REVISITING SECTION 300(C) MURDER IN SINGAPORE

Published date01 December 2005
Date01 December 2005

Section 300(c) of the Penal Code has had a long history of judicial interpretation and academic comment in Singapore, with resulting controversy. In particular, the courts had opined that the provision applied to cases where the accused caused death even though he might only have intended a relatively minor injury. Yet, there have been cases where the courts have assiduously sought to avoid liability, often on account of the accused person’s non-fatal motive. While a recent Court of Appeal pronouncement may have reduced the harshness of the provision and rendered some much-needed certainty to the area, difficulties remain in distinguishing between a relatively minor intended injury and a fatal actual injury. This article analyses the jurisprudence on s 300(c) and concludes that, at its core, the provision remains incompatible with its sister provisions in s 300 and with the fundamental notion that one should not be punished beyond one’s moral culpability.

I. Overview

1 Section 300(c) of the Penal Code1 has long proven to be the most problematic provision governing the law of murder in Singapore. It prescribes that an act is murder “if it is done with the intention of causing bodily injury to any person, and the bodily injury intended to be inflicted is sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death”. The Indian and Singapore courts interpreting this provision have traditionally held that the latter part of the formulation must be determined objectively. This means that the accused need only be shown to have intended to cause an injury (ie, the first half of the test), and if the injury can be separately and objectively shown by medical evidence to be sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death, he is guilty of murder.

2 The classic test to be applied to s 300(c) was laid down by Vivian Bose J in the Indian Supreme Court case of Virsa Singh v State of Punjab:2

[F]irst, it must be established quite objectively, that a bodily injury is present; Secondly, the nature of the injury must be proved; … Thirdly [and this is the critical limb], it must be proved that there was an intention to inflict that particular injury, that is to say, that it was not accidental or unintentional, or that some other kind of injury was intended… Fourthly, it must be proved that the injury of the type just described made up of the three elements set out above is sufficient to cause death in the ordinary course of nature. This part of the enquiry is purely objective and inferential and has nothing to do with the intention of the offender. [emphasis added]

II. Where the intended and actual injury are similar or congruent

3 The approach prescribed by Bose J in Virsa Singh is not normally problematic if the accused did intend to cause a particular injury, and did in fact inflict that injury. In other words, if there is little to distinguish between what was intended and what in fact came to be inflicted, liability is made out as long as the injury can be objectively determined to be sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death. In Virsa Singh itself, the victim was injured by a spear thrust by the accused, and later died from peritonitis caused by the wound. This was thus a straightforward case for applying Bose J’s test — the accused did intend that injury found to be present, and this injury was sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death. There was thus no necessity for the Prosecution to show that the accused either intended death or knew it was likely or probable that death would result.

4 The particular injury that is sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death need only be generally of the kind intended by the accused, and not exactly similar. Otherwise, the accused in Virsa Singh could well have pleaded that he never intended peritonitis to result, or indeed, that he even knew the abdominal area contained vital organs. The approach to interpreting the phrase “that particular injury” must be a commonsensical one. Bose J himself emphasised this point:3

In considering whether the intention was to inflict the injury found to have been inflicted, the enquiry necessarily proceeds on the broad lines as, for example, whether there was an intention to strike at a vital or a dangerous spot, and whether with sufficient force to cause the kind of

injury found to have been inflicted. It is, of course, not necessary to enquire into every last detail as, for instance, whether the prisoner intended to have the bowels fall out, or whether he intended to penetrate the liver or the kidneys or the heart. Otherwise, a man who has no knowledge of anatomy could never be convicted, for, if he does not know that there is a heart or a kidney or bowels, he cannot be said to have intended to injure them. Of course, that is not the kind of enquiry. It is broad-based and simple and based on commonsense: the kind of enquiry that “twelve good men and true” could readily appreciate and understand.

III. Where the intended and actual injury are distinguishable

5 So far so good. There is, however, a distinct category of cases which present interesting issues. These are the cases where the accused intends a certain injury (typically relatively minor), but somehow ends up inflicting a somewhat different but serious injury that leads to death. The well-known Singapore case of Mohamed Yasin bin Hussin v PP4 is a prime example — the accused, while in the course of burgling the victim’s hut, decided to rape her. He proceeded to sit on the victim’s chest in order to subdue her. The victim subsequently died, and the cause of death was established to be cardiac arrest caused by the accused forcibly sitting on her chest during the struggle.

6 Here, it can be argued that the accused never intended “that particular injury” (in Bose J’s words) which is sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death. What he might have intended were injuries caused by or consistent with rape, but certainly not the internal injuries caused by sitting on her chest. To use Bose J’s words again, this would be a prime situation where “some other kind of injury” was intended. Hence, where there appears to be a distinction between what is intended and what is actually inflicted, there is no liability for murder if the accused cannot be shown to have intended to cause the latter. Indeed, in allowing the accused’s appeal, the Privy Council in Mohamed Yasin rested its decision on the Prosecution’s failure to prove that the accused intended to cause the injury that in fact killed the victim.5 In delivering the judgment of the Privy Council, Lord Diplock further commented in a famous dictum:6

Not only must the act of the accused which caused the death be voluntary in this sense; the prosecution must also prove that the accused intended, by doing it, to cause some bodily injury to the victim of a kind which is sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death. [emphasis added]

7 In retrospect, Mohamed Yasin can be reconciled with Virsa Singh on account of the fact that what the accused intended to inflict was clearly different from what he ended up inflicting. In other words, he did not intend to cause the actual injury that proved to be sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death. The words of Section 300(c) are clear — that which is required to be sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death is the “injury intended to be inflicted”, not the injury actually inflicted. Where there is congruence between the intended injury and the actual injury (subject to Bose J’s commonsensical approach of not requiring every last detail to be intended), there is typically no problem, as with the majority of cases like Virsa Singh. But if all that is intended is something less, and quite different from that actually inflicted, the fact that the actual injury is sufficient to cause death cannot bring the accused within s 300(c). The crux is that one must intend that which causes death (even though he did not actually intend death, nor knew it likely that death would result).

IV. The “struggle” cases: Where the intended and actual injury are not easily distinguishable
A. The strict approach

8 Again, so far so good. In later years, the Singapore courts began to dissociate themselves from Lord Diplock’s approach in Mohamed Yasin. Instead, the courts appeared to have veered toward a stricter interpretation of s 300(c) that was clearly less favourable to the accused. In the 1978 case of PP v Visuvanathan,7 where the accused was charged with stabbing the victim in the heart, the High Court said that the Privy Council’s opinion in Mohamed Yasin was factually accurate for that case but was not of universal application. The court, troubled by Lord Diplock’s dictum that an intention to inflict an injury “of a kind” sufficient to cause death was necessary, felt that it did not think Lord Diplock meant by this to say that the second limb of s 300(c) was

subjective.8 The court in Visuvanathan felt it irrelevant and unnecessary “to enquire what kind of injury the accused intended to inflict. The crucial question always is, was the injury found to be present intended or accidental.” [emphasis added]9 Thus, the focus appeared to have shifted to the actual injury found to be present; as long as that injury was not accidentally caused (in the sense of it being involuntary), the accused would be taken to have caused it intentionally, thereby attracting liability for murder.

9 On the facts of Visuvanathan, this stricter approach caused no huge alarm, since the accused probably did intend to stab the victim in the heart. Visuvanathan, however, marked the Singapore courts’ first significant departure from the Mohamed Yasin-type reasoning. In later years, its progeny took the form of cases applying the stricter approach to those situations where the intended injury and the actual...

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