CNA Explains: When does a murderer get life imprisonment instead of a death sentence?

Even for Section 300(a), there are two exceptions to the mandatory death penalty, said Ms Tania Chin, litigation partner at Withers KhattarWong.

These are: Where the offender was under the age of 18 at the time of the murder, or where the offender was pregnant at the time of sentencing.

The first case in Singapore where the Court of Appeal dealt with the issue of when a court can and should impose the death penalty for murder was the case of Kho Jabing, said IRB Law’s Ms Meenakshi.

In that case, he was sentenced first to life imprisonment for murder. However, the Court of Appeal reversed the High Court’s decision and sentenced Kho to death. He has since been executed.

The Court of Appeal held that the death penalty is warranted where the actions of the offender outrage the feelings of the community, and where there is viciousness or a blatant disregard for human life, said Ms Meenakshi.

Several factors go towards deciding on blatant disregard, lawyers said. These include the mental state of the offender at the time of the attack, his role or participation in the attack, and his age and intelligence.

Who decides which murder charge an accused person receives?

The prosecution has the discretion to decide which charge to bring against an accused. 

“The prosecution could well prefer a charge with discretionary death sentence, even if the mandatory death penalty charge under Section 300(a) can be made out,” said Ms Chin.

The burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, she added.

“Due to the high degree of culpability required, and the high threshold of proving an intention to kill under Section 300(a), the prosecution may in certain situations choose to proceed with Section 300(b), (c) or (d) instead.”

Ms Chin gave an example of where a person stabs a victim twice in the thigh and the victim dies. In such a situation, the prosecution is more likely to allege an intention to cause bodily injury that is likely to cause death – under Section 300(b) – or the intention to cause bodily injury sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death – Section 300(c). This is because it is easier to prove than an intention to kill, even if the victim did die as a result.

The prosecutor would primarily be guided by the evidence in a case when deciding whether to prefer a Section 300(a) charge against an accused person, said Mr Hadi of Eugene Thuraisingam LLP.

Other than considering whether the person intended specifically to cause the victim’s death, another important consideration would be the assessment of the public interest demands of the case, he said.

Even if the prosecution selects a charge without the mandatory death penalty, it can still submit that the appropriate sentence should be death, said Mr Hadi. The court will ultimately make the decision.

Commenting on the case of the Punggol jogger murder, he said it appears that the offender’s multiple mental disorders, intellectual limitations, lack of previous offending and relatively young age may have been relevant considerations.

Ms Meenakshi pointed to the case of Daryati, who murdered her employer. The former maid was sentenced to life imprisonment instead of death.

In sentencing her, the High Court judge noted: “The specific nature of the incident did not reflect a cold and calculated killing, but rather, intense panic and distress in executing her plan to return home. I therefore exercised my discretion to impose a term of life imprisonment.”

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