of punishment. The discretion belongs to the court, not the offender,” he said.
He also stressed that prosecutors are duty bound to certify that a convicted person has rendered substantive assistance if the facts so justify, as in Chum’s case.
The certificate is not a matter for the prosecution to grant or withhold at will, he said.