Accused found guilty of lesser charge of culpable homicide

A 71-year-old taxi driver, who hit his lawyer's wife on the head with a bicycle chain and set fire to the law office with the woman still inside, was yesterday cleared of murder.

Instead, Govindasamy Nallaiah, who was in a fee dispute with the lawyer, was found guilty by the High Court of a lesser charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder.

The prosecution and defence were given two weeks to prepare sentencing arguments.

Govindasamy now faces a maximum of 10 years' jail and a fine for killing Madam Low Foong Meng in her husband's office on the sixth floor of the Afro Asia Building in August 2011. He cannot be caned as he is over 50 years old.

He originally faced life imprisonment or death for murder when, in a very rarely invoked provision, he was charged with committing an act he knew was "so imminently dangerous that it must in all probability cause death".

Delivering the verdict in court yesterday, Judicial Commissioner Hoo Sheau Peng found that the prosecution had not proved beyond reasonable doubt that Govindasamy's act of setting fire to the office was so imminently dangerous that it would in all probability cause death.

Govindasamy did not dispute that he started the fire. However, the defence argued that he did not know his actions would be so dangerous that they would lead to certain death.

For an act to fall within the provision, the risk posed must be such that the probability of death "approximates to a practical certainty", said the judicial commissioner.

She accepted that Govindasamy had gone to the office with ill intent, knocked Madam Low unconscious and then started the fire.

She said: "I have no hesitation in finding that the act was dangerous and that death was likely."

But she said it was not proved that death was a certainty.

She gave three main reasons for finding Govindasamy guilty of a lesser offence, and not murder.

First, Madam Low, who suffered three non-fatal wounds and five shallow skull fractures from the assault, was not so badly injured that she did not regain consciousness; she was also not completely immobile.

Madam Low was conscious for at least 20 minutes after the fire was started. Her husband - Mr Rengarajoo Rengasamy Balasamy - and a deliveryman had heard her screams.

Second, Govindasamy did not use any accelerant and did not set out to "torch everything in sight", but had set fire only to a secretary's table.

Third, the judicial commissioner noted, escape was not impossible. The office door was unlocked and Govindasamy did not restrain the victim after hitting her.

The court had heard during the trial last year that Govindasamy owed Mr Rengarajoo, a childhood friend, $38,000 in legal fees incurred when the lawyer represented him in a 2002 corruption trial.

He was given a deadline to pay up by Aug 10, 2011. That morning, he went to Mr Rengarajoo's office and tried to negotiate with Madam Low.

He took out a bicycle chain and padlock and hit her on the head until she collapsed. He then used a lighter to set some files on a table on fire before fleeing, leaving Madam Low inside.

Yesterday, Govindasamy did not show any expression on hearing the verdict. His daughter, Ms Letchmi Ghandi Govindasamy, 45, wiped away tears and said the family was hoping for the best.

Govindasamy's lawyer, Mr R. Thrumurgan, said his client was sorry for what had happened and grateful to the court for listening to his side of the story.

Rarely used legal provision

Govindasamy Nallaiah was charged with murder under Section 300(d) of the Penal Code - a provision that is very rarely invoked. There is no known case of anyone convicted of murder in Singapore under this section, Judicial Commissioner Hoo Sheau Peng noted while giving her oral decision yesterday.

The provision is unique because out of the four forms of murder in the Penal Code, it is the only one that does not require the prosecution to prove an intention to cause death or injury.

Under the provision, a killing amounts to murder if the person commits an act knowing it is so imminently dangerous that it must in all probability cause death or fatal injury, without any excuse for incurring such a risk.

To illustrate this, the Penal Code gives the scenario of a person who, without any excuse, fires a loaded cannon into a crowd of people and kills one of them. Under the law, the person is guilty of murder, even though he may not have had a premeditated plan to kill any particular individual.

The difference between murder under Section 300(d) and culpable homicide is one of degree.

In Govindasamy's case, the High Court found that his act was only "likely" to cause death, hence he was guilty of culpable homicide not amounting to murder.

"If (death) is the most probable result, it is murder," said the judicial commissioner.

This article was first published on Feb 17, 2016.
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