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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Teoh Beng Hock: Perspectives On Inquests

I apologise for the protracted silence. Commitments these past few months have left me no time to write meaningfully. For those who had written messages of concern and encouragement, thank you for having taken the time to do so.

As has been made obvious by the tremendous publicity the inquest into the death of Teoh Beng has received, I represent the Selangor State Government in the proceedings. Gobind Singh represents Teoh’s family.

There are a few aspects that I think need to be put into perspective. I will not delve into the merits of the inquest as the matter is still under consideration. There are however certain objective areas that need some clarification.

First and foremost, it must be understood that the inquest is directed towards establishing a cause of death. The cause of death is more broadly categorized into suicide, accident (misadventure) or homicide (murder or culpable homicide). There are of course other verdicts that could be reached. These include a conclusion that further investigation is required or an open verdict. An open verdict is a finding that although there are suspicious circumstances surrounding the death in question, there is insufficient evidence to determine much more than that. Coroners lean to an open verdict where there is no proof of intent to commit suicide (suicide cannot be presumed).

The aim of the inquest is to determine the truth. In inquests, this is more usually a process of deductive reasoning and elimination of possibilities. As such, the evidence must be considered from that perspective. For example, if accidental death could be eliminated then suicide or homicide are the available options. If suicide could be eliminated, then homicide would be the only option (or an open verdict if the evidence did not allow for that finding).

The outcome of this inquest would obviously have political repercussions considering the way in which politics overlaps governance and the perception that the MACC is responsive to the government. Considering the possible outcomes of the inquest, it stands to reason that looking at the inquest as a political matter, death by suicide or accident or an open verdict (in that order of priority) would suit the MACC and, indirectly, the Government, the best. This is however not intended to suggest that neither institution is concerned with the truth; perceptions and perception management are crucial to building and maintaining public confidence.

The second area that needs clarification is the role that the forensic pathologist will play in the event someone is charged with homicide. The two pathologists that gave evidence in the inquest jointly signed the post-mortem report. In the event criminal proceedings are instituted, the post-mortem report becomes a crucial part of the prosecution case. The credibility of the pathologists, or at least one of them, is therefore equally crucial. A good defence counsel would be able to exploit the evidence of the pathologists at the inquest, as prior statements on oath, to his client’s advantage. As such, care has to be taken in the way findings are questioned.