When would a killer not get the death penalty in S'pore, explained

MS Explains: Capital punishment would be far too harsh a consequence in many cases, even if they involve the death of a victim. Here are some ways that cases involving murder charges do not end in executions.

Nigel Chua | December 25, 2020, 04:46 PM

35-year-old Danial Rafa'ee has been charged with the murder of a girl, Felicia Teo, in 2007.

Under Singapore law, the maximum penalty for murder is death. But there are many cases where those responsible for causing death do not end up being sentenced to death, as the law in Singapore provides for a number of exceptions.

This explainer lays out some of these circumstances.

Judges can exercise discretion

Those who commit murder under Section 300 of the Penal Code do face the death penalty as the maximum punishment.

However, only Section 300(a), one of the four subsections under Section 300, stipulates a mandatory death penalty.

Section 300(a) covers acts of murder with intention to cause death.

On the other hand, sections 300(b), (c) and (d) cover circumstances where the offender's intent to kill is less clear.

Murder under Section 300(b) covers cases where there was intention of causing an injury that the offender knows will likely cause the death of their victim.

The Penal Code provides an example of a killer who knows that their victim is “labouring under such a disease” that a particular kind of blow is likely to cause death, and does indeed inflict such a blow knowing it to be likely to cause the victim’s death.

Section 300(c) covers acts done with the intention of injuring a person, where the injury caused turns out to be severe enough to cause the death of an ordinarily healthy person (or, in the words of the Penal Code, “sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death”), even if the offender did not intend to cause death.

An example of this is a Court of Appeal case decided in 2018, in which a man recruited an accomplice to abduct and assault his rival in love. The victim suffered severe injuries to his face and skull in what the court called a “frenzied and ferocious” attack.

Finally, Section 300(d) covers cases where the offender knows that their action is so dangerous that it will most likely cause death, or cause an injury that will likely lead to death. They go ahead and commit the act without any excuse for incurring the risk — for example, firing a gun into a crowd and killing someone.

The distinctions between the four sub-sections may seem extremely fine, but it has been pointed out that one could be convicted of murder without having in fact intended to cause death, as the above examples how.

In cases where the intention to kill is less clear, it is up to the discretion of the judge to mete out the death penalty. This is because there could be different degrees of intention, and that the death penalty might not always be appropriate.

Law provides exceptions

In the process, the accused may try to persuade the court that they are innocent, that they should not be convicted, or that they should be convicted of a lesser offence.

An important part of that process is what the law calls "defences" — basically, specific situations or circumstances that the law recognises as reducing the severity of the alleged offence.

There are general defences in Singapore's Penal Code that apply to any offence, and specific defences that apply only for murder cases, as follows:

General defences Murder-specific defences
Penal Code Chapter IV and IVA Exceptions 1 to 7 under Penal Code Section 300
Following lawful orders

Mistake of fact


Unsound mind


Private defence


Excess of private defence

Public servant exceeding lawful powers

Sudden fight


Postnatal depression

Abnormality of mind

The defences are legally-recognised reasons why a court might decide that an offender is not actually guilty of committing the offence of murder, even though they are found to have caused another person's death.

Defences apply in limited circumstances

However, these defences only apply in limited circumstances, and are not to be taken as a "how to get away with murder" guide.

For the examples of defences below, we will use Person A to represent the accused.

For example, under the "private defence" exception, Person A who voluntarily caused Person B's death while defending himself (or another person) could be acquitted of murder.

However, this only applies where Person A was defending himself against an assault which could result in death, grievous hurt, sexual assault, kidnapping, or wrongful confinement.

And Person A must have attempted to seek help from public authorities if there was an opportunity for them to do so, such as trying to call for help from a nearby police station rather than take matters into their own hands.

Another example is the "intoxication" exception, which has been interpreted by judges to have three different forms:

  1. Someone caused Person A to be so intoxicated that he did not know what he was doing, or that he was doing an illegal act
  2. Person A was so intoxicated that he is considered to have been insane at the time of the alleged crime
  3. Intoxication prevented Person A from having the intention to commit the alleged crime.

Even if Person A has evidence from medical experts to prove his intoxication, it doesn't mean that the defence of "intoxication" applies.

In a 2009 murder case, it was decided in the High Court that a man could not plead intoxication as a defence, even though a medical expert estimated his blood alcohol level at the time of the murder to be 235 mg/dl, nearly three times the threshold of 80 mg/dl for drink driving.

In that case, the court also scrutinised the facts, which showed that "there was nothing to show that the accused did not know what he was doing or that what he was doing was wrong," and highlighted how he had taken steps to avoid detection, immediately after committing the crime.

Difference between general and murder-specific defences

The main difference between general and specific defences is what happens when an accused person successfully proves that the defence applies.

Proving that a general defence applies results in a complete acquittal (the accused is found to be not guilty).

On the other hand, proving that a specific defence applies results in the accused being considered to have committed culpable homicide instead — for which the maximum penalty is life imprisonment.

Accused persons are no longer held accountable for their actions if the general defences applies.

However, for murder-specific defences, accused persons are still held accountable for their actions, albeit to a reduced degree.

The illustration to the "consent" exception in the Penal Code paints a rather Shakespearean scenario in which an accused person would be spared the death penalty, but is still held responsible for causing death:


A and Z, both being persons above 18 years of age, decide to commit suicide together by drinking poison. With Z’s consent, A pours a lethal poison down Z’s throat but after watching Z die, A cannot summon the courage to drink the same poison. A has committed culpable homicide and not murder.

Similar logic would apply to a case of a physician who agrees to help one of their patients commit suicide.

In order for this defence to apply, however, the accused person would need to provide evidence to convince the judge that consent had indeed been given by the victim.

Murder charges may be amended

Before a sentence is even decided by a judge, the alleged offender (or, the accused) must be charged and then convicted, before being sentenced.

To be charged is to be accused of an offence, and to be "guilty as charged" is to be found guilty of the offence one was accused of committing.

The charging of a suspect is an official step in the legal process. It allows for accused persons to know what they are being accused of doing, so that they (or their lawyers) can prepare their defence and respond accordingly.

This is why charges against an accused person are legally required to contain the specific details surrounding a case, such as the date and time when the alleged offence happened, any other persons involved, and what action(s) constituted the offence.

Charges can be amended later on as more evidence emerges.

Why press charges if they are going to be amended?

A murder charge could be amended to something much less severe, as was the case for all but one of the accused persons in the Orchard Towers case, where all the accused were initially charged with murder.

Why charge them with murder in the first place, some might ask, if the charges are going to be reduced later?

The answer could lie in the fact that at the time of the accused being charged, the police did not have sufficient certainty of each accused person's involvement in the case.

However, charging them with murder would be erring on the side of caution by making them ineligible for bail, which would have the effect of protecting the public, and preventing the accused from absconding overseas or going into hiding.

Young offenders and pregnant women cannot be sentenced to death

Another situation where those who are accused (and convicted) of murder would not end up facing the death penalty is where the offender is under the age of 18, or pregnant.

Under the law, offenders from these demographic groups cannot be sentenced to death.

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Mothership Explains is a series where we dig deep into the important, interesting, and confusing going-ons in our world and try to, well, explain them.

This series aims to provide in-depth, easy-to-understand explanations to keep our readers up to date on not just what is going on in the world, but also the "why's".

Top image via Tingey Injury Law Firm on unsplash