COMMENTARY: "Everyone deserves a fair trial regardless of how serious a crime."
The late criminal lawyer Subhas Anandan handled over 1,500 criminal cases throughout his career, ranging from murder and abuse to drug trafficking and white collar crimes.
In particular, he was well-known for taking on high profile criminal cases such as “One-Eyed Dragon” Tan Chor Jin, the accused in the Kallang body parts murder, Leong Siew Chor, and the kidney trading case involving retail tycoon Tang Wee Sung.
Here, we produce excerpts from his book 'The Best I Could' in which Subhas writes about his experience as a criminal lawyer and what it was like to lose his first murder case.
The Best I Could is published by Marshall Cavendish and you can get a copy of it here.
By Subhas Anandan
So I had my first murder brief and capital case—defending a man called Tampines Raja who was charged with the murder of someone known as Beatle Raja.
Because I was from Sembawang, I came to be known as Sembawang Raja.
It was a tremendous feeling to be taking on the case though, after a few days, I realised the enormous responsibility that came with it.
The only penalty for the crime was the death sentence and I had been entrusted to save Tampines Raja from this fate.
I went to Queenstown Remand Prison to see Tampines Raja for the first time.
I sat in the visitors’ room with my clerk. Tampines Raja was a young, cheerful man who had turned deadly for a moment at Beatle Raja’s expense. I didn’t know much about Beatle Raja, but as his nickname suggested, he must have been a Beatles fan.
When I introduced myself to Tampines Raja, he smiled and said that he had heard about me. In fact, he may have been the person who started calling me Sembawang Raja.
I took his instructions and asked several questions, some of which he could answer and some which he couldn’t. I went back to Queenstown Remand Prison many times to discuss his defence with him.
The prosecutor for the case was my former classmate in law school
His case was heard in the High Court before two judges, Justice A V Winslow, the presiding judge, and Justice T Kulasekaram.
By then, jury systems had been abolished in Singapore. The deputy public prosecutor was Lawrence Ang, who had been my classmate in law school.
It was also his first murder case. We were friends and I knew he would be fair and reasonable.
The proceedings went on for a few days and one incident stood out for me.
While cross-examining one of the prosecution witnesses after a weekend break, I put a question to him alleging something he had said in his examination-in-chief the previous week.
The judges couldn’t remember whether he had said it or not as their notes did not mention the facts I had alleged.
Nothing in the DPP’s notes reflected what I was alleging either.
Justice Winslow asked me what my notes said and I replied that I don’t take notes. Justice Winslow smiled and said he had noticed that.
“Well, Mr Anandan, it looks as though it’s a battle between your memory and all our notes,” he said.
I remained silent. Justice Winslow was a great judge. He called for the notes of the court recorder whose job was to record everything in verbatim in shorthand.
I told the recorder roughly when the witness was supposed to have said what I was alleging.
The verbatim notes showed that I was right. Justice Winslow decided that their notes were useless and that they would rely on my memory from then on.
However, my client departed from what we had discussed
Unfortunately, Tampines Raja made a mess of his evidence. He departed from what we had discussed he was supposed to say. After his testimony, we made the final submission but I knew I had lost the case even before the verdict.
While waiting for it, I went to see Tampines Raja in the lock-up cell of the High Court and asked him why he had changed his story.
He looked at me sheepishly and told me that he had discussed his defence with his fellow prison inmates and they thought that the original version was not good enough.
So, he amended and embellished it. I was very angry as our defence was based on the truth and the facts supported it. “You’re a fool,” I said angrily as I knew what the consequence would be.
Not long after that, Tampines Raja realised the seriousness of his error when the judgment was delivered.
He was found guilty and sentenced to death. It was the first time I heard a death sentence being passed.
The devastating moment when my client got sentenced to death
It was extremely disconcerting to hear the judge pronounce it in such an emotionless way, as if he was proclaiming that the next day would be a holiday.
We had to stand up when the death sentence was passed and my knees were trembling. It was sad to hear one human being told by another that he had to die.
As soon as court was adjourned and the accused taken away, the family and relatives sitting in the gallery came running out screaming and wailing.
The women fell at my feet and started to cry, repeatedly asking me what had happened and what had gone wrong. Some were blaming me. I was angry and confused, but most of all, I was dejected. It was a terrible experience.
That night I got completely drunk and didn’t go home. I had lost my first murder case.
My job as a criminal lawyer is to ensure the accused get fair treatment
Unlike civil cases, criminal cases can have severe penalties for those who are convicted.
When your clients face the death penalty or life imprisonment, it makes you focus your mind and efforts. I had my first taste of this with Tampines Raja. The primary job of criminal lawyers like me is to ensure that the accused receives fair and just treatment.
To do that, I need to have a full grasp of all aspects of criminal law. I think you need to be a different breed to be a criminal lawyer, especially in Singapore, where many lawyers seek to specialise in areas that are more lucrative.
There are only a few lawyers in Singapore who specialise in criminal law. I think there may be about 200 lawyers altogether in Singapore who take on criminal cases even though it is not their area of specialisation.
These lawyers may be helping a family friend or doing some pro bono work or perhaps have been assigned to a criminal case by the State.
"I never take the high moral ground when it comes to defending an accused person"
I am known to take on complicated cases, with a degree of success.
I do get sentences reduced on appeal because my experience allows me to spot errors in judgement. I also know enough of the law to get charges amended.
This is not the easiest thing to do in Singapore courts, but the numbers are increasing especially with the new Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong on board.
Perhaps it’s my track record that makes me a sort of magnet for accused people from all walks of life.
I also have a reputation as a fighter. I fight for my clients till I’ve exhausted all possible legal avenues and usually myself in the process.
Over the last three decades, I have defended many, many different kinds of people, some of whom were accused of the most heinous crimes.
Some may have been guilty of what they were charged with, some probably weren’t, but I never take the high moral ground when it comes to defending an accused person.
I always accept or reject cases on a case-by-case basis. To me, there can be no other way if you respect the law and believe that everyone deserves a fair trial regardless of how serious a crime has been committed.
If I pick and choose my clients, I believe my practice will fail because people will start to lose faith in me.
For instance, they wouldn’t call me out for drinks to discuss their problems, as some do, and eventually retain me as their lawyer if they didn’t have this faith in me.
I’ve become friends with many of my clients even after I’ve lost their cases.
Like Tampines Raja, they see that I do my best for them and their appreciation is heartfelt even when the prosecution’s case is stronger and they are found guilty.
Some of my clients were concerned upon hearing about my health
It’s quite well-known in legal circles that my health is not the best and I’m beset by a variety of ailments.
I have a team of four specialist doctors at Gleneagles Hospital who keep me going. I take about 30 pills a day, including vitamins and supplements.
In my trouser pocket, I also carry a little bottle containing a white pill that when taken will prevent my heart from seizing up.
Knowing about my ill-health, some of my clients who have been sentenced to death have offered me their organs. Anthony Ler, with his signature smile, offered me his kidneys before he was hanged.
In fact, my clients show their gratitude to me in many ways after their cases are concluded. The chief executive officer of a listed company whom I defended with some degree of success takes me out for drives in his fancy cars.
I have also received death threats on the job
Others just hug me and thank me at the end of the case. Once, when I got a client’s death sentence squashed, his family came to me and said that I was a god to them.
They knelt in front of me and touched my feet. The victim’s family, on the other hand, cursed and swore at me, but that is to be expected. By the same token, I’ve received letters containing death threats.
I don’t take much notice of them though I do report the threats to the police, just in case.
I’ve even been told that someone has carried a kavadi during the Thaipusam festival to take revenge on me so that I will die.
Of course, this sort of thing worries my family, but I see it as part of my job. You have to take the good with the bad.
Honesty and trust is important in a relationship with a client
I think I turn down about 10 per cent of the cases that I’m offered. For me to consider taking on a case, I will always insist that the accused has to be honest with me.
How can I defend him in court if he lies to me? It makes me look bad if the prosecution picks up on something he didn’t tell me or lied to me about. This can have nasty repercussions on my defence of the accused.
My client must also trust that I will be honest with him and keep our communications confidential at all times.
This has to apply to all discussions made during the relationship, and even after the case has been concluded and the relationship has ceased.
If a client doesn’t have this trust in me and shows this distrust by questioning my every move, I will reject the case.
Clients who show remorse have a better chance of working with me
I also need to find some chemistry with the client. I feel chemistry is often an overlooked factor in lawyer-client relationships.
I need to know all aspects of my client to be of best use to him or her. If the right chemistry is not there, the client may not be as forthright with me and that can lead to problems further down the road.
So, if I don’t feel especially comfortable after talking to someone, I will not take on the case.
Sometimes, the family and friends of the accused interfere too much and that puts me off too. I’ve had cases where family members would call me practically every hour which is irritating.
In some cases, the accused people are very arrogant, especially when they come to see me in my office. That turns me off too. If they show remorse, they definitely have a better chance of hiring me.
One interesting thing I’ve noticed in my career is that when I go to see someone in prison, he or she is invariably remorseful.
I suppose the prison experience is a humbling one, as the accused soon realises that arrogance will not take him or her far. I saw that first-hand too when I was in prison.
Top photo via Wikipedia.