Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Depressed man spared the gallows

Bus driver who killed teenage step-daughter escapes hanging…
ST Nov 9, 2010 By Selina Lum

EVEN as he strangled the teenage girl, intermittently smashing her head against the floor, former private bus driver Ong Pang Siew kept apologising to her. After his 15-year-old stepdaughter passed out, Ong alternated between laughing and crying - kneeling next to her, sitting on her and banging his head against the wall.

He also made two phone calls - one to his boss to say he could not work the next day and the other to his brother, saying he was going to commit suicide. Ong, who was 45 at the time, also asked for his ashes to be thrown into the sea. Ong's bizarre behaviour showed that his mental state was abnormal at the time, the Court of Appeal ruled yesterday, as it overturned a murder conviction against him.

The appeals court said Ong was suffering from depression, which reduced his responsibility for the killing. Ong was convicted of the lesser charge of culpable homicide and is now looking at a maximum sentence of life imprisonment - instead of the mandatory death penalty for murder.

He had been sentenced to hang by the High Court in March last year for strangling his China-born stepdaughter, Pan Hui, in her Marsiling home in October 2007. Two weeks before the killing, Pan Hui's mother, Madam Xiu Yanhong, was granted a divorce from Ong and custody of the teenager and their son, who is now seven.

In July, Ong appealed against the murder conviction. His lawyer Subhas Anandan argued the man did not intend to kill his stepdaughter and that even if he was legally responsible for Pan Hui's death, he was suffering from a mental illness and qualified for the defence of diminished responsibility.

Defence psychiatrist Tommy Tan had diagnosed Ong to be suffering from a major depressive disorder. But prosecution psychiatrist Jerome Goh, from the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), testified that Ong did not suffer from mental illness.

Yesterday, the appeals court, comprising Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong, Justice Andrew Phang and Justice V. K. Rajah, held that Ong had intended to kill or cause lethal injuries to Pan Hui.
However, the judges found that Dr Tan's diagnosis provided a more convincing explanation for Ong's behaviour at the time. Justice Rajah, who delivered the decision, said the court had based the decision on a critical examination of the testimonies of the two psychiatrists.

The first factor, he noted, was that defence witness Dr Tan had conducted his interviews in the Hokkien dialect, which Ong was more comfortable with. In contrast, Dr Goh, testifying for the prosecution, conducted his examination in Mandarin.

Second, Dr Tan interviewed more people who had interacted with Ong to get a more detailed account of his mental health while Dr Goh interviewed two of Ong's siblings and focused largely on their personal history of mental disorder.

Third, although both psychiatrists knew that Ong had a family history of mental illness, Dr Goh placed less emphasis on this factor.

Justice Rajah said the court also considered the psychiatrists' respective professional experience.

Dr Tan, who has 15 years' experience as a psychiatrist, had testified many times for the prosecution in death penalty cases. Dr Goh, an associate consultant at the IMH for eight years, was testifying for the first time in such a case.

Ong will be sentenced by the High Court at a later date.

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