SINGAPORE — A woman who killed her maid was sentenced to 30 years' jail by the High Court on Tuesday (22 June).
On sentencing 41-year-old Gaiyathiri Murugayan, Justice See Kee Oon said her case was among one of the worst types of culpable homicide in court.
Gayathiri, her policeman-husband Kevin Chelvam, and her mother Prema S Naraynasamy carried out a litany of violence towards 24-year-old Myanmar national Piang Ngaih Don until her death on 26 July 2016.
"The statement of facts and video clips tell a shocking story of how the victim was abused, humiliated, tortured, starved, and eventually made to suffer death at the hands of the accused. The victim was completely vulnerable and defenceless," said Justice See.
"The prosecution's submissions are framed in forcefully emotive terms, but words cannot adequately describe the abject cruelty of the accused’s appalling conduct."
Justice See said that he would have had little hesitation in imposing life imprisonment for Gaiyathiri had it not been for her mental conditions, which were said to have substantially contributed to the commission of her offences.
Gaiyathiri was diagnosed with major depressive disorder with peripartum onset of moderate severity, as well as obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. However, she was still able to comprehend the gravity of her actions.
The judge also considered that Gaiyathiri was responsive to psychiatric treatment and deemed not to be at risk of reoffending or a danger to the public. "These are important distinguishing factors that set her case apart from the precedents cited where life imprisonment was imposed," he said.
Tuesday's hearing saw Gaiyathiri's lawyer Joseph Chen and the prosecution arguing further submissions ahead of Gaiyathiri's sentencing. She was repentant for the events that led up to Piang's death, Chen said.
Deputy Chief Prosecutor (DCP) Mohamed Faizal Mohamed Abdul Kadir argued otherwise, saying that the details set out in Gaiyathiri's mitigation showed that she remained unrepentant.
Defence: Accused is back to being non-maid abuser
Chen sought eight to nine years' jail for the 28 charges that Gaiyathiri pleaded guilty to, which involved culpable homicide, grievous hurt, hurt, wrongful restraint and criminal intimidation. Another 87 related charges were considered for her sentencing.
The lawyer had earlier argued that Gaiyathiri had given birth to her second child just a few months before she hired Piang in May 2015. She had been suffering from major depressive disorder, post-natal depression, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.
As part of her supplementary mitigation, Chen argued that Gaiyathiri had no antecedents and had hired four previous maids without issue.
"We acknowledged that there was a prolonged period of physical abuse of the maid that led to her death," he said. "The accused is sorry for that but there are some objective stressors that I highlight in mitigation - that she was anxious of the medical conditions of children and brought them to hospital for treatment. These are stressors in addition to her psychiatric disorders."
These, he said, reduced Gaiyathiri's culpability. Her children had suffered from hygiene-related illnesses, and hence Gaiyathiri had sought to correct Piang's "non-hygienic practices".
"Here she is remorseful and expressed regret that the measures she took were extreme and resulted in hurt to maid and to her death," the lawyer added.
Chen argued that his client was not able to reach out for help for her mental illnesses, and that it was "mentally tortuous" for her during her remand. Too harsh a sentence on Gaiyathiri would have a "chilling effect" on those in similar situations who need help, he argued.
"Her instructions are that she has not retaliated and has endured hardship...during remand," he added. "She is back to her previous self of being a non-maid abuser."
Taking issue with the mitigation, DCP Faizal stated that Gaiyathiri was still attacking a defenceless maid by "laying blame with her even when clearly no such blame can be afforded".
Referring to the statement of facts, he pointed out that many of Gaiyathiri's actions had nothing to do with cleanliness, such as the incident with the steam iron.
On 24 June 2016, Gaiyathiri took a heated steam iron and pressed it onto Piang's forehead and right forearm, due to the maid’s purported bad ironing.
"At the end of the day, the violence is a function of the accused viewing the victim as a lesser human being," said DCP Faizal.
Referring to Gaiyathiri's psychiatric report, he highlighted that she was not remorseful about her assault, but about getting caught and being punished.
Highlighting defence documents in which Gaiyathiri said she regretted that Piang did not reach out for help when she was being attacked, DCP Faizal pointed out that when the victim did have the opportunity to reach out for help, Gaiyathiri took "especial pains to ensure she was unable to do so".
"Yet she dares to come to this point and has the gall to say that she regrets that victim never spoke up," he said. "The victim never spoke up and the vicim was never allowed to speak up, yet here we are with her laying responsibility with the victim. The desire to continually blame others for her own predicament is clearly a lack of remorse."
Arguing for a term of life imprisonment, the DCP closed his submissions by referring to Chen's first words to the court on Tuesday, “The present case is a very unique one."
"I agree with my learned friend, I agree with him that the egregious nature of the act put this case on a pedestal never before seen in others, the sentencing must necessarily reflect that, Your Honour,” the DCP said.
He sought an alternative sentence of 27 years' jail in the event that Justice See did not agree with a life term.
The cases against Prema and Chelvam are pending. Culpable homicide carries a jail term of up to 20 years, and fine or caning, or life.
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