Acquittal of Capital Charge After 9-Year Legal Saga

18 September 2020

Ilechukwu Acquitted of His Capital Charge – Drug Trafficking

1. Background of Ilechukwu’s Capital Charge

Eugene Thuraisingam LLP had acted for Ilechukwu Uchechukwu Chukwudi’s (“Ilechukwu”) since 2013 on a pro-bono basis under the Legal Assistance Scheme for Capital Offences. Ilechukwu’s criminal defence lawyers consisted of Eugene Thuraisingam, Suang Wijaya, Johannes Hadi from Eugene Thuraisingam LLP and Jerrie Tan from K&L Gates Straits Law.

In November 2011, Ilechukwu came from Nigeria to Singapore for business and was delivering a bag on behalf of a trusted friend to Hamidah Binte Awang in Singapore.

One of the central issues in these long-running criminal proceedings has been whether Ilechukwu is able to furnish innocent explanations for certain inaccuracies and omissions made in his statements given to the Central Narcotics Bureau (“CNB”) in 2011, after he was arrested.

2. Sequence of Events

  • 2014

The legal team was in conduct of Ilechukwu’s trial. In a reported judgment: Public Prosecutor v Hamidah Bte Awang and another [2015] SGHC 4, we had successfully persuaded Justice Lee that, despite those inaccuracies and omissions, Ilechukwu had proved that he was not guilty of any offence. Ilechukwu was acquitted of the capital charge of drug trafficking.

  • 2015

On the prosecution’s appeal to a three-judge Court of Appeal, Ilechukwu’s 2014 acquittal was reversed and he was convicted as charged, in a reported judgment: Public Prosecutor v Ilechukwu Uchechukwu Chukwudi [2015] SGCA 33.

The criminal proceedings were then remitted back to the High Court to decide on whether Ilechukwu should be sentenced to suffer death, or to life imprisonment.

The legal team filed an application to the Court of Appeal to reopen the case by relying on a psychiatric report put forward by the Attorney-General’s Chambers for sentencing arguments. This application was made while the sentencing proceedings were still on-going.

The psychiatric report was prepared by a psychiatrist of the Institute of Mental Health in March. It was reported that Ilechukwu suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). This was a result of childhood trauma that came from witnessing tribal killings at his hometown in Nigeria.

It was further reported that Ilechukwu’s PTSD symptoms were triggered after the CNB told him that he faced the death penalty. This caused him to lie in his statements.

The Court opined that the psychiatric report contradicted key parts of its 2015 decision where Ilechukwu was convicted as there were no explanations for his lies other than “his realisation of his guilt”.

  • 2016

Ilechukwu was diagnosed with PTSD by a psychiatrist from the IMH. Dr Jaydip Sarkar discovered that Ilechukwu had witnessed a macabre tribal massacre in Nigeria when he was 5 years old. He had seen people maimed and killed with choppers and cutlasses, and their dismembered bodies were thrown into a well in front of his mother’s shop. Dr Sarkar found that Ilechukwu had been terribly traumatised by this event and suffered from recurring PTSD symptoms whilst giving his statements to the police. In Dr Sarkar’s view, Ilechukwu’s PTSD symptoms were “likely to have led to an overestimation of threat to his life which could have prompted him to utter unsophisticated and blatant falsehoods in order to save his life”.

  • 2017

On the strength of Dr Sarkar’s psychiatric report, we successfully persuaded the Court of Appeal to re-open Ilechukwu’s concluded case and review his concluded criminal appeal case.

This was the first time in Singapore’s legal history where the Court of Appeal agreed to re-open a concluded criminal appeal. We also acted for Ilechukwu in the further evidential hearing ordered by the Court of Appeal and successfully persuaded the Judge to find that our client suffered from PTSD during his childhood and PTSD symptoms during the recording of his police statements.

In a reported judgment Ilechukwu Uchechukwu Chukwudi v PP [2017] SGCA 44, we had conduct of the applicant’s application to the Court of Appeal to review its previous decision in 2015. This was on the basis that certain medical evidence which transpired after the Court of Appeal’s 2015 decision showed there was a powerful probability that the Court of Appeal made an error in convicting the accused.

  • 2018

We had conduct of the further evidential hearing before Justice Lee. In a reported judgment Public Prosecutor v Hamidah Binte Awang and another [2019] SGHC 161, we had successfully persuaded Justice Lee that:- (a) Ilechukwu had previously suffered from PTSD  as a result of witnessing a massacre at his hometown in Nigeria when he was a child; and (b) when Ilechukwu was giving his CNB statements in 2011, Ilechukwu was suffering from some PTSS.

3. Conclusion

On 17 September 2020, the Court of Appeal, by a majority of 4-1, reversed its own decision to convict Ilechukwu of the capital charge of drug trafficking. Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, Senior Judge Chao Hick Tin, and Judges of Appeal Judith Prakash and Andrew Phang ruled in Ilechukwu’s favour while Judge of Appeal Tay Yong Kwang dissented.

In a media statement released by the legal team:

We are delighted that justice has prevailed.

It has been a long and hard-fought pro bono case, involving specialist psychiatric evidence and issues of cross-cultural sensitivities.

Had it not been for the fortuitous production of the IMH report, our client would have been sentenced to death or life imprisonment.