Lim Ghim Peow v Public Prosecutor

CourtCourt of Three Judges (Singapore)
JudgeChao Hick Tin JA
Judgment Date17 October 2014
Neutral Citation[2014] SGCA 52
Citation[2014] SGCA 52
Defendant CounselFrancis Ng, Lim How Khang, Jasmine Chin-Sabado and Norine Tan (Attorney-General's Chambers)
Hearing Date11 July 2014
Subject MatterSentencing,Criminal Procedure and Sentencing,Mentally disordered offenders
Docket NumberCriminal Appeal No 2 of 2014
Plaintiff CounselSubhas Anandan, Sunil Sudheesan and Diana Ngiam (RHTLaw Taylor Wessing LLP)
Published date28 October 2014
Date17 October 2014
Chao Hick Tin JA (delivering the grounds of decision of the court): Introduction

This appeal brings into acute focus the challenging task of sentencing an offender who suffers from a mental disorder falling short of unsoundness of mind, but falling within the meaning of Exception 7 (diminished responsibility) to s 300 of the Penal Code (Cap 224, 2008 Rev Ed) (“the Code”).

The appellant, Lim Ghim Peow (“the Appellant”), pleaded guilty to and was convicted of a charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder under s 304(a) of the Code. The Appellant had set his ex-lover, one Mary Yoong Mei Ling (“the Deceased”), on fire at her residence on 25 May 2012 by dousing her with petrol and setting her ablaze with a lighter. Later on the same day, the Deceased passed away due to her burn injuries. The Appellant was diagnosed as suffering from a major depressive disorder at the time of the offence. The trial judge (“the Judge”) sentenced him to 20 years’ imprisonment. His decision is reported in Public Prosecutor v Lim Ghim Peow [2014] 2 SLR 522 (“the Judgment”).

The Appellant appealed against his sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment on the ground that it was manifestly excessive. He submitted that the Judge failed to appreciate the significance of his psychiatric condition, and instead accorded undue weight to the sentencing principles of retribution and prevention.

After hearing the submissions of the parties on 11 July 2014 and carefully considering all the circumstances of the case, we affirmed the sentence imposed by the Judge and dismissed the appeal. We now give the detailed grounds for our decision.

Background to the offence

It is apposite to begin with a quick summary of the background facts. These facts are extracted from the statement of facts submitted to the court below by the Prosecution, which the Appellant admitted to without qualification.

The Appellant is a 46-year-old divorcee. At the time of the offence, he was working as a taxi driver and was staying at a rental flat in Bendeemeer (“the Rental Flat”). The Deceased was also a divorcee and was aged 43 at the time of her death.

The Appellant and the Deceased first met more than 17 years ago when they were still married to their respective spouses. Their romantic relationship started sometime in September 2008, and the Deceased moved into the Rental Flat and cohabitated with the Appellant. However, by late 2011, their relationship began to deteriorate and the Deceased moved out of the Rental Flat. Between late 2011 and April 2012, the Deceased alternated between staying with her friend, Justina Cher Siow Wei (“Justina”), her grandaunt and her aunt. Throughout this period, the Appellant attempted to reconcile with the Deceased, but to no avail. At the time of her demise, the Deceased was already in a relationship with another person, Choo Lye Weng (also known as “Steven”), and was staying with her cousin, Phua Duan Kai (“the Victim”), and his family at their Compassvale flat (“the Flat”).

On 16 February 2012, the Appellant sent the Deceased a text message threatening to set fire to Justina’s home if the Deceased refused to meet him. As a result, the Deceased agreed to meet him in the presence of his brother. During the meeting, an argument ensued, in the course of which the Deceased accused the Appellant of making empty threats. The Appellant immediately drove to a petrol kiosk to purchase a four-litre tin of petrol, and returned to the meeting place where the Deceased and his brother were still waiting. He showed the tin of petrol to the Deceased to prove that his threat was real. The Appellant’s brother advised him not to “act crazy”. The meeting ended without anything untoward happening and the Appellant brought the tin of petrol home.

Sometime in March 2012, the Deceased entered into a relationship with Steven. Between April and May 2012, the Appellant continued to call the Deceased and send her text messages, but she did not respond. On 22 May 2012, the Deceased made a police report against the Appellant for harassment.

On 23 May 2012, when the Deceased returned to the Flat after running an errand, she found the Appellant lying in wait for her. The Deceased tried to run away from the Appellant, and called the Victim and another male friend to rescue her. The police were also eventually called in. It was after this incident that the Appellant realised that the Deceased had no intention of reconciling with him. Therefore, he resolved to kill the Deceased by burning her and then commit suicide.

On that same day (ie, 23 May 2012), upon returning to the Rental Flat, the Appellant proceeded to fill three plastic bottles with petrol from the tin of petrol which he had purchased in February 2012. He sealed the caps of the bottles with transparent tape before placing them into a plastic bag. Later that night, the Appellant went to the void deck of the Flat and slept at the nearby playground.

On the morning of 24 May 2012, the Appellant woke up and kept watch at the staircase beside the Flat. However, as he did not see the Deceased, he left after some time. Later that night, the Appellant poured the remaining petrol in the tin of petrol into three other plastic bottles. He likewise sealed the three bottles with transparent tape and put them into the same bag as the three bottles from the previous day.

On 25 May 2012, sometime after 1.00am, the Appellant arrived at the vicinity of the Flat. He placed the bag containing the six bottles of petrol on a plant rack outside the Flat. The Appellant then slept at the staircase landing near the Flat and lay in wait for the Deceased. Sometime before 8.30am, the Deceased opened the door and the gate of the Flat. The Victim was still asleep in his room then. When the Appellant heard the door being opened, he rushed down the staircase with one plastic bottle of petrol in his left hand and a lighter in his right hand. He had retrieved the bottle of petrol earlier after a false alarm from a resident of another unit. A brief exchange between the Deceased and the Appellant ensued. The Appellant asked the Deceased to give him one last chance, but the Deceased reiterated that there was no possibility of reconciliation between them. The Appellant then uncapped the bottle of petrol which he was holding and told the Deceased that “he wanted to take her together with him to die” (see the Judgment at [26]).

The Deceased ran back inside the Flat and closed and locked the gate. The Appellant reached his right arm through the gate and grabbed the Deceased. He doused the Deceased with petrol from the plastic bottle which he held in his left hand. The Deceased struggled to free herself and screamed for the Victim to save her. The Victim was awakened by the Deceased’s screams and rushed out of his room. The Victim tried to close the door and pull the Deceased away, but the Appellant managed to keep the door open. At this point, the Appellant quickly dropped the bottle and used the lighter to set the Deceased on fire. The Deceased was set alight immediately. The Appellant then released the Deceased and let the door close. Inside the flat, the Deceased was engulfed in flames. The Victim’s left arm and left leg were also on fire, and the fire spread to the door and the ceiling.

Eventually, the Deceased and the Victim managed to put out the fire on their bodies, and the fire in the Flat was extinguished with the help of neighbours. Singapore Civil Defence Force officers and the police arrived separately at the scene. Upon questioning by the police, the Appellant admitted that he had started the fire because the Deceased wanted to leave him and he wanted to die with her. The Deceased, the Appellant and the Victim were conveyed to the hospital.

The medical report on the Deceased showed that she sustained 75% total body surface area burns with inhalational injury. Most of the burns were of full thickness. Her condition subsequently deteriorated and she succumbed to her injuries on the same day (ie, 25 May 2012) at about 10.56pm. The cause of death was stated in the autopsy report as “extensive severe burns”. The Victim and the Appellant both sustained some non-fatal burn injuries from the incident.

The sentence imposed by the Judge

The prescribed punishment for the offence of culpable homicide not amounting to murder under s 304(a) of the Code is either life imprisonment with the option of caning, or a term of imprisonment which may extend to 20 years with the option of a fine or caning. It was against this statutory framework that the Judge decided to sentence the Appellant to the maximum fixed term of imprisonment, viz, 20 years’ imprisonment.

It should be noted that the charge faced by the Appellant was one of culpable homicide not amounting to murder by operation of Exception 7 to s 300 of the Code. The Prosecution conceded at the hearing below that at the time of the offence, the Appellant was suffering from an abnormality of mind (namely, a major depressive disorder) which substantially impaired his mental responsibility for the commission of the offence and therefore reduced the offence from that of murder to that of culpable homicide not amounting to murder. At the hearing before the Judge, the Prosecution did not press for the maximum punishment of life imprisonment, but argued instead for an imprisonment term of 16 to 20 years. The Appellant, on his part, pleaded for an imprisonment term in the region of ten years.

Given the Appellant’s major depressive disorder, the Judge was of the view that while rehabilitation of the Appellant was important, it should not be the sole or principal consideration in this case. He felt that there was a need to balance the public interest in protecting society against the interests of the Appellant. Considering the gravity of the offence and the circumstances of the case, the Judge held that the public interest should prevail over the...

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