Court of Appeal orders new trial for drug trafficker who failed in retracting guilty plea at first instance

A 47-year-old Malaysian bus driver, who was given a jail term of 26 years and 15 strokes of the cane after he pleaded guilty to drug trafficking in the High Court, will have a second chance to defend himself against the charge, as the Court of Appeal allowed his appeal on Tuesday (26 March) morning and sent his case back for a re-trial before another High Court judge.

The reason: He changed his mind about pleading guilty and wanted to retract his plea of guilt right before he was sentenced.

Mangalagiri Dhruva Kumar was accused of having passed 22.73g of diamorphine (heroin) to one Shanti Krishnan in May 2014. The heroin was then passed by Shanti to one Zainudin bin Mohamed in exchange for cash. The amount of heroin involved may attract the death penalty.

Both Shanti and Zainudin were then arrested that same day, while Mangalagiri was only arrested more than a year later in September 2015.

Shanti and Zainudin were both found guilty of drug trafficking after a trial. Shanti was sentenced to life imprisonment, while Zainudin’s death sentence had been executed in October last year, after their appeals were both dismissed.

Mangalagiri initially claimed trial to the capital charge in July 2017. His lawyer then, Mr Edmond Pereira, had made representations to the Prosecution for the charge to be reduced.

On the fourth day of the trial, Mangalagiri officially pleaded guilty to the reduced charge, and the matter was adjourned for sentencing.

When the parties returned to court in September 2017 for sentencing, Mangalagiri wanted to retract his plea of guilt. Mr Pereira then discharged himself from acting for Mangalagiri, and Mr Ramesh Tiwary was appointed in his place to proceed with the application to retract the plea of guilt.

Judicial Commissioner Foo Chee Hock, having read the affidavits of Mangalagiri and Mr Pereira as to the sequence of events leading to the plea of guilt, was satisfied that Mangalagiri understood the nature of the offence and facts to which he pleaded guilty to.

This was, therefore, “insufficient in law to enable him to retract his plea”, wrote JC Foo in his grounds of decision subsequently.

He also noted various material inconsistencies between Mangalagiri’s account on the one hand, and Mr Pereira’s account and the objective evidence on the other.

This, in JC Foo’s view, casted “serious doubts” as to whether Mangalagiri had acted with good faith or truthfulness in seeking to retract the plea of guilt.

However, the Court of Appeal – comprising Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, Judge of Appeal Judith Prakash and Senior Judge Chao Hick Tin – held that Mangalagiri should be allowed to retract his plea of guilt, as Mangalagiri did not abuse the process of the court in applying so.

In so doing, the court followed the approach in the recent case of Dinesh s/o Rajantheran, where the court decided that accused persons should generally be allowed to retract their guilty pleas if they are doing so before sentencing, unless there was an abuse of process.

Mangalagiri was not represented by any lawyer during the appeal hearing on Monday (25 March).

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