17 June 2011

Public Prosecutor (Singapore) v. Nguyen Tuong Van

Synopsis: In December of 2002, Nguyen Tuong Van, an Australian national is accused of smuggling a controlled substance on his person in a country that has the death penalty for such an offense. He was convicted, sentenced to death, and ultimately executed on 2 December 2005, just under three years later.

The transcript of the verdict is rather lengthy, and appears here http://bit.ly/iDM2nQ (via Foreign Prisoner Support Service). There are a lot of things that could be said about the case, but three things jump out at me.

1. The verdict was rendered by a judge, rather than by a jury, in a death penalty case. I think we take for granted the right we have to have a jury determine guilt or innocence, and the standard of proof that is needed to establish a conviction.

2. The right to an attorney does not happen immediately, if it even happens at all. My read of the transcript is that police began interrogating him straight away upon his arrest, and it does not appear he had opportunity to contact anyone.

3. The right to remain silent is far from universal; in fact, Singapore appears to take the opposite approach. Here's what their law says about the matter:

(6) Where any person is charged with an offence or officially informed that he may be prosecuted for it, he shall be served with a notice in writing, which shall be explained to him, to the following effect:

“You have been charged with/informed that you may be prosecuted for —

(set out the charge).

Do you wish to say anything in answer to the charge? If there is any fact on which you intend to rely in your defence in court, you are advised to mention it now. If you hold it back till you go to court, your evidence may be less likely to be believed and this may have a bad effect on your case in general. If you wish to mention any fact now, and you would like it written down, this will be done.”

(8) In subsection (6), “officially informed” means informed by a police officer or any other person charged with the duty of investigating offences or charging offenders.

In the U.S., we hear the Miranda warning so often on television programs, dating back to the 1960's, that I suspect most people have it memorized. In Singapore, on the other hand, you're informed that if you remain silent, your very silence is detrimental to your defense. Mind you, the person subjected to the "cautioned statement," as Singapore law calls it, does not have an attorney with him and cannot make an informed decision about what really would help his case. Even worse, the person in question is not even a citizen or national of Singapore--he was actually only connecting there--and would presumably be less familiar with their system of jurisprudence.

I think the message from all this is clear. First, while all is not perfect, and there are many elements of the American system that can be improved, we really don't realize how good we have things here. Second, when traveling internationally, we must remember that we are no longer in our home country. To the extent we ignore or don't understand the other country's laws or system of justice--or it's grave seriousness--we operate to our own peril. --SJR

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