28 October 2005

More True Stories from Mr Wang's Case File

Typically, as part of the trial preparations, the DPP will arrange to meet and talk with his witnesses. This is very important for various reasons. Although the police would have already completed their investigations by then, the DPP still needs to meet his witnesses personally.

For each witness, you need to get a sense of their personality, their intelligence, their language ability and their level of self-confidence. That matters a lot. These factors affect how you conduct the case in court. You also need to give them an idea of what to expect in court. Otherwise they may be very nervous.

When I was an inexperienced DPP handling my first molest case, it felt awkward to ask the victim questions like, "So how did he squeeze your breast? Left breast or right breast? Was it a squeeze? Did he just brush against it, or touch it, or squeeze? Did you feel all his fingers?". But you have to ask, because you really need to know. For example, if the victim says that the accused just lightly brushed against her breast, then there is the greater likelihood that perhaps it was an accident.

You quickly get used to it. After a while, you get so used to it that when you go to parties and people ask you about your interesting work, you start talking very unself-consciously about breasts and anal penetration and smashed human brains on the sidewalk when people jump from the 12th storey (yes, DPPs also deal with suicide cases). Then your party hosts give you all these looks, and you realise that, ooops, there you go again, grossing people out.

One thing I always told my witnesses is that they must always tell the truth. Sometimes they would ask me questions like, "What will the defence lawyer ask me? How should I answer?". And I would tell them, "The important thing is that you must always tell the truth."

I still remember a tricky little case I handled, about a Filipino maid who abused a one-year-old baby by burning her with an iron. The only other person present in the home then was the older girl, who was only three or four years old. The baby was of course too young to testify in court, and so the key witness was the three-year-old girl. Young children are difficult witnesses to handle because firstly, they obviously are not as articulate as adults, and secondly, they may not really understand what's happening.

Anyway, as usual, I told this little girl before the trial that she must always, always tell the truth in court. And her parents told her, "Yes, yes, listen to Uncle. You must always, always tell the truth in court."

As it turned out, the case was rather tense. Not least because the Philippine Embassy sent two officials to monitor the case. The promptly spent the next two days sitting in court glaring at me, recording my questions and giving me the evil eye. Meanwhile, the ST journalist flitted in and out of the courtroom, hoping against hope for something to blow up and perhaps lead to an international diplomatic row that she could get the scoop on.

Anyway, my little three-year-old star witness gave excellent testimony in court, speaking clearly in simple English and answering all my questions calmly. When I finished, the defence lawyer began his cross-examination and tried to confuse her with trick questions.

The basic defence was that the 4-year-old little girl was too young to understand anything; her words shouldn't be believed; whatever she recollected of that day's incident was in fact not what she recollected, but just false stories planted into her head by her parents and/or the police and/or the DPP (i.e me).

Defence: "I put it to you that your entire testimony is actually just what your parents taught you to tell the judge today."

Little girl: "I don't understand."

Defence: "Your parents taught you what to tell the judge today."

Little girl: "Yes."

[My heart sank a little].

Defence: "And the DPP also taught you what to tell the judge today."

[I stood up to object, but before I could, the girl answered.]

Little girl: "Yes, of course."

[Judge glares suspiciously at me. Defence lawyer smiles victoriously].

Judge: "And what did your parents and the DPP teach you to tell me today."

Little Girl (with wide-eyed look of innocence): "They taught me to tell the truth, of course. [Points at me]. Uncle says that I must always, always tell the truth in court, so that's what I'm telling you today."

[Warm glow of vindication in Mr Wang's heart].

[Filipino maid is later sent to 7 months' imprisonment for burning the younger baby with an iron].


Kevin said...

Seriously awesome... just like the TV series Law & Order, if not better! :)

Missy V said...

Cool! Damn I wish I could see the defense's face when she said that.

Han said...

heh, wow, I didn't know that the judge also takes an active role in the cross-examination of witnesses.

HairyDonut said...

I've heard of the judge take an active role in the cross-examination of lawyers. Like why their ties are so colourful. Like why their hair is not tied up neatly or their blouse is not buttoned up to the neck. I felt like I was appearing before a head prefect.