'Inner conflict' hours before death
State Coroner Marvin Bay yesterday ruled that 14-year-old Benjamin Lim's fall from height was suicide. He suggested refinements in dealing with such teens
Nothing suggested that Benjamin Lim, 14, was a suicide risk.
But State Coroner Marvin Bay found signs that pointed to the student "internalising a considerable degree of inner conflict" despite his seemingly calm demeanour hours before his death.
Delivering his findings in court yesterday, the Coroner said the student sported a "perplexed and troubled expression" when his mother first found out about the molest allegation over the phone - a sign that suggested her approval mattered to the 14-year-old.
Yet he chose to use his mobile devices instead of trying to confide his problems in his mother and sister - a "curiously ambivalent attitude" when facing the crisis of a criminal charge, said Coroner Bay.
This was one of the factors the Coroner pointed out when concluding that Benjamin's death was the likely result of a combination of factors at play.
On Jan 26, Benjamin, a North View Secondary student, fell to his death from the bedroom window of his Yishun flat.
Earlier that day, at about 10am, he had been taken to the principal's office and questioned by the police over a molest allegation.
Benjamin was then taken to a police station, where he later admitted he had deliberately touched an 11-year-old girl in a lift the day before. He was then arrested.
He was released on bail into his mother's custody at about 2.50pm, and they returned home.
At 4.36pm, Benjamin was found dead at the foot of his block.
In the hour prior to his death, the student chose to play games on his mobile phone instead of attempting to confide his problems in his mother and sister.
The molest, which Benjamin's parents had previously disputed, was confirmed by Coroner Bay yesterday.
After viewing the in-lift CCTV footage several times, he found that Benjamin did touch the girl momentarily, but added quickly that it was not a grasp or grope.
"The lift CCTV shows incontrovertibly that Master Lim had executed a deliberate touch after a rather clumsy attempt to mask his action by dropping his phone," he said.
The Coroner explained that while the molest was not the main purpose of the inquiry, it had to be revisited.
"Delving into this aspect is certainly not for any determination of guilt or innocence, but necessary to understand Master Lim's state of mind, specifically whether he might have been motivated by any apprehension of adverse consequences from events that transpired in the lift," he said.
The Coroner also found that police officers and school staff took active steps to handle the investigations sensitively, given Benjamin's age and status as a student. (See report, right.)
Benjamin's mother and sister, who were in court yesterday, declined comment.
Their lawyer Choo Zheng Xi said he will have to go through the Coroner's findings with Benjamin's mother, who is not conversant in English.
Delivering his findings in court yesterday, State Coroner Marvin Bay suggested some "possible process refinements", adding that they are not meant to attribute any direct causative connection with Benjamin Lim's death.
1. "Overlapping custody"
Coroner Bay suggested for a school counsellor to accompany a student to the police station.
Having a counsellor in close proximity - not as advocates for the child or to actively participate in the interview process - will be reassuring for both the child and his caregivers.
Other than picking up warning signs in the student, the counsellor can also call school teachers or allied educators for background information that may help the police understand the student and circumstances of the case better.
This "overlapping custody" will address the student's emotional and psychological needs while police investigations are kept expeditious and thorough.
2. Give proper perspective
Without an appropriate perspective, young people may overreact to an unfavourable event - what Coroner Bay called the catastrophic thinking phenomenon.
He suggested giving juvenile suspects a better idea of the probable consequences of the offence they are charged with - generally stern warnings or sanctions geared towards guidance, therapy and rehabilitation.
"This is not to say that young persons should have anything other than a very healthy respect for the law. They would, nevertheless, benefit from being given an informed perspective of the investigation process as well as the real probable consequences of the offence for which they stand accused of," the coroner said.
3. Direct communication
Instead of calling a parent or a caregiver by phone, schools should communicate directly with the student, preferably face-to-face, said Coroner Bay.
Otherwise, essential nuances and details may inadvertently get omitted when the message is conveyed to the student, he explained.
A school counsellor and Benjamin's mother had given the inquiry differing accounts of a phone call made by the counsellor.
The Coroner's findings yesterday put to rest many of the questions raised prior to the inquiry, the police said in a statement.
"The police note that the Coroner said that there was no indication that anything was wrong with Benjamin, during the police interviews. The Coroner also accepted the evidence that there was nothing wrong with the police interviews, arrest and investigations in the matter.
"Benjamin was interviewed twice: by one officer at his school who was in plainclothes, in the presence of school officials, and by another officer at Ang Mo Kio Police station. The Coroner said that Benjamin had been treated sensitively by the police," a spokesman said.
The spokesman added that the police will consider, as part of an ongoing review, one of the Coroner's suggestions that school counsellors should accompany students to the police station without interfering with police investigations.
The review includes looking into whether young offenders should be accompanied by an appropriate adult. Details will be released once the review is completed.