State Counsel: Coroner's inquiry not a criminal trial to find guilt
Two school staff and an investigation officer took the stand on the first day of a coroner's inquiry into the death of Benjamin Lim, 14, nearly four months after the student fell from his bedroom window after returning from a police station, where he had been held for questioning over an alleged molest.
Behind closed doors at court, both parties saw the same video showing Benjamin Lim, 14, in the same lift as an 11-year-old girl.
But both sides - the police investigator and Benjamin's family - had differing interpretations of what had happened. One side saw the boy purposely touching the girl, while the other side saw the boy accidentally brushing the girl.
In court, Assistant Superintendent (ASP) Mohamed Razif gave a detailed breakdown of the closed-circuit television video that showed Benjamin, a Secondary 3 student from North View Secondary School, allegedly molesting the girl at around 3pm on Jan 25 after he had followed her to the lift of a block close to his home.
The girl pressed the 14th storey button while Benjamin pressed 13.
As the lift ascended, Benjamin appeared to drop his phone. And as he bent down to pick it, he switched the phone from one hand to another and then touched the girl's left buttock with his right hand, said ASP Razif.
This account was part of the officer's investigation report into Benjamin's death. It also corroborated the teen's statement to an investigation officer at Ang Mo Kio police station in which he admitted to touching the girl's thigh after following her because he thought she was "cute-looking".
Benjamin's father, Mr Lim, however, told the inquest that he did not see his son touch the girl.
DAD SAW 'BRUSH'
Said Mr Lim via his family's lawyer, Mr Remy Choo Zheng Xi: "From what I observed, I saw his hand brush at the area of the girl's skirt. But it appeared to me that there was no bodily contact."
We cannot name Mr Lim fully as there is a gag order on Benjamin's next of kin and the girl. To protect the privacy of the girl, the video was also shown in-camera.
In response to Mr Lim, State Counsel Wong Woon Kwong told the court during the in-camera proceedings that ASP Razif said he would stand by his interpretation.
Said Mr Wong: "We were questioned on this point and ASP Razif confirms that he stands by his observations. Ultimately, whether there was a touch or not will be up to the court to decide."
He said that the purpose of the inquiry is to establish the facts behind the death of Benjamin and was not a criminal trial to find guilt.
The later part of the video shows the girl turning around, watching Benjamin move away while he continued looking at her.
At the 13th storey, Benjamin exited and the girl also stepped out briefly.
ASP Razif, referring to the girl's statement, said: "The girl said, 'Wait, wait, wait', following which Benjamin replied, 'What is it?'. The girl then said, 'Nothing'."
Said ASP Razif: "The girl went back to her home and immediately called her father and told him about the incident… She was crying."
Other videos from the police cameras installed at the HDB block also clearly showed Benjamin wearing his school's physical education uniform and his red-framed glasses.
The police officer said the footage led them to identify the school, but they did not know who the boy was.
A still image of the police camera video was sent to the school to enlist its help in the investigation.
The police decided that five officers - three liaison officers from Yishun North neighbourhood police centre and two intelligence officers from Ang Mo Kio police division - should pay the school a visit the next day.
The girl said, 'Wait, wait, wait', following which Benjamin replied, 'What is it?'. The girl then said, 'Nothing'.
- ASP Razif on the girl's statement
WHAT WAS IN THE VIDEO
- Girl enters lift.
- Benjamin Lim (BL) enters lift.
- Girl presses 14th storey lift button.
- BL presses 13th storey lift button.
- Girl stands at rear right corner of the lift.
- BL stands at rear left corner of the lift.
- BL drops his phone on the floor next to the girl.
- BL bends down and picks up phone using right hand.
- BL transfers phone from his right hand to his left hand.
- BL uses his right hand to touch the lower back portion of the girl.* (*This part is disputed by the family.)
- BL turns and looks at girl.
- BL walks away from girl while still looking at her.
- BL walks to lift door.
- Lift door opens and BL walks out.
- Girl steps out of the lift and looks outside. The lift moves off then returns to that storey and the girl gets in. She goes to the 14th storey and goes home. BL gets into the lift at 12th storey and exits on first storey.
HE FOLLOWED GIRL BECAUSE SHE WAS 'CUTE-LOOKING'
Benjamin Lim had told the police that he found the girl "cute-looking" and decided to follow her into the lift.
This was what he told senior investigation officer (SIO) Mohammad Fareed Rahmat at an open plan office in Ang Mo Kio police station.
SIO Fareed had not seen the footage from inside the lift at this point, said ASP Razif.
At first, Benjamin repeated his account to SIO Fareed of getting lost and needing to find his bearings again.
SIO Fareed did not think Benjamin was telling the truth as he could not answer why he pressed the button to the 13th storey and was given 20 minutes to "think about what he would like to give as his account of the events", said ASP Razif.
When SIO Fareed returned, Benjamin admitted that "he had followed and touched the girl because he found her cute-looking".
He also admitted to having touched her left thigh due to a sudden urge.
His statement was then recorded and the teen was placed under arrest and taken to a charge office for processing.
He was also placed in a temporary holding area, but was kept apart from other people in police custody.
This holding area was "to ensure they do not escape from custody and to monitor their safety and well-being," wrote ASP Razif in his investigation report.
Pains taken to ensure his well-being
School principal Chen Fook Pang, who was the second witness on the stand yesterday, testified that he had taken pains to ensure his student's well-being.
He negotiated so that only one of the five police officers there questioned the boy.
He even arranged to be in the police interview of Benjamin with other staff and spoke to the boy before the police did.
Mr Chen said: "They (the police) agreed to all these requests."
When asked why he had to "push his luck", Mr Chen said that based on his past experiences, the police might not have agreed to these requests.
Mr Chen said: "Benjamin did not have any academic or disciplinary issues in school... This was my first time speaking to him directly."
The principal asked general questions about Benjamin's life, including about his family.
He then asked about Benjamin's whereabouts after school on Jan 25.
Mr Chen said: "(On Jan 25,) he walked home with friend and tried taking a shortcut and got lost. He decided to go up the nearest HDB block to orientate himself."
Inspector Poh Wee Teck then spoke to Benjamin, who repeated how he had ended up in the other block.
School counsellor Karry Lung, who was the third person to take the stand yesterday, told the court how Benjamin's demeanour changed after a phone call to his mother.
During the interview in school, Benjamin told Insp Poh that there was a young girl in the lift with him and he had accidentally touched her, ASP Razif testified earlier.
Benjamin was observed to be calm and able to answer questions from Insp Poh.
He was asked to phone home and was given some time to speak to his mother.
He then appeared to look anxious and fidgety.
Madam Lung said: "When his voice got lower and lower, I observed his facial expressions, his eyebrows et cetera, I felt that his stress level was much higher than previously."
None of the three witnesses could tell what was spoken, except that all agreed that the voice from the phone was loud, even though the call was not on speaker mode.
Madam Lung then signalled for the phone conversation to end as she sensed that the conversation "was not doing Benjamin any good".
Mr Chen added: "Benjamin looked anxious after the phone call. Before this, he had been calm."
Benjamin was allowed to finish his meal - a bun and a drink - before he was taken to Ang Mo Kio police station in one of the unmarked cars at around 10.45am.
Dispute over school camp
When it came to the topic of the school camp, there was again a different point of view between the family and the school.
While the school counsellor claimed there were two instances where the three-day cohort camp was brought up, the family said there was only one.
And while the school said it left the decision up to the parents to keep Benjamin at home, the family said they had little say in the decision.
School counsellor Karry Lung said she first suggested to the family that it may not be in Benjamin's best interest to send him to the camp, when she met Mrs Lim and Benjamin's eldest sister at the school around 11am on Jan 26.
But in court, the family's lawyer, Mr Remy Choo Zheng Xi, said his clients did not recall such a conversation.
Said Madam Lung: "I told Benjamin's mother that he might be experiencing a lot of stress due to the police interview, and the family should pay more attention to him during this difficult time."
Mrs Lim had agreed with the suggestion, she added. Madam Lung then advised her to not decide yet until they heard from Benjamin, and informed her that she would check in on the teen later.
Mrs Lim bailed Benjamin out of the police station at about 3pm. At home, Benjamin was seen to be playing games on his mobile phone when his mother received the call from Madam Lung around 4.20pm.
Madam Lung had met the principal, the discipline mistress and other school leaders who tasked her to recommend that he should stay home instead of joining the camp which started the next day.
Madam Lung told the court that she did as told and Mrs Lim had agreed with the recommendation for the second time.
But the family said the counsellor had already decided not to let Benjamin attend the camp.
On hearing the news, Benjamin locked himself in his bedroom and was found dead at the foot of his block minutes later, around 4.30pm.
The hearing continues today at the State Courts.