Teen, 18, jailed 16 years for homicide of River Valley High schoolmate

There is no precedent in Singapore's history to this case.

Kerr Puay Hian | Khine Zin Htet | December 01, 2023, 04:38 PM



The teenage boy accused of killing 13-year-old Ethan Hun Zhe Kai with an axe at River Valley High School on Jul. 19, 2021, was sentenced to 16 years in jail on Dec. 1, 2023.

He pleaded guilty to a charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder.

He cannot be identified under the Children and Young Persons Act as he was 16 years old at the time of the offence.

When handing down the sentence, Justice Hoo Sheau Peng described the case as "terrifying and incomprehensible", noting it was deliberately perpetrated in the school where young people "ought to feel safest".

Even though the teenager is young and was labouring under a serious mental condition during the offences, she believed that the case is "so serious and heinous" that retribution and deterrence must prevail over rehabilitation.

The deceased did not have a second chance: Prosecution

The prosecution asked for a sentence of 12 to 16 years in jail, while the defence asked for five years.

In more than an hour's exchange, the prosecutors and the defence lawyers argued on which sentencing principles should be taken into consideration by the court while considering the fact that the teenager was suffering from a major depressive disorder during the offences.

The prosecution emphasised the need for retribution and deterrence, highlighting the brutality of the attack and the amount of planning done days before.

While they note that the teenager had made progress in his mental condition since he was remanded at the prison, they believed it should not be a reason for a reduced sentence and leave his rehabilitation to "chance and society".

They pointed out that they are already not seeking a life sentence because of the teenager's age and mental condition during the offence.

They said it's also heartening that people are submitting testimonials for the teenager, asking for a second chance for him.

"[Hun] won't get testimonials in his favour, and we have to remember that."

"One of our best fell to a horrible disease": Lawyers

The defence argued to consider rehabilitation instead.

The lawyers said that the teenager had "no realistic moment of irrationality and self-control" due to his mental condition.

They pointed out that an "utterly ridiculous" plan became "viable" because of his mental condition.

The defence said that the teenager has since recovered well from his mental condition, and there is a low risk of him reoffending.

They said he now has a "wonderful support structure" in terms of friends and family and "safety blankets“ to help him.

They said that the teenager before the court was not the same as the one who had committed the offences.

"One of our best fell, and he fell to this horrible disease, and the signs were there," the lawyer said.

"There is hope, and hope can be measured by helping to pick the accused person back up."

Depression is not the license to kill or harm others: Judge

Hoo said there is no precedent in Singapore's history to this case.

She said the key issue here is whether the teenager's mental condition means that he should get a lower sentence for his offences.

Hoo explained that, however, when an offender retains an understanding of his actions, the ability to reason and think logically and coherently and weigh the consequences, their affliction can only reduce their culpability to a small extent.

For such offenders, deterrence and retribution must be dominant, Hoo said.

She said that "no matter how severe" someone's depression is, it "cannot be the license to kill or harm others".

In this case, Hoo found that the teenager had a "chilling degree of logic" and premeditation shown in his planning for the killing.

"No matter how perverse and twisted, the sheer sophistication and planning makes clear he fully retained his ability to think logically and coherently."

She said this clearly placed him amongst offenders where their culpability can only be reduced to a limited extent because of their mental condition.

While she noted that the defence argued he had no "realistic moment of rationality and self-control", she said this had been reflected in the prosecution's position of charging him with culpable homicide not amounting to murder in view of diminished responsibility due to his mental condition.

Hoo pointed out that the teenager has to take responsibility for his actions.

She said that it was clear that he knew what he did was wrong, and even though he had once aborted the attempt days prior to the attack, rather than pulling back, he resolved to complete it.

She also said that he refused the professional help that was offered to him and didn't stop his consumption of violent videos. She pointed out that the school had also already advised his parents to help him with his mental condition.

Redemption is not out of reach, even in prison: Judge

Hoo said she partly agrees with the defence that "this sad episode" cannot be only of "punishment" but also of "redemption".

She said that redemption is not out of reach, even in prison.

She commended the teenager's improvement in his mental condition and even pursued his studies while incarcerated.

She said he had a newfound faith and had supportive friends and family who rallied around him in time of need.

"Whether the story is one of redemption is up to him. After prison, he has a long road ahead."

To Hun's parents, she hopes they will get closure and heal from this tragedy.

Related stories

Top photo from Ashley Tan