IF the truest test of a society’s integrity is how it protects its most vulnerable members, the death of a 14-year-old following an unaccompanied and unrecorded police “interview” is tragic proof of our abject failure.
Benjamin Lim was a 14-year-old student who allegedly molested a girl. After obtaining positive identification from the school, police officers “took” him away for a three-hour “interview” without his parents’ consent. During Benjamin’s “interview”, his mother’s request to see him was denied. When she asked to review the evidence, she was rebuffed. Upon release, Benjamin tells his mother that he confessed to a crime he did not commit. Hours later, he killed himself.
Questions abound. Why was Benjamin taken away without the permission of his parents? Did the police overstep their authority and unlawfully detain an innocent individual? Or were they arresting a suspect based on sound evidence? If Benjamin was indeed arrested, why is his interrogation being called an “interview”? What happened during the course of this three-hour interrogation and why was he not allowed to see his mother?
Crowning these questions is the nagging suspicion that Benjamin killed himself because he had been compelled to confess to a crime he did not commit—the punishment and stigma of which would ruin the rest of his life.
Although suicide is, by definition, the victim’s own action, it does not mean that no one may be held liable for causing it. Even if the victim was mentally sound, the chain of causation, while disrupted by the intervening act of suicide, is still relevant. In a 1960 ruling, the California Court of Appeal reasoned that since an individual who abuses his victim may be held liable for his victim’s self-inflicted injuries, the same logic applies if the self-inflicted injury causes death. Or in other words, if abuse leads to suicide, the perpetrator’s abuse may be considered a proximate cause of the victim’s death. Therefore, moral and legal culpability apply (subject to other considerations such as intention and foreseeability). Some may disagree with the example and cite that Singapore is not California, but since the logic here is not place-dependent, we may consider the objection irrelevant.
“Justice demands that we determine if there was any police misconduct.”
All of this is not to say that the police officers involved should be held liable for Benjamin’s death. Rather, it means that we cannot exclude the possibility that these officers were responsible, which in turn means that a transparent and thorough investigation into possible police misconduct is necessary. And if there has been any misconduct, questions need to be asked about the flaws in our justice system which allow officers to compel false confessions out of minors.
As with all unnatural deaths, a police investigation is routine. However, it cannot merely be routine—as is so often the case with the opaque institutions in power. This is not merely a matter of appeasing the public or dispelling doubts about the police’s integrity—it is a matter of justice.
Justice demands that we determine if there was any police misconduct. Justice demands that we determine if undue pressure was applied on Benjamin to make him confess. Justice demands that we determine if there is something systematically wrong with the way we deny legal counsel, or any kind of advice for that matter, to suspects, even one as young as Benjamin. Justice demands that something like this never happens again to anyone. It demands that those who ignore the warnings of our own jurists be held to account.
These issues are not new. The right to legal counsel was reviewed only a few years ago. In 2012, Assistant Professor of Law at Singapore Management University, Jack Lee, recommended that suspects be granted the right to legal counsel during interrogations, and to be informed of such rights. In addition, Professor Lee recommended that suspects be granted “a reasonable opportunity to consult and obtain advice from family members or other appropriate persons.”
Unfortunately, despite all the legal wrangling and the debates in Parliament (if they may be called debates), state supremacy remains the order of the day. For all the PISA and TIMS rankings that we top, the powers that be continue to deny the necessity of an adversarial process. They deny the possibility that overzealous police officers may make serious mistakes. And they remain blind to the contradiction of perpetuating injustice to pursue justice.
A life was cut short. A lifetime of potential was prematurely terminated. While this precise sequence of events is unlikely to repeat itself, it is almost certain that the rights of suspects are being arbitrarily suppressed on a daily basis by a justice system so blinded by its need for control that it cannot manage uncertainty. As a result, the freedom and aspirations of many innocents, together with our ideals of fairness and justice, are crushed every time we leave defendants at the mercy of the paranoid state. If the abrupt ending of a 14-year-old boy’s life does not force us to reconsider our systemic disregard for the rights of suspects, nothing will.