SINGAPORE — A male nursing home employee who was acquitted of molesting a female bed-bound stroke patient had the acquittal reversed by Singapore’s apex court on Wednesday (22 January).
The man, who cannot be named due to a gag order, had initially been sentenced in May 2019 to 22 months’ jail and three strokes of the cane.
His subsequent appeal against the conviction and sentence succeeded after a High Court judge found insufficient evidence for a conviction. The prosecution then appealed against the acquittal.
With the Court of Appeal decision on Wednesday, a lower sentence of 16 months’ jail and three strokes of the cane was imposed on the man. This came after the court found that the prosecution could not establish if there was premeditation on the culprit’s part or if the victim had suffered severe psychiatric harm.
Nurse spotted culprit’s exposed buttocks
At the time of the incident on 26 November 2016, the culprit was 32 while the victim was 55. The man started working at the home as a housekeeping attendant in 2010 but, after a back injury in 2013, did maintenance and cleaning duties for the home.
The victim had a series of strokes some years earlier, which limited her mobility and impeded her speech. She also had cognitive disabilities.
A nurse who was on her rounds noticed that the curtains around some beds in the victim’s room were fully drawn while the curtains around the victim’s bed were half-drawn. She found it odd as the curtains were usually drawn only when residents’ diapers were being changed.
Apart from the victim, only four other residents – all of whom had mental disabilities such as dementia or amnesia – were in their beds at the time.
As the nurse was drawing open the curtains to another bed, she heard someone crying and recognised it as the sound the victim would make whenever she was being moved or in pain.
She then turned and found the perpetrator on the bed with his knees astride the victim. His pants were lowered and the nurse saw his exposed buttocks. The victim’s pants were also lowered and the left side of her diaper was open.
The nurse recognised the man, who was alone with the patient despite the home’s policy of requiring male staff to be escorted by a female staff member when entering the rooms of female residents.
Shocked and frightened, the nurse went to ask a male nursing aide to check on what the culprit was doing. The nursing aide found the perpetrator kneeling on the floor in between two beds and looking at his mobile phone while the victim was sleeping.
Troubled by what she had witnessed, the nurse told a senior staff nurse about the matter which was then escalated to management. A police report was made on 23 January 2017.
Perpetrator claimed to be repairing TV
The culprit claimed that he had been in the room to repair a resident’s portable television and was unaware of home’s policy on male staff from entering female residents’ rooms.
The man said he knelt on the floor between the two beds and changed the fuse for the portable television. Afterwards, he saw the victim’s head touching the side railing of her bed and noticed her pillow displaced and tears flowing from her eyes.
The perpetrator claimed that he placed his left knee between the bars of the bed’s railing to reach for a pillow that was beside the victim. He said his body did not touch the victim while he was doing so and claimed that he placed the pillow under the victim’s head.
The district judge who heard the case found that the culprit had been sexually assaulting the victim when the nurse walked into the room but stopped doing so after sensing her presence.
The judge also found that the man had left the curtains to the bed partially open in order to sense if someone was approaching, lest he be caught red-handed if someone suddenly drew open the fully closed curtains.
A scene visit was also conducted to the home by the judge during the trial. The judge asked the perpetrator to demonstrate how he allegedly took the victim’s pillow with one knee on the bed, and also to reach for the pillow without placing either of his knees on the bed.
The judge found that that the man could easily reach for the pillow without having to place either of his knees on the bed.
During the perpetrator’s appeal, the High Court judge found that the nurse’s evidence alone was insufficient to convict the man.
Among other things, the judge said, “While an eyewitness’ testimony has the advantage of being an independent account of the events, eyewitness evidence is always subject to possible misapprehension and errors in observation.
“In contrast to a victim’s own testimony, an eyewitness’s account would be subject to a greater degree of misperception, misapprehension and misattribution.”
Same standards for eyewitnesses and victims: CJ
In delivering the Court of Appeal’s judgment, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said, “With respect, we are of the view that the (High Court) Judge erred when he appeared to suggest that there were differing standards in relation to eyewitnesses as opposed to alleged victims.”
He added, “The evidence of an eyewitness is neither less nor more reliable than that of an alleged victim. The reliability of any witness’ observation and account must be assessed in light of all the circumstances in each individual case.”
The apex court also noted that the prosecution’s case hinged on the nurse’s evidence that she saw the culprit straddling and sexually assaulting the victim. Meanwhile, the perpetrator’s case was that he was in the room but helping the victim by reaching across her for her pillow and adjusting it under her head.
The two accounts were starkly different and mutually exclusive, the court noted. It was also undisputed that the nurse was directly across from the victim’s bed, about one-and-a-half arm’s lengths away from it, and her view was unobstructed.
Agreeing with the district judge’s decision to convict the man, the apex court said, the nurse’s account of what she saw was so drastically different from the culprit’s version of events.
“It was ultimately a question of which of two wholly incompatible and mutually exclusive accounts was to be believed,” said CJ Menon.
“In our view, the patchwork of explanations provided by the (man) for the inconsistencies in his statements to the police fortifies the district judge’s findings that (he) was trying to tailor his defence to be as close as possible to (the nurse’s) account.... (her) evidence was externally consistent when juxtaposed against (his) account,” he added.
In meting out the new sentence, the apex court took into consideration the perpetrator’s high degree of sexual intrusion and abuse of trust by the employee of the home.
“We also find it reprehensible that (the man) had exploited the victim’s disability, knowing that due to her cognitive and physical impairments, she would not be able to raise the alarm whilst he was sexually assaulting her,” said CJ Menon.
However, the court also noted that the prosecution could not establish if there was premeditation on the culprit’s part or if the victim suffered severe psychiatric harm.
The maximum punishment for using criminal force to outrage the modesty of a person is two years’ jail along with a fine and caning.
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