“He must be guilty. The police wouldn’t charge him unless they had sufficient evidence“.
I hear that being said a lot. About someone who’s arrest has made the papers, about an ongoing trial, or even about a client. I usually smile politely, not because explaining how that isn’t always true is usually pointless (it is), but because I will always remember the One Who Got Away.
The client (let’s call him Bob) was a Malaysian worker who made the daily commute into Singapore on his motorcycle. One morning, at about 10:30am, Bob was riding his motorcycle in the middle lane of a 3 lane road. Around 200m from the next junction, Bob switched to the leftmost lane in preparation for a left turn. About a few seconds later, Bob heard someone shout, followed a second later by an almighty impact to the rear of his motorcycle. When Bob finally got to his feet, he saw that he had been hit from behind by another motorcyclist whose stricken motorcycle lay at the side of the road. The other motorcyclist tragically perished on the spot.
Then the inexplicable happened.
The police charged Bob with causing death by negligent act, a penal code offence that carried with it the very real chance of imprisonment. Bob was placed on bail and was unable to return to his family in Malaysia. He would remain in Singapore for more than 4 months, unable to work or travel.
Bob’s case eventually ended up on the desk of the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme, where volunteer lawyers took up cases pro bono (read: for free). That is how I met Bob.
My first task was to understand why Bob had been charged. Surely there must have been a compelling reason for the police to form a view that Bob had committed an offence. I called the prosecutor, and the conversation went something like this:
Me: Are you calling any eyewitnesses at trial?
Prosecutor: No. No eyewitnesses.
Me: Are you calling an accident reconstruction expert?
Prosecution: No. No expert.
Me: Are you calling a medium???
Somehow, without a single eyewitness or forensic analysis, the police had seen fit to charge Bob with a serious criminal offence. We prepared for trial, still convinced that the Prosecution had compelling evidence up its sleeve.
At trial, the only witness for the Prosecution was the investigating officer (IO). He gave evidence that, in his opinion, Bob had ridden negligently because he had failed to check his blind spot before changing lanes.
Under cross- examination, the IO stated (with a touch of pride) that, when he recorded Bob’s statement, he took pains to record each and every question asked and answer given. I then asked the IO to show me where in the statement he had asked Bob about checking his blind spot. As you can probably guess by now, the IO came up with bupkis.
Summoning up every ounce of inventive cleverness, the IO then said that he had asked about the blind spot and received an answer in the negative, and that, of all the questions asked and answered that day, only that question failed to make it into the statement. By this stage, had the Judge raised his eyebrows any further, people would have been queuing to buy a Big Mac and fries.
The Prosecution rested its case without calling a single eyewitness. Bob elected to remain silent and not to give evidence, and the judge duly acquitted him an hour later. Bob returned to his family in Malaysia that same day and I have not seen or heard from him since.
What happened? Certainly, I do not think for one second that anyone was out to “get” Bob, or that there was any malicious intent. Instead, somewhere along the line, someone probably took the easy way out. It was easy to pass the buck. Most fatal accident cases involved someone getting charged, so let’s charge him to be safe. Someone else would inherit the file, and that person, or, in the worst case, the judge, would make the tough call. Every person who handled the file either didn’t look hard enough, or just plain made a bad call. It happens.
What, then, is the point of this story? Certainly the point isn’t to say how great a job I did defending Bob. The facts pretty much won the case, and any decent lawyer could have done the same thing. But how many people go to prison because they have no access to counsel, or simply do not have the means or will to fight a trial?
The next time you hear of someone who has been charged, don’t assume he or she is guilty. In all honesty, he or she might well be, but there is always the possibility, the risk, the irrepressible chance that he or she isn’t.
Just ask Bob.
This article contains the author’s personal opinions and should not be relied upon as legal advice. For more information, please see about E.Legal.Activities. If you have questions about this article, please contact Adrian here.