Former Attorney-General Walter Woon has explained that the discretion in handing down a mandatory death penalty can become “warped” given the burden on prosecutors to decide charges.
Noting that people have to be more informed about the prosecutorial and judicial process in Singapore to have a meaningful discussion of the penalty, Woon, at a public consultation on the issue on Monday, pointed out some flaws in determining mandatory sentences.
The consultation organised by the National Solidarity Party and Think Centre comes after the government announced last month plans to ease the application of the death penalty in some murder and drugs cases.
Woon, who is also David Marshall Professor of Law at the National University of Singapore, cited that, when a person is killed, there is a whole range of offences, from causing hurt to murder, that the suspect could be charged with.
If the prosecutor charges the person with anything except murder, the judge has a discretion to impose from zero to maximum penalty, Woon explained. If it’s culpable homicide, not amounting to murder, the maximum penalty is life imprisonment.
However, if the prosecution charges the perpetrator with murder, the judge has no choice.
“The discretion becomes warped. This is not fair on the prosecutors because that’s not their job. Their job is to bring the facts to the judge and assist the judge to come to a just conclusion,” Woon said. “And here because of the mandatory nature of certain offences, their job is much harder. In this case, we've also got to decide whether this guy hangs or does not hang.”
Woon also said that there is no point arguing about whether there should be a death penalty per se because that is not something the parliament would consider.
“They are going to consider under what circumstances do we give the judges the discretion,” Prof Woon said.
On the topic of President’s Clemency, Woon said the pardon is not a discretionary power given to the president.
“It’s not the president who decides. It’s the cabinet who decides. All the president does is he will have to take their advice,” he said.
In a parliamentary sitting in August, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said that the law will be changed so courts will have discretion to sentence some people convicted of drug-related and murder offences to the lighter penalty of life imprisonment with caning.
Teo maintained that all trafficking and manufacturing crimes will still be given the mandatory death penalty for kingpins and organisers of syndicates.
The exception comes however, when two specific, tightly-defined conditions are met.
One, the trafficker only played the role of courier and was not involved in any other part of the distribution process.
Two, the courier cooperates with the Central Narcotics Bureau in its investigation and substantially assists in dismantling the syndicates or has a mental disability that prevents the accused from appreciating the gravity of his crime.
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