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Apex court reserves judgment on appropriate jail term for man who killed elderly woman in botched robbery

For robbing and killing 62-year-old Madam Kanne Lactmy, 51-year-old P Mageswaran was convicted of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and given a jail term of 18 years by the High Court.

Both the Prosecution and the Defence, however, were not satisfied with the sentence and continued to push for their respective positions on the appropriate jail term for Mageswaran as in the court below, even before the apex court of the land on Thursday (21 February).

The Prosecution was asking for the Court of Appeal – comprising Judge of Appeal Judith Prakash, Judge of Appeal Steven Chong and Justice Woo Bih Li – to jail Mageswaran for life, while the Defence argued that Mageswaran’s jail term should be significantly reduced; in particular, as he did not have the intention to kill Mdm Lactmy.

Mageswaran and Madam Lactmy were not strangers; the former used to work for the latter’s older son and attended their family gatherings. On the fateful day of 9 December 2013, Mageswaran went to Madam Lactmy’s flat in Yishun to borrow money. However, Madam Lactmy replied that she did not have that amount of money.

While Madam Lactmy went to brush her teeth, Mageswaran searched the flat and found a box containing jewellery and pawnshop tickets. He was caught red-handed by her, and he pleaded with her to give him the box, but she refused and threatened to call her son. As a result, he ended up suffocating her with a pillow using his right hand and strangled her with his left hand, thereby killing her.

Mageswaran, who lived in Johor Bahru around the period when the offence took place, was arrested a week later at Woodlands Checkpoint when he returned to Singapore. He was subsequently charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder. Mageswaran never denied killing Madam Lactmy, but denied that he had the intention to do so, which would have meant that he could only face a jail term of up to 10 years by law, instead of up to 20 years or life imprisonment in culpable homicide cases where there is an intention to kill.

In May 2017, Justice Hoo Sheau Peng convicted Mageswaran as charged, finding that he had the intention to kill at the time of the offence. However, she disagreed with the Prosecution that Mageswaran should be jailed for life. Instead, after considering several sentencing guidelines and precedents, she sentenced Mageswaran to 18 years’ imprisonment in July 2017.

At the appeal hearing, Mr Derek Kang, Mageswaran’s lawyer, first argued that the evidence available had raised reasonable doubts as to whether Mageswaran had an intention to kill at the time of the offence. For instance, he pointed to the fact that Mageswaran left the flat and did not continue suffocating Madam Lactmy, even though she was still showing signs of life; this probably indicated a lack of intention to kill her.

As such, as Mr Kang submitted, Mageswaran could be said to only have the knowledge that his actions were likely to kill Madam Lactmy, such that Mageswaran could only be jailed for up to 10 years by law. Mr Kang also took the position, in response to Justice Woo’s query, that even if Mageswaran was found to have an intention to kill, or hurt Madam Lactmy in a way that was likely to kill her, the jail term of 18 years should still be reduced, relying on various sentencing precedents for culpable homicide cases.

Chief Prosecutor Kow Keng Siong, on behalf of the Prosecution, urged the court to set down guidelines as to when life imprisonment is appropriate in culpable homicide cases. He also argued that in such cases where there is an intention to kill, the starting point of the enquiry should be life imprisonment. In this regard, the motive of the accused and the manner in which the killing was carried out, were also relevant factors in the enquiry.

Justice Chong and Justice Woo expressed their philosophical views that, if the Prosecution had intended Mageswaran to be jailed for life, they could have charged Mageswaran for murder without an intention to kill and sought life imprisonment from the court much easier, instead of trying to forcefully classify the present case as one of the worst culpable homicide cases that justified life imprisonment as a punishment. This is due to the fact that life imprisonment is the minimum punishment for such a charge of murder.

At the conclusion of the two-hour hearing, the judges took a few minutes’ break before returning, where Justice Prakash announced that the court would reserve judgment and give its decision at a later date.