Murder vs Culpable Homicide in Singapore (and Penalties)
In Singapore, the act of a person killing of someone else is generally covered by the offences of murder and culpable homicide, along with related offences such as causing death by a rash or negligent act.
In this article, we will first differentiate murder and culpable homicide. This distinction is crucial, because the maximum punishment if one is convicted of murder is the death penalty, whereas culpable homicide attracts a comparatively milder imprisonment term, alongside possible caning and a fine.
We will then proceed to discuss the penalties that murder, culpable homicide and their related offences attract.
Throughout this article, caning will be mentioned as a possible penalty for certain offences. Do note that the sentencing option of caning in Singapore applies only to male offenders up to the age of 50 years, excluding those deemed medically unfit for caning.
Singapore’s murder offence does not distinguish murder in terms of degree (e.g. first or second-degree murder), unlike in the United States. Nonetheless, section 300 of the Penal Code provides for 4 ways through which murder may be committed, by committing an act that is:
1. Done with the intention to cause death
For example: A shoots B with the intention of killing him. B dies in consequence. A will be convicted of murder.
2. Done with the intention to cause bodily injury that A knows is likely to cause B’s death
- For example: A knows that B suffers from Von Willebrand disease, a disease that results in uncontrollable bleeding from even minor wounds. A scratches B with the intention of causing bodily injury. B dies from uncontrollable bleeding due to the scratch wound. A will be convicted of murder, even though an ordinary person without Von Willebrand disease would not have died from the same scratch.
3. Done with the intention to cause bodily injury to any person, and such bodily injury is sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death
- For example: A intentionally shoots B in the chest – a gunshot wound to the chest is sufficient to cause the death of any person. A did not intend for B to die, but B dies in consequence of being shot in the chest, as any person could have in the ordinary course of things. A will be convicted of murder.
4. So imminently dangerous that it must in all probability cause death, or such bodily injury as is likely to cause death, and A is aware of the aforesaid yet commits the act without any excuse for incurring the risk of causing death or such bodily injury
- For example: A shoots a machine gun into a crowd of shoppers at a shopping mall without any excuse. A did not have the intention to kill any particular shopper, but shooting a machine gun into a crowd is so imminently dangerous that it must cause death to any shopper, or injury that is likely to result in death of any shopper. A kills B who was among the crowd of shoppers. A will be convicted of murder.
If the accused’s acts do not fall within any of the above 4 situations, the accused may be liable for culpable homicide not amounting to murder instead.
Alternatively, if the accused can prove certain exceptions to murder, the accused may be able to have the murder charge reduced to culpable homicide not amounting to murder. This will be explained in greater detail later.
Penalties for the offence of murder
A person found guilty of murder by having done an act with the intention of causing death to the victim will be sentenced to death under section 302(1) of the Penal Code.
However, judges have the discretion under section 302(2) of the Penal Code to sentence offenders to either death or life imprisonment and caning, if they had committed murder through any of points 2 – 4 discussed above. This is a change from the position prior to 2012, when murder committed through all 4 ways discussed would have resulted in the mandatory death penalty for offenders.
The death penalty will be imposed over life imprisonment if the offender’s actions would outrage the feelings of the community—in the sense of being so grievous an affront to humanity, and so abhorrent, that imposing the death penalty would be appropriate.
Where the offender had acted in a way that exhibited viciousness or a blatant disregard for human life, the court is likely to find that the offender’s actions would outrage the feelings of the community, such that the death penalty should be imposed.
Even if death has not resulted from one’s act, one may still be liable for the offence of attempted murder under section 307 of the Penal Code, as long as the act had been committed with the intention of causing death.
Within this secondary offence of attempted murder, penalties for offenders depend on whether hurt has resulted from their actions, as follows:
- No hurt results: Offender may be imprisoned for up to 15 years and fined.
- Hurt results: Offender would be liable either for:
- Life imprisonment and caning; or
- Up to 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine and/or caning.
Culpable Homicide Not Amounting to Murder
Under section 299 of the Penal Code, there are 3 ways through which a person may be found guilty of culpable homicide not amounting to murder. These are if the person had committed an act with the:
- Intention to cause death;
- Intention to cause bodily injury as is likely to cause death; or
- Knowledge that he/she is likely to cause death.
Reducing a murder charge to a charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder
As stated previously, an accused person initially charged with murder may have his/her charge reduced to culpable homicide not amounting to murder if it cannot be proven that his/her acts fall within the 4 situations for murder mentioned above.
Alternatively, an accused person initially charged with murder may have his/her charge reduced to culpable homicide not amounting to murder, if exceptions to murder are made out in the accused’s defence.
For example, if the accused person had done an act with the intention to cause death, such an act could fall under both murder and culpable homicide not amounting to murder.
If that accused person had then been initially charged with murder, he/she may be able to have the murder charge reduced to culpable homicide not amounting to murder if he/she manages to prove an exception to murder in his/her defence.
The exceptions are as follows:
Exception 1: Accused (A) was deprived of self-control by grave and sudden provocation by the victim (B).
- For example: B spews extremely nasty insults at A, directed towards A’s family. Such insults were sufficiently grave and sudden, as a question of fact in the circumstances of A who dearly loves his family, to cause A to lose self-control and kill B.
Exception 2: A was using his right to defend himself or his property, and exceeded this right.
- For example: B forcibly enters A’s home to commit burglary. In A’s attempt to protect his various expensive sculptures from being stolen by B, he desperately pushes B away but accidentally pushes B down the stairs to his death.
Exception 3: A was either a public servant or aiding a public servant acting in good faith, without ill-will towards B and believing one’s act to be lawful and necessary for the due discharge of one’s duty.
- For example: A is a military regular serving in homeland security operations at Changi Airport. A spots B holding a gun and yelling hysterically that he intends to go on a stabbing spree. A shoots B dead but it later emerges that B is a mentally unstable and homeless man wielding a toy gun.
Exception 4: A was involved in a fight with B, resulting from a sudden quarrel. A was acting in the heat of the moment, without premeditation, without taking undue advantage of B and without acting in a cruel or unusual manner towards B.
- For example: A and B were at a pawn shop. B deliberately pushed A’s diamond sculpture out of his hand and caused it to break – where A had needed the proceeds from pawning this diamond sculpture to support his family. Expectably, A confronted B and this confrontation erupted into a violent physical fight between A and B. In the heat of the moment, A impulsively holds B in a chokehold against the shop’s front door, and B later dies from asphyxiation.
Exception 5: B was above the age of 18 years and died or took the risk of dying with his/her own consent.
- For example: A and B, both being persons above 18 years of age, belong to a cult that believe in suicide as a solution to climate change. A and B make a suicide pact, for A to first push B onto LRT tracks and for A to jump in after so that both A and B will be crushed to death by an oncoming LRT train. However, A cannot muster the courage to jump onto the tracks after pushing B onto the tracks, and only B dies in consequence.
Exception 6: A was a woman who had voluntarily caused the death of B, her child who was under the age of 12 months. A was having a disturbed mind then either because she has yet to fully recover from giving birth to B, or because of the lactation effects resulting from the birth of B.
- For example: A’s family has a history of mental health issues, and she suffers a particularly severe bout of post-natal depression after the birth of B. She starts to believe that everything bad in her life has resulted from the birth of B, and in the depths of her depression, flings B from the 18th storey to his death when he is 11 months old.
Exception 7: A was suffering from a mental condition that substantially impaired his mental responsibility for his acts and omissions in causing B’s death.
- For example: A suffers from severe schizophrenia, and frequently suffers from symptoms of hallucination. In recent times, he constantly hallucinates that he is going to die unless he drinks the blood of his first cousin, B, obtained directly from B’s aorta. A takes the opportunity to stab B in the neck at a family gathering in response to his hallucinations, killing B as a result.
Penalties for committing culpable homicide
The penalties for the 3 respective ways of finding a person guilty of culpable homicide not amounting to murder are summarised in the table below:
|Acts that constitute culpable homicide not amounting to murder||Penalties|
|Offender does an act with the intention to cause death to the victim||
|Offender does an act with the intention to cause bodily injury as is likely to cause death to the victim||
|Offender does an act with the knowledge that one is likely to cause death to the victim (without either of the two intentions mentioned above)||
Attempt to commit culpable homicide
Even if death has not resulted from the act, a person may be found guilty of attempting to commit culpable homicide under section 308 of the Penal Code if the act had been committed with the intention to cause death.
The penalties for attempting to commit culpable homicide depend on whether hurt has been caused, as follows:
- No hurt caused to victim: Imprisonment for a term up to 7 years and/or a fine; or
- Hurt caused to victim: Imprisonment for a term up to 15 years, a fine, caning or any combination of these punishments.
Acts Causing Death that Do Not Amount to Murder or Culpable Homicide
Causing death by rash or negligent act
Section 304A of the Penal Code provides for the offence of causing death by either a rash or a negligent act.
Under section 26E of the Penal Code, an act is committed rashly if an accused does the act knowing that there is a risk that a particular circumstance exists or will exist, which makes it unreasonable to have taken that risk in the first place.
For example: A motorist (A) decides not to check for oncoming vehicles before turning into a traffic junction, thereby colliding into another car and causing death to a fellow motorist (B). Since there is always a risk of collisions with oncoming cars when turning into traffic junctions, A has knowingly undertaken the risk of collision by deciding not to check for oncoming vehicles, and could thus be charged under section 304(a) of the Penal Code for causing death by a rash act.
For causing death by a rash act, an offender may be sentenced to imprisonment for up to 5 years, or a fine, or both.
On the other hand, doing an act negligently is explained in section 26F of the Penal Code as one either omitting to do an act that a reasonable person would do, or doing an act that a reasonable person would not do.
For example: Changing the facts slightly from before, A may have forgotten to check for oncoming vehicles before turning into the traffic junction, rather than deciding not to do so. A ends up colliding into an oncoming vehicle and killing its driver, B. Since a reasonable person in A’s shoes would have checked for oncoming vehicles, but A had not done so, A could be charged under section 304(b) of the Penal Code for causing death by a negligent act instead.
In the case of causing death by a negligent act, an offender may be sentenced to imprisonment for up to 2 years, or a fine or both.
Causing Death of Child Below 14 Years of Age, Domestic Worker or Vulnerable Person by Sustained Abuse
Section 304B of the Penal Code provides for the offence of causing the death of a child below 14 years of age, a domestic worker or a vulnerable person by sustained abuse. To fully understand this offence, 3 questions must be addressed:
- Who is a vulnerable person?
- What does sustained abuse constitute?
- Who could be liable for this offence?
Who is a vulnerable person?
Section 74A(5) of the Penal Code explains that a vulnerable person refers to one who cannot protect himself/herself from abuse, neglect or self-neglect due to mental/physical infirmity/disability/incapacity.
This can include an elderly person who is suffering from advanced dementia and cannot care for themself as a result.
What does sustained abuse constitute?
Under section 304B of the Penal Code, sustained abuse involves a person voluntarily causing hurt and/or knowingly causing neglect to the victim on 2 or more occasions.
It is also possible for sustained abuse to occur over a single occasion if the abuse had been gone on for a long duration of time.
Who could be liable for this offence?
Persons who may be convicted for this offence include:
- Where the victim is a child/vulnerable person:
- Those who have custody, charge or care of the child/vulnerable person
- Where the victim is a domestic worker, his/her:
- Members of the employer’s household; or
- Employment agents
The penalty for causing the death of a child below 14 years of age, domestic worker or vulnerable person by sustained abuse, is up to 20 years’ imprisonment, and either a fine or caning.
Arrest and Criminal Records
All the offences discussed in this article are arrestable offences. An arrestable offence is one where the police can arrest a suspect without a warrant.
All the offences discussed in this article are also registrable crimes, meaning that one will have criminal records from these offences that will never be fully removed or erased until the person dies or reaches 100 years old.
However, one may have his/her criminal record treated as spent (i.e. wiped clean and be able to legally declare that he/she does not have a criminal record) for the offences discussed in this article, except for murder, culpable homicide and attempt to murder, if the following criteria are met:
- One was given a prison sentence that was not of more than 3 months;
- One was given a fine that was not of more than $2,000;
- One does not have any other conviction on his/her criminal record; and
- One does not have any previous spent record on the register.
If one meets the criteria above, one will then have to remain crime-free for at least 5 consecutive years, starting from the date of release from prison or from the date that the sentence was passed if one was only given a fine. Once one accomplishes this, one’s record will be spent automatically.
What Can Happen If One of These Offences Has Allegedly Been Committed?
Potential compensation for victims
Under section 359 of the Criminal Procedure Code, the court before which a person is convicted of any offence has to consider whether to order payment by that person of compensation to the victim.
If the court decides that the offender does have to pay compensation, the court will have the discretion to determine the amount of compensation payable.
If the victim is deceased, the compensation may be paid to the victim’s estate instead of to the victim directly.
If such compensation does not sufficiently cover the losses suffered by the victim, the victim (or their estate) may sue the offender for further compensation. However, the amount being claimed for must exclude the amount of criminal compensation already received.
Representation for persons accused of murder
If you are charged with a capital offence (i.e. an offence with a maximum punishment of death penalty) like murder and cannot afford your own lawyer, you will be automatically assigned free legal counsel under the Legal Assistance Scheme for Capital Offences (LASCO). No means-testing nor other eligibility tests (e.g. nationality) will be conducted.
For the remaining offences discussed in this article that do not involve the death penalty (i.e. non-capital offences), you may either choose to be represented by a lawyer or to represent yourself for conduct your case. As criminal charges often carry heavy penalties to an individual, it may be advisable to be represented by a lawyer.
If you choose to engage a lawyer, he/she will assist in preparing for and conducting your case by:
- Preparing all necessary legal documents;
- Clarifying your rights and obligations, as well as the defences that will be available to you; and
- Representing you at the various court hearings and/or trial, such as to help have your charges reduced or to obtain a lighter sentence
If you are unable to afford a lawyer, you may consider applying for legal aid under the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme.
For more information, refer to our article on legal aid in Singapore.
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