ST Nov 1, 2006
Chee's bid to abort trial fails
By Ken Kwek
SINGAPORE Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan and party member Gandhi Ambalam have failed in a fresh bid to abort a trial against them for speaking in public without a permit.
Justice Choo Han Teck dismissed their applications in the High Court yesterday.
He noted that their trial, in the subordinate courts, had 'hardly begun' and they should wait until it ended before considering further legal action.
Both men made the application even though party supporter Yap Keng Ho, who is on trial with them, failed in his attempt on Monday, also before Justice Choo, to have the trial aborted.
The trio wanted the trial aborted on the grounds that the investigating officer, who is a witness in the case against them, was in the courtroom and had heard testimony from three witnesses in the opening days of the trial.
They believed that as a witness, Assistant Superintendent Jeremy Koh should not have been allowed to listen to the testimony.
Deputy Public Prosecutor Lee Lit Cheng acknowledged to trial judge Eddy Tham last week that she should have sought permission for ASP Koh to be present. But she also said in response to Chee's accusations that there was 'nothing sinister or unusual' in ASP Koh being there.
DPP Lee Lit Cheng was one of my ex-colleagues, from my DPP days. She has plenty of experience and I am a bit surprised that she slipped up like that. I guess we all get careless once in a while.
The basic rule is that witnesses who haven't given testimony yet shouldn't be allowed to be in the courtroom. That's because we don't want them to hear what other witnesses are saying in court. And the reason for that is that each witness should testify based on what he can recall of the actual events in question, without being consciously or subconsciously influenced by what he has heard other witnesses saying in court.
What about the investigation officer? Many DPPs like the I.O to sit in court, somewhere at the back, because the investigation officer assists as a kind of coordinator and assistant (for example, in getting physical exhibits, making sure that the next witnesses are punctual etc), and also because DPPs can often quickly check with the investigation officer on little points of the case as they crop up in the course of trial.
This is perfectly okay, if the DPP does not intend to call the I.O as a witness (that is, the DPP plans to adduce all the relevant evidence through other witnesses). If however the DPP intends to call the I.O as a witness, the DPP needs to ask the court for permission for the IO to sit in court prior to giving testimony. The DPP also needs to assess whether the nature of the case is such that the I.O's evidence might be contaminated by his hearing what other witnesses say.
In some cases, even if the I.O is to testify, his presence in court beforehand is not really material to the integrity of the case. That's because the I.O, in some cases, is a "formal witness". A formal witness is a witness whose testimony is needed to "complete the legal picture", but who otherwise isn't very significant to the case (his evidence will be non-contentious).
For example, a chemist who tested a urine sample for drugs or a doctor who certified the victim as dead or the police officer who answered a "999" call may often be regarded as formal witnesses. In court, formal witnesses are sometimes completely dispensed with - in other words, they need not come to court at all - because their testimony is really a formality and neither the prosecution, the defence nor the court wish to waste time on them.
As I said, DPP Lee is an experienced DPP and I would not be surprised if there is more than meets the eye. Possibly what happened is that DPP Lee thought that she would not need her I.O to testify and therefore kept him in the courtroom. As it turned out, after the first few days of trial, and perhaps a few surprising turns, it transpired that she did need him to testify. She then called him as a witness, and then Chee promptly seized the opportunity to allege unfairness etc and seek to abort the entire trial.
Just my guess, since I wasn't in court myself.