Lawyer course

Lawyer for 2005 Orchard Road body parts killer explains why he doesn’t seek ‘truth’ in criminal cases – Mothership.SG

Shashi Nathan, a criminal trial lawyer, still remembers the intricate details of a murder case he handled more than 15 years ago, in 2006 – that of Guen Aguilar, a Filipino woman charged with the murder of a fellow domestic worker.

It was a horrific case that began with a cleaner finding a bag containing the head and limbs of the deceased somewhere near the Orchard MRT station, followed closely by the discovery of his torso in a suitcase at the park. MacRitchie Reservoir.

“From the public’s point of view, it’s macabre, you know? You see a dismembered body – the head in one place, the body parts in another place,” Shashi says, recalling the initial public sentiment that “a terrible crime” had most certainly taken place.

The public’s appetite for more details about the case has been whetted by theories emerging from what little is known about the case. Shashi recalls a few:

“The [were] all kinds of rumors are going around…you know, what happened to that girl? Why would two girls fight? Why should one cut up the body of the other? Did she die by the cut – which would have been a pretty gruesome way to die? Was there a man involved, were they arguing over a man?

In the midst of it all, Shashi came to realize that there could be diplomatic repercussions if not handled well.

Called upon to defend the accused in such circumstances, Shashi’s first thought was to “get a clear view” and block out the “noise” that would have kept him from concentrating on the task at hand:

“I said to my team…to ​​defend them, we can’t be too affected by all this noise. We really need to look at this case, from the basics, understand the story from what it tells us, and then look at the evidence independently.

Shashi recalls how her team sat down with Aguilar — first to find out her story, then to see if what she said could be backed up with evidence.

Proof and truth: related but distinct concepts

This has been Shashi’s approach in the hundreds of criminal cases he has handled over the years – examining the evidence and studying how it supports (or doesn’t) support his case.

Proof, Shashi says, is the lawyer’s goal. For him, it is not something to be confused with the idea of ​​truth.

“Truth is often confused with evidence.

Evidence is what the court needs to come to a certain finding or conclusion. The truth, or your own belief in the truth, is not the same as evidence in court.

After all, Shashi explains, a defendant’s honest belief in his or her own story is not enough to win a case.

In Aguilar’s case, as Shashi and his team discovered, the fight between the two women had started as a dispute over money and, according to Aguilar, she had no intention of killing the other woman.

As Shashi discovered from Aguilar’s account, the two women were in fact close friends, who had financial difficulties and resorted to loans from illegal moneylenders. The women had discussed the refund issue, which turned into a heated argument and then a fight.

While Aguilar admitted to killing the deceased, she maintained that it happened suddenly and during the fight.

As Shashi tells us the story, he also points out the evidence that supports Aguilar’s story: when she was arrested, strangulation marks on her neck and bruises from the fight were observed.

Another key fact that supported Aguilar’s case was the pathology report and other forensic evidence. These suggested that the body was not cut up until a day and a half after the deceased’s death and supported Aguilar’s claim that the dismemberment was not an act of cold-blooded murder, but rather an act to get rid of evidence.

Defense lawyers were thus able to demonstrate that there was “a time gap” between the fight and the dismemberment of the deceased, Shashi said. This turned out to be a key distinction that led the prosecution to pursue a reduced charge of culpable homicide, instead of a murder charge.

“If you don’t have evidence to justify yourself, or to back up your truth, you will lose,” he said evenly.

Shashi Nathan in his Raffles Place office. Photo by Berlinda Ang.

Different Understandings of Truth

“There are many truths,” Shashi says wisely, giving the example of a corruption case to illustrate the point.

“A person can say, ‘Oh, that person offered me $100 to do this. I think he tried to bribe me. That’s a truth. That’s a person’s subjective interpretation of it. ‘a conversation.

But the other person says, ‘No, actually, I wanted to thank you for something you did before.’ [Or] You know, maybe I owed someone money, so I want to give it back, but there’s no intention to bribe it.

In both of their minds they think they are telling the truth. But they both have two different understandings of the truth.

The legal system, where cases are decided in court, steps in “to determine what truth to believe…and how to deal with that truth,” Shashi explains.

Trust and integrity in “a noble profession”

In the midst of this, a lawyer’s role is to focus on the evidence and make arguments about how that evidence should be treated or interpreted.

And while lawyers are sometimes thought to only focus on evidence that serves their clients’ case, Shashi is clear that such behavior crosses a line.

“Presenting evidence in such a way that … the court sees a biased version of the evidence, or tailoring your client’s evidence so that it fits your case theory, is not acceptable,” he says. .

Shashi understands the many challenges that lawyers face (client demands and deadlines, financial considerations, the need to seek out junior lawyers and their development), which could lead them to take shortcuts.

Although an unscrupulous lawyer may “get away with it once or twice,” getting caught has implications that go beyond the outcome of the case.

“Forget the client and forget the deal – you might lose that deal. [But] the next time you come to court, the judge will always be thinking, “That guy, the last time he tried to do that. Even if you do your job correctly, present the evidence correctly, the judge will be like, ‘Do I trust this guy?’ »

But, he says, lawyers who are in it for the long haul had better not risk their own reputations. A single mistake can end a career, after all.

It’s no wonder Shashi takes a tough stance on anyone who would take such shortcuts for the sake of his client’s instructions or the theory of the case. In his opinion, they should stop practicing altogether.

“It can take years, maybe a lifetime, to build and cement your relationship, your reputation in court. You can lose it in a few words.

No “different justices” in the judicial system

In Shashi’s view, Singapore’s justice system is sometimes unfairly criticized by onlookers following reports of “outside watching” cases.

Critical comments from “keyboard warriors” who don’t know the facts sometimes catch his eye – such as comments about cases he’s involved in.

A recent case he handled prompted comments that the defendant “must come from a wealthy family”, with a “wealthy lawyer” charging exorbitant fees to secure a favorable outcome in court.

Shashi recalls ignoring the comments, falling back on his own personal experience with the justice system, saying “no wealthy family gets different justice.”

“I know some people think that in Singapore there are different judges for different people. I want to say this categorically. Because I’ve handled enough cases, I’ve treated extremely wealthy clients and cashless clients. And we did the same for both. I know the criminal justice system treats everyone fairly.

Shashi admits that people can come to their conclusions based on progress reports on a case without following it closely, or by reading what’s being said on social media. But he argues that people should know more about the issue to have a thorough understanding before passing judgement.

To understand this view, one should perhaps bear in mind that Shashi is not just a lawyer who has worked in the system for nearly three decades. He also worked on the system, in various capacities over the years, to develop and improve it.

Work on the system

As a senior criminal bar official, Shashi has closely monitored what he calls “the tripartite relationship” between “the bar, the bench (i.e. the judges) and the prosecution”.

It’s a relationship that’s grown stronger and stronger, particularly over the past decade, he says, something he’s witnessed firsthand while serving in various capacities as chairman of the Criminal Practices Committee, Then and Now, Singapore Academy of Sciences. Law’s chapter on criminal justice.

“There’s this misperception that we’re all against each other,” Shashi says. Although it is an adversarial system, defense and prosecution are “cogs in the same wheel”, he says.

Who should be a lawyer?

Understanding that lawyers are cogs in a larger system is something Shashi says can only be acquired over time, through experience.

Something that cannot be acquired through experience, however, is the “right” motivation for work.

“A lot of young people come and say ‘I want to do law’. But they are simply not suitable for this. They do it because their parents want them to do it, they do it because, ‘Oh it’s cool to be a lawyer.’ But I think we need more than that,” Shashi reflects.

Law can be a good job that pays decent pay, and Shashi admits many practice for the money. But for him, money alone doesn’t explain the fact that he’s still excited about coming to work every day.

Instead, it’s the constant challenge of fighting cases, doing something different every day, and having that awareness of the difference a good lawyer can make in a case that keeps him coming back for more. .

After 28 years in practice, the senior lawyer still insists he has more to learn and more to give.

“You know, when I leave this job one day, I want to feel like we made a difference,” he says.

Top image via Nigel Chua.

This article sponsored by Withers KhattarWong LLP helped the writer feel much more educated.