The innocent man who was nearly hanged

The prosecution’s case against Zainal Kuning appeared watertight. They had a confession from him that he had stabbed to death Ang Chye, 65, a caretaker of a Yishun coffeeshop, on 2 February 1989, in what was alleged to be a bungled burglary. Zainal fit the profile of a likely burglar — a manual labourer, aged 30. He must have needed money.

He was accused of the murder alongside his friend Salahuddin Ismail. Salahuddin’s brother, Mohmad Bashir Ismail, was also charged with murder originally, but had his charge reduced to burglary.

At the trio’s trial, however, Zainal denied that his confession was voluntarily given. He claimed that he had been tortured and police officers had led him to believe that his accomplices had already fingered him as the one who had stabbed the caretaker and that if he confessed, he might get a lesser sentence.

Unfortunately, it is quite common for defendants to claim that their confessions were extracted through torture and generally courts are skeptical. The police officers involved strenuously denied mistreating him. Justice T S Sinnathuray ruled that the confession was voluntary, and with that, Zainal’s fate was virtually sealed.

This case is recounted in Chapter One of a little-known book Lee’s Law: How Singapore crushes dissent, by Chris Lydgate, 2003. I should thank the Singapore Democratic Party for a brief reference to this case on their website — this was what led me to look up the book and the Straits Times’ stories myself.

Pages 5 and 6 of Chapter One describe  the torture Zainal claimed to have suffered. I shall spare readers the chilling details. Suffice it to say, it must have been severe enough to get someone to sign a confession that could lead straight to the hangman’s noose.

Other than the confession, however, the prosecution had no physical evidence that it was Zainal and Salahuddin who murdered the elderly man, or that they were even there at the coffeeshop that night. Despite this, the defendants’ chances looked extremely slim.

But Zainal was an extraordinarily lucky man. What happened next was a one-in-a-million kind of event. While in remand pending his trial sometime after his arrest on 18 February 1989, he met a fellow inmate who seemed to know something about his case. Quoting from page 2 of the book, this fellow inmate told him that he

. . . happened to overhear a group of men gossiping about the case. One of the men boasted that he had killed the caretaker himself, and even showed off the scars on his chest where, he said, the victim had flung a pan of boiling water at him. More remarkable yet, the inmate thought he remembers the name of the perpetrator: Man Semput.

Zainal related this to his lawyer, the late J B Jeyaretnam, but right up to the trial date, it proved too little to go on. With limited resources, Jeyaretnam could not find this person, despite spending several months on it. There was no trace of any person by this name. He couldn’t even find the witnesses who overheard this boast.

The last throw of the dice was to challenge prosecutors at the trial, which started in March 1992, to locate Man Semput using their vastly greater resources. And that led to a cliff-hanging conclusion:

At the eleventh hour, however, the court heard a dramatic revelation. The police had managed to track down Man Semput, whose real name was Mohd Sulaiman. Mohd denied any involvement in the crime; but, at Jeyaretnam’s request, he agreed to bare his chest — revealing severe scald marks.

As soon as Jeyaretnam saw the scars, he knew Mohd was the real killer. Now he thought he could prove it. During the murder investigation, police had lifted some fingerprints from a beer crate at the coffee shop, with inconclusive results — the prints were of poor quality, and did not match those of Zainal or the other two suspects. Now Jeyaretnam challenged prosecutors to run a check against Mohd.

On 6 May 1992, the thirty-sixth day of the trial, a police fingerprint expert finally testified that the prints from the crate had been identified as belonging to Mohd Sulaiman. Deputy public prosecutor Bala Reddy then told the judge that the prosecution was applying for this case to be “stayed” under Section 193 of the Criminal Procedure Code. For Zainal, this would mean a discharge not amounting to an acquittal; the charges against him could be revived at a later date.

Jeyaretnam objected and demanded an acquittal. The judge concurred. By then, Zainal Kuning had spent more than three years in jail since his arrest on 18 February 1989.

Mohd Sulaiman was promptly arrested.

* * * * *

I looked up the Straits Times for 7 May 1992, the day after Zainal and his co-accused were freed.

The case took up most of page 21, with a main story and two supporting stories. The main story, 2 acquitted of 1989 murder of caretaker, generally recounted the key events in the courtroom.

The first of the smaller stories took a human-interest angle.

But the last was the strangest. Headlined High tech to the rescue: Fingerprints pointed the way in arrest of suspect yesterday, the leading thrust of the story was the superiority of police forensic work, with the new high-speed fingerprint system solving the case!

To read the scanned copies of the Straits Times stories, click the thumbnails. Do read the accounts carefully, and you will notice that the word “torture” cannot be found anywhere in the newspaper’s reports. As author Chris Lydgate says in his book,

One issue the paper did not raise, however, was the disturbing question of why three men would all confess to a murder they did not commit — knowing that the penalty was death.

* * * * *

How many other people have been convicted of murder in a similar way, without corroborating physical evidence?  But also without the fantastic luck that Zainal Kuning had?

What are the implications of a case like this? I will discuss this further in a follow-up article.

33 Responses to “The innocent man who was nearly hanged”

  1. 1 Roy 20 August 2010 at 15:05

    There is a Hollywood movie in there waiting to happen. Someone should do a screenplay.

  2. 3 George 20 August 2010 at 15:55

    That was some 20 years ago. I suspect that JBJ was able to go as far as he did to defend the accused partly because of his previous position as a district judge. But sadlt,looking at how our police and judiciary has been ‘transformed’ (think politicized) today, a repeat seems unlikely, but this is only my own feel and opinion. The LHL govt feels itself too besieged to allow any suggestion that there anything but perfection in what it does.

  3. 4 meiming 20 August 2010 at 22:21

    This case should be a MUST READ for law students.

  4. 5 bk 20 August 2010 at 23:11

    hi alex you have really done much good and noble work by highlighting this particular case. quite shocking though the details. that the msm reported the way they did is truly deplorable.I am sure there are more to come…

  5. 6 beast686 21 August 2010 at 00:38

    This is exactly the point why the death penalty should never be a part of any judiciary punishment: Send the guy to jail, for life if necessary. Let him have his breath so he can have the chance to prove his innocence if he or she is indeed innocent.

    Lawyers, especially prosecutors, tend to be overzealous in persecuting criminals, even to the extent of covering up the obvious evidence. A prosecutor, after all, won’t stay a prosecutor for too long if he keeps losing cases. No law system is perfect.

    At least, if a person is jailed and eventually proves himself innocent, he can be compensated accordingly (Not exactly fair, but better than nothing). You can’t compensate someone who is already dead.

    • 7 KT 21 August 2010 at 10:25

      ‘You can’t compensate someone who is already dead.’

      Yes you can! By hanging the person(s) responsible for the wrongful conviction. That would be the pro-capital punishment camp’s logic.

  6. 9 beast686 21 August 2010 at 00:42

    “One issue the paper did not raise, however, was the disturbing question of why three men would all confess to a murder they did not commit — knowing that the penalty was death.”

    Could they have been duped by the prosecutor who enticed them to confess by offering downgrading from murder to manslaughter (Which I think is ten or twenty years)???

    • 10 KiWeTO 21 August 2010 at 01:13

      Deprived of food and water,

      bright light in your eyes

      Cold cold aircon with thin clothing

      No toilets

      harangued by investigating officers wanting a confession (so that they can close the case and go home.)

      Possibly the occasional use of more forceful methods such as a telephone book.

      Lack of professional counsel.

      Even if you didn’t do it, you might confess just to change your environment. Which seems to be the impression I get from some police people (and SBC/TCS/mediacorp)here that they aren’t below minor but effective inconveniences intended to elicit the ‘truth’.

      Deniability – wonderful word.
      (which Firefox spelling doesn’t like!)

      Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

      [lemme see – “trust us, we are the good guys”?]
      [perhaps I will believe it when we have a truly independent ombudsman/review commission. What is truly independent? People of social responsibility NOT of the government. Clerics come to mind.]

  7. 11 Kenneth 21 August 2010 at 01:59

    With respect Alex you mention a short notice on The SDP website which drew your attention to this case but I actually refer to it in more length in my Press release about The Death Penalty in December 2009. It can be found under Press releases on our website and I’ve taken the liberty of pasting the relevant paragraph here in case the link doesn’t work. My father worked tirelessly and usually for no fee on behalf of death row inmates but this was one rare instance where his hard work bore fruit. It was one of my father’s proudest moments. I also drew attention to the Book, Lee’s Law by Chris Lydgate several times on my FB page and I have a spare copy at the office should anyone care to read it.

    From Press release 2009
    “I personally am against the use of the death penalty in all but the most extreme circumstances. Once carried out, it is impossible to reverse and give life back to someone who has been the victim of a miscarriage of justice whereas other penalties permit the possibility of redress. I recall the case of Zainal Kuning, Mohammed Bashir Ismail and Salahuddin Ismail who confessed to a murder in 1989 and would have been convicted and sentenced to death at their trial in 1992 were it not for my father’s, the late J.B. Jeyaretnam, efforts in forcing the prosecution to re-examine the physical evidence and reveal that it implicated another individual and not his clients. If they had been executed and subsequently it had been discovered that another person was guilty of the crime it would have been too late to make amends and for justice to be served.”

  8. 14 Robox 21 August 2010 at 07:09

    In Vignes Mourthy’s case, it was revealed that entrapment was involved, an entrapment that saw him lose his life.

    Here, confessions made under duress were made to try and send the men to their deaths.

    I really have to wonder at what I see as the anxiety that seems to drive the actions of these law enforcement officers, especially in light of the oft-heard rumour that law enforment officers are (or used to be) required to make a certain quota of arrests. (This rumour was confirmed to me by an ex-policeman, although he avered that ‘the practise was probably already on thh decline’.)

  9. 15 raph 21 August 2010 at 07:42

    Good detective work, Alex. Congratulations. We may be on different sides when it comes to human sexuality but we are united against injustice and the mandatory death sentence.

  10. 16 Hmmmmm...... 21 August 2010 at 07:43

    Hmmmmmmmmm…………… How do we trust the men in uniform now???

  11. 17 Lucky Tan 21 August 2010 at 08:39


    Thanks for sharing this story.


    There was a similar story in Steven’s Kings book which was made into Hollywood movie Shawshank Redemption. The protaganist, Andy, was accused and oonvicted of killing his own wife but met a prisioner while in jail who knew the real killer. This prisioner was killed by the warden who wanted to keep Andy in jail because Andy helped to keep the books for the corrupt scheme he was running and he was afraid Andy might rat on him if he was released.

  12. 18 teo soh lung 21 August 2010 at 10:21

    It is unbelievable that after a 36 day life and death hearing and 3 years in jail, Bala Reddy had asked for the 3 accused to be discharged not amounting to an acquittal. In a decent country, the case would have caused an uproar and commissions of inquiry would have been set up to investigate the horrendous bungle. What happened here was quietly forgotten – the prosecutor, the police and the judges continued with their work as if nothing had happened. I understand that the 3 were subsequently made bankrupts by the attorney general when they failed to pay his costs.

    • 19 yawningbread 21 August 2010 at 10:44

      Made bankrupt? This I didn’t know. However it is possible because Chris Lydgate’s book contains a brief mention of what followed:

      The three men subsequently launched a suit against the officer who questioned them, accusing the police of wrongful arrest, torture, malicious prosecution, and defamation. They lost that suit, and subsequent appeal — all with little fanfare.

      It is possible that after losing the suit, they were required to pay the Attorney-General’s costs. Let’s see if we can dig up the appeal judgement to verify those facts.

      • 20 Mohan 21 August 2010 at 11:52

        They lost the suit and were ordered to pay costs (see Zainal bin Kuning v Chan Sin Mian Michael, [1996] 2 SLR(R) 858; [1996] SGCA 47). Whether they were bankrupted after that, I don’t know.

  13. 21 wtf 21 August 2010 at 14:11

    The most important lesson from this is how can the persecutor bring about a case against these individuals when there is no physical evidence against these people? What kind of judges do we have? All a bunch of useless bananas. Why would 3 individuals admit to something they didn’t do? Why didn’t the judge investigate the claims of torture by the defendants? Can any form of monetary compensation to the 3 men who were almost doomed to be executed ever be enough? How can we let things become like this? It can be you or me in their situation tomorrow.

    No words can describe the disgust I have for our law enforcement agencies. There is nothing moral or ethical in the way they do things.

  14. 22 George 21 August 2010 at 14:56

    So Alan Shakdrake’s stories are very credible.

    Surely the law under which he is being charged cannot be made to protect what can be potentially very wrong? As a people are we helpless to clean up and remove such moral perversity and corruption?

  15. 23 prettyplace 21 August 2010 at 16:03

    Wonderful informative work again, Alex.

    I am staring at my screen not knowing what to or even how to start writing a comment on such a case.

    I know JBJ, the man himself, we have spoken before, an angry man but nevertheless a righteous one, with strong qualities, one can only read in fictitious novels, these days.
    Should, I comment on his heroically intelligent and tireless work, strongly believing and trusing his client.

    Or the slipshod work of the police force then and hope they have improved. But wait, we still have the Vignes case.

    How can an honest man lose his recourse in court?
    I just don’t know what to feel, emotions are blurring my thoughts.

    Where should we go from here?
    My mind has only 1 solution and that is to get the PAP kicked out. I know its not a comprehensive solution, but I hope it will be a start.

  16. 24 Clear eyed 21 August 2010 at 18:16

    How long more before this corrupt regime is booted out? There can be no justice, decency and humanity here as long as it is in power. We have to save ourselves, before it is too late.

  17. 26 Shaun Liew 22 August 2010 at 09:50

    In Singapore, the police write statements for you and ask you to sign. Statements are pre-prepared for some cases. Little or no investigation is carried out, criminals are assumed to be guilty, and will be charged as such.

    There is a fundamental problem with the whole law system.

  18. 27 lordrobert 22 August 2010 at 10:29

    I am shocked as this is the first time I came here to have a look see. The whole justice system in the case of the 3 who were framed is a shame. The whole lot shoul dbe taken to task. Why don’t true blue Singaporeans get together at a venue and discuss this. It may have happened more than 20 years but the 3 are innocent and the sytem is wrong we need to make it right. In UK the public gave up to 45000solutions to help the elected Government in running the country and the cabinet is lookking through.
    The justice system in Singapore needs to be changed. PeaceN Love

    • 28 KT 22 August 2010 at 11:10

      Most Singaporeans are not interested. You can’t buy a house or car with justice.

      • 29 rojakgirl 22 August 2010 at 20:52

        I don’t think it’s just apathy. For many who’re busy working and struggling to live or to provide for their family, I don’t think they have the time to even think about anything but bread and butter issues.

  19. 30 Lee 23 August 2010 at 13:54

    Some things in this whole affair bother me very much.
    1. How can an admission of guilt in anything but the open court that is to decide on the question of the defendant’s guilt be considered as an admissible confession? Does not the defendant enter a plea with the court rather than with the police?
    2. It seems to me that the defendant had to prove his own innocence, as opposed to the prosecution bearing the burden of proof and conclusively establish the defendant’s guilt. Is there not a presumption of innocence?
    3. Now that everyone believes that the guy did no murder, does it not lend credence to Zainal’s original claim of having been tortured into confession?

  20. 31 deborah 6 July 2011 at 23:03

    the articles make sound remand prison and waiting to be acquitted sound like a holiday in a resort hotel.

  21. 32 elmolulu 7 July 2011 at 12:37

    This article reminded me of Ron Williamson in The Innocent Man, a true story written by John Grisham. Williamson, a mentally ill man, spent 11 years on death row (1988-1994) for a murder he didn’t commit, all no thanks to “police evidence” and dubious witnesses. He lacked medical attention while in jail and passed away from ill health in 2004.

  22. 33 E 7 July 2011 at 13:53

    Check out

    It´s a collection of true cases in the United States of people who have been convicted of crimes, but were later lucky enough to be exonerated based on DNA evidence.

    In many instances, people have been wrongly convicted even with solid eyewitness accounts. Unfortunately, the human memory is malleable – it’s more like a reconstruction of events than a video recording.

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