26 October 2005

True Stories from Mr Wang's Case File

First, an announcement. SingaporeClassics is truly dead. All his posts have disappeared. Click here and see. Well, we hope for his reincarnation sometime soon.

Next - Mr Wang's post, Suspects and their Lawyers, attracted much interest. However, as Mr Wang had previously mentioned, the topic is complicated and not easy to understand. Mr Wang will now provide a real-life example to illustrate how police statements really work in practice.

This example is not meant to make any specific point about the discussion in my previous post. It is merely meant to facilitate general understanding of the role of police statements in the overall investigation process.

Mr Wang has handled hundreds of criminal cases. Most of them have blurred together in his memory. This one, however, stands out in Mr Wang's memory, because it was one of the first few cases he ever handled. If memory serves Mr Wang correctly, it was assigned to him in his first week of work. Here we go:

    1. Two young women come to the police station at 5 am. Let's call them Ling & Mei. Ling says, "This is my cousin, Mei. She was raped a few hours ago. Please help her." The officer at the counter scribbles the gist of what Ling says into the station diary. This becomes what we call the "First Information Report".

    2. Time is vital in these cases. The faster you move, the better your chances of catching the person and securing physical evidence at the crime scene. A police officer quickly asks Mei where she was raped and what the rapist looks like. Room 503, in a well-known swanky 5-star hotel, by a Middle Eastern man named Faisal, fat, balding, in his 40s etc. Immediately, three officers speed off in a police car to the hotel. No time to lose - they can get Mei's full story later.

    3. Back at the station, Ling & Mei are placed in separate rooms. Witnesses' statements are always recorded separately - otherwise they may contaminate each other's evidence. Not necessarily deliberately. It could be what the law calls "innocent infection". Witnesses may inadvertently influence each other into thinking that they did hear or see something that they didn't exactly.

    4. According to Ling's statement, this was what happened: Mei unexpectedly showed up at her house at around 2 am. Mei asked to spend the night there. Ling said, "What's wrong? Why are you here so late?". Mei said nothing. Mei went to the bathroom. She stayed inside for a long time. Ling got worried. She knocked very hard and insisted on coming in. When Mei opened the door, Ling went in and found that Mei was bleeding heavily. From the vagina. Ling said, "What happened?". Mei said that she had been raped. Ling immediately wanted to call Ling's parents. Mei said no. Ling said, "Let's call the police." Mei said no. Ling insisted. Reluctantly, Mei followed Ling to the police station.

    5. Meanwhile, in a separate room, a highly experienced female inspector, Inspector Amy, is recording Mei's statement. Inspector Amy is having a tough time. Mei, a 17-year-old teenager, looks calm enough but her story doesn't make sense. She says that a stranger named Faisal raped her in his hotel room. She had met him for the first time in the hotel lobby at around midnight. Why was Mei there so late? No answer. Why did Mei follow the man to his hotel room? "To take a shower. Then he raped me." Instinct tells Inspector Amy to ask for Mei's purse. It contains, apart from some notes of small denominations, four new $50 bills.

    6. By now, the three police officers have reached Room 503 of the swanky hotel which I shall not name. They bang on the door. A sleepy, fat, balding Iranian man opens the door. He identifies himself as Faisal. Faisal is arrested and brought to the police station.

    7. Inspector Amy sends Mei for a medical examination. Fresh hymenal tears, indicating that until a short time ago, she was a virgin. No traces of sperm, indicating that the rapist probably used a condom.

    8. Faisal is aghast at being arrested. He tells the police that he is a reputable businessman here in Singapore on a business trip (police later check this out and verify this with his business associates). Late that night at the hotel, a young woman approached him in the lobby and asked if he wanted sex. He said, "Ok, how much do you charge." She says, "$200." They go to his hotel room, they take a shower together. Then they have sex. According to Faisal, "She liked it and made a lot of noise." After sex, he pays her $200, 4 new $50 bills, and she leaves. "Having sex with a prostitute is not illegal in Singapore, is it?" Faisal asks.

    9. The police interview Mei again. Inspector Amy suggests to her that she wasn't actually raped. Mei denies this. Inspector Amy warns her that it's an offence to lie to the police. Mei denies lying. Inspector Amy says, "Okay. Do you agree to take a lie detector test?" Mei breaks down and admits that she was lying. She gives a 2nd police statement and admits that she was prostituting herself. It was her first time having sex. She was frightened after that and she didn't know what to do when she started bleeding.

    10. Just to be sure, the police ask Mei to take a lie detector test anyway. The polygraph expert asks her questions backwards and forwards, twisted round and round, phrased in multiple different ways. Polygraph results indicate that she had been lying about being raped.


A couple of interesting things happened here. Firstly, the victim, Mei, turned out to be the offender (it is an offence to lie to a public officer, and most certainly, it is a serious offence if your lie is that someone has committed rape). Her first statement (see Paragraph 5) becomes the subject-matter of the offence. Her second statement (see Paragraph 9) becomes a confession, a statement that can be used against herself.

Secondly, there are the polygraph results. Polygraph results are generally believed to be highly accurate but due to various controversial and debatable reasons, they are currently not used in actual court cases. In other words, no police officer ever stands up in court and says, "We then did a lie-detector test and we confirmed that X was lying about ABC." This doesn't happen. Basically, judges like to hear for themselves from all the witnesses what each has to say, and then the judge will decide for himself who's lying and who's not. Judges don't like to be replaced by machines.

Nevertheless, polygraphs nevertheless are a highly important tool for the police in their investigations. If nothing else, it is helpful for the police to satisfy themselves whether a witness is lying.

In our case, Faisal is not guilty of rape. However, for the purposes of discussion, let's change the facts somewhat. Assume that Mei did not admit to lying about being raped, and assume that no lie detector was used. In effect, it becomes Faisal's word versus Mei's word, as to what happened in the hotel room.

In such a case, it is extremely, extremely unlikely that the prosecution would charge Faisal with rape. Firstly, any DPP worth his salt would probably doubt that any rape had occurred. A rape may indeed have occurred - however, the legal
standard for securing a conviction is very high (proof beyond reasonable doubt) - that is, the judge must be very, very convinced of Faisal's guilt. If the DPP himself isn't convinced, neither will the judge.

The fact that Mei was present at a hotel lobby late at night for reasons she does not explain already raises a doubt. The fact that she followed a male stranger to his hotel room, knowing that no one else was around raises another doubt. A third doubt is raised by the fact that she received money from the stranger. A fourth doubt is that the alleged "rapist", after sex, made no attempt to run away but instead contentedly went back to sleep until the police officers woke him up by banging on his hotel room door.

With all these doubts, and no other compelling evidence to the contrary, the prosecution will never be able to prove its case of rape beyond reasonable doubt - therefore the prosecution will never even bother to prosecute Faisal.


Back to the actual facts of the case.

What about prosecuting Mei for a section 182 offence (lying to the police)? Let's assume that the prosecution does want to prosecute Mei. That's possible. And here we also see one very important use of the accused's statement.

Faisal, an Iranian businessman, already had to miss his flight home because of this false allegation of rape. He's not going to stick around in Singapore any longer. In other words, he won't be showing up in court to testify against Mei on the lying charge.

His police statement (Paragraph 8) cannot be shown to the judge. Accused persons must of course attend their own trial and also their own police statements (confessions) can be used against them. The laws of evidence, however, generally require other witnesses to personally show up in court to tell their story - statements on their own aren't good enough. Yes, the judge wants to personally see your face, hear your voice. If Faisal does not show up in court, then the judge won't get to hear Faisal's side of the story about what happened in that hotel room. At all.

With Faisal flying back to Iran, the only evidence against Mei is her own statement - (the 2nd statement, where she admitted to lying in her 1st statement). So the prosecution will use Mei's 2nd statement against herself. What will Mei do, in her own defence? Well, if she is determined to fight the case, she only has one logical defence left. She will go to court and allege that she was abused, tortured, threatened etc etc into making her 2nd statement. And that her 2nd statement is actually the false one. And that Inspector Amy made her sit on a block of ice, and took off all her clothes and sprayed her with cold water etc etc.

The DPP will sigh .... Another loooong day in court.

Inspector Amy will take the witness stand, thinking to herself, "Man, I really hate this stupid job."


Ellipsis said...

thanks for the humour at the last bit, it really cracked me up.:)

Han said...

Polygraph machines actually measure physiological responses to questions. In that aspect, they are highly accurate. Thus, we can reasonably infer that those physiological responses indicate the possibility that the person is lying. But as to whether it detects for certain that the person is lying... I think it's not as reliable.

For one thing, it is possible to game the polygraph machine, or modify the results. Of course, this is provided one knows and understands how the polygraph works, which most ordinary people won't know.

Btw, there is recent research using MRI machines to detect brain activity that indicates lying. Something like that would be far more accurate. And far more scary.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Polygraph machines don't work on everyone. If you have a heart problem - eg mitral valve prolapse - then polygraph results generally become unreliable.

Anthony said...

On a very sensible level - how about allowing access to lawyers early so that the POLICE will have a sort-of-neutral third party present?

Lawyers can't outright lie to the court of course. They can't even mislead the court. Bad things happen to lawyers who outright lie in court.

lbandit said...

Actually, the lie detectors does work to a certain extent. But not in the way it is supposed to.

The media drums up statistics about the 'accuracy' of lie detectors while discarding other skeptical results. This creates an leads people in general to believe that lie detectors are highly accurate.

When faced with a lie detector, the belief in the high accuracy of the detectors makes liars fail the test or outright confess.

Works more effectively as a psychological tool than a physiological tool.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Polygraphs are not particularly relevant for DPPs (because they can't use the results in court anyway). But they are useful for police because once the police know (or think they know) who's lying about what, the police will know where to concentrate their efforts to find evidence that CAN be used in court.

Lbandit, however, has correctly identified one of the benefits of polygraph. Innocent people wrongly suspected of committing a crime generally welcome the chance to take a polygraph test. People who did really commit a crime react in the opposite way. The reaction of the witness to an invitation to take a polygraph test provides useful clues to the police. Again, this has no direct relevance in a court case - but it does faciliate police investigations in that the police again have further ideas about where to look next.

Actually, my comments about witnesses faced with polygraph tests also apply to the more general issue of answering questions from the police. As I said, innocent people generally don't shy away from answering the police's questions. It's those people who have something to hide who will say, "Hey, must I answer that. Do I have the right to remain silent? Can I see a lawyer first before telling you whether I really raped her or not." Etc.

Anthony said...

Just thought of something.

I can think of one case in which having a lawyer around -might- be a good thing, and where silence does not imply guilt FOR A CRIME.

Let's take a very simple factual matrix. A 16 year old girl had sex with her 15 year old boyfriend. Parents complain to police because they don't want the boy hanging around their daughter, cos the boy is the bad sort that has tattoos and therefore -must- be a gangster.

Police get hauled in, girl starts getting question. Girl remembers that 16 is the age of majority in Singapore and shuts up.

Now, the investigation is going to be held up because the police think that something is wrong because the girl isn't as open as she would be - she must be guilty of -something-. If a lawyer was present, they'd all have a good laugh when the lawyer pointed out that the majority age of 16 applies to WOMEN only.

That's the problem I have with the whole "silence-is-guilt" thing. Sure, the person may be feeling guilty of something, but the reason that they are guilty may or may not be a crime.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...


The police is not that free. They are not going to arrest anyone because someone else's parents say that the person has tattoos and therefore MUST be a gangster.

Also, the police are not that dumb. They're not lawyers but they know this kind of stuff. And for personal particulars, they would check the NRIC.

Also, if you read my previous comments, all I am saying that many cases, if a person shuts up, the commonsensical conclusion of any person looking at the case would be that he's hiding something. What he may be hiding - well, again you use your commonsense.

Under the Evidence Act, it is not that an adverse inference MUST be drawn if a witness refuses to say something. It is that an adverse inference MAY be drawn. Whether you draw it or not, well, that depends on your reading of all the surrounding circumstances.

There are many cases where a person may want to remain silent yet not be guilty. You look at the case with your common sense and you interpret the facts. You draw your own inferences. Some examples:

1. Family member files a police report that another family member (usually the drunken alcoholic father) has inflicted violence on a 3rd family member. Later, all family members go silent and refuse to say anything. Why? Because the family are trying to make up and get together and protect Daddy, of course. Not that all of them are guilty.

2. Maid makes a police report about being molested by employer. Then later refuses to say anything more. Why? Some possible inferences: (1) original report was false, (2) employer scared her into withdrawing the report, (3) she does not want to lose her job, (4) employer apologised to her privately and she's willing to drop the matter, (5) plain scared of going to court (happens a lot to lowly-educated people). You look at the overall case, and you see what you can figure out. But the silence itself is telling you something. You have to figure it out. That's why you're the DPP/police officer.

3. Chap is a witness to a crime - but he's somehow withholding something, even though you're sure he's not the guilty person. Why? Because he doesn't want to reveal something about himself. Eg the victim is actually his mistress - he doesn't want the world to know he has a mistress. Or the accused is his friend - the witness knows what happened, but he doesn't want to say anything that gets his friend in trouble. Or perhaps the event (a robbery? a fight?) happened in a discotheque. The witness doesn't want to say more because he's a young fellow and he knows his mama will pull his ears for being at a discotheque when he had claimed to be at a church camp. Etc.

Anthony, you got to get past this idea that the statements are the be-all and end-all. They're not. You look at the statements and all the other evidence as a whole. There will be holes, there will be gaps. Some witnesses may be mistaken. Some witnesses may be inaccurate. Some witnesses forget things. Some witnesses may have an ulterior motive or incentive to exaggerate. Some witnesses, by virtue of their personal characteristics, are just not good witnesses - eg the 90-year-old slightly senile, slightly incoherent grandmother; the young impressionable 4-year-old child with limited vocab;; the Indonesian maid who can't really understand English etc. Some witnesses just can't tell you much, because they really don't know much. Eg "I heard a loud sound, I looked up, I saw that a car had crashed on the opposite side of the road. How it crashed? I don't know. Wasn't looking then."

Some holes and gaps don't matter, some do. You look at the evidence as a whole, and you put the pieces together. Some people are deliberately silent on certain things which you know they must know - you draw your inferences.

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