Court of Appeal reverses open verdict ruling in Teoh Beng Hock’s death

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(September 5):  The Court of Appeal has set aside the open verdict by a coroner on the death of Teoh Beng Hock five years ago, ruling that "a person or persons were responsible for his death".

Judges Datuk Mohamad Arif Md Yusof, Datuk Mah Weng Kwai and Datuk Hamid Sultan Abu Backer delivered separate judgments.

Mah said the coroner and the High Court erred in law in applying the wrong standard of proof.

He said it should be on the balance of probability and not beyond reasonable doubt, adding that a person or persons were responsible for his death.

This unprecedented verdict may force the police to reopen investigations into Teoh's death.

Coroner Azmil Muntapha on January 5, 2011 returned a verdict that Teoh's death was neither a suicide nor homicide.

The High Court on December 1, 2011 upheld that decision.

Arif, who pronounced the court's unanimous ruling, said the bench was substituting the findings of the coroner.

He said: “The death of Teoh Beng Hock was caused by multiple injuries from a fall from the 14th floor of Plaza Mazalam, a result of which was accelerated by an unlawful act or acts of person unknown, inclusive of Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission officers involved in the arrest and investigation of the deceased.”

Arif said the Inspector-General of Police must commence investigations while the Attorney-General must frame charges deemed fit.

The appeal before the Court of Appeal primarily rested on whether in an inquest, the standard of proof should be beyond reasonable doubt or on the balance of probability.

All the judges took the position that it should be on balance of probability, which now gives clear guidance to coroners conducting inquests.

Mah said all forensic pathologists concluded that Teoh had suffered from a pre-fall injury and it was absurd for the coroner to make an open verdict.

He said such a verdict was unlawful under the law.

"We have taken pains to deliberate the case due to wide publicity generated and to maintain public confidence in the judiciary," he said.

Hamid said in an inquest, the coroner was not a magistrate to determine who was liable for a crime.

"But we have been relying on a common law principle for inquest and this brought erroneous results. This has to be corrected to bring justice to the family and the criminal justice system," he said.

He said a coroner's role was to determine "who was criminally concerned, not who was liable".

Hamid said from evidence collected in this case, the MACC was criminally liable and could not be immune from prosecution.

"Teoh was under their custody because he was arrested for questioning," he said, adding that those responsible must be charged, even with circumstantial evidence, and the court should be let to decide.

"The accused will also have the opportunity to put up his defence," he added.

Hamid said the coroner had done a commendable job, but that he had come to a wrong finding.

Meanwhile, Arif said a coroner could arrive at an open verdict.

"Malaysia does not have a jury system in an inquest. It is for the coroner to form his opinion and arrive at a decision," he said.

Arif said police should also probe the suicide note allegedly left by Teoh in his bag when investigators re-opened the case.

Meanwhile in Penang, Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng congratulated Teoh's family, saying he hoped Teoh and his family will finally get justice.

Chronology of events

July 15, 2009 – Teoh Beng Hock was called to the Selangor Malaysian Anti Corruption offices in Shah Alam, Selangor at about 6pm. The Selangor MACC’s offices were then on the 14th floor of Plaza Masalam.  He had gone there to give a statement in the agency’s probe into corruption allegations against his boss, Selangor exco Ean Yong Hian Wah.

July 16, 2009 – Teoh was found dead on the 5th floor landing of the building. The 30-year old had been due to register his marriage to his pregnant fiancée the same day. Pakatan Rakyat supporters mounted a protest in front of Selangor MACC offices, demanding that the agency provide answers on why and how Teoh had died while in custody.

July 17, 2009 - The government announced that an coroner’s inquest would be held into Teoh’s death.

November 18, 2010 – The Teoh Beng Hock movement gathered 100,000 signatures demanding that government set up an independent Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) into his death.

January 5, 2011 – After about 18 months, coroner Azmil Muntapha Abas gave an open verdict in the inquest. He ruled that Teoh's death was not a homicide or a suicide.

January 18, 2011 – Bowing to public anger over the coroner’s open verdict, the government agreed to set up an RCI to probe into how Teoh had plunged to his death and to look into MACC’s investigative methods.

July 21, 2011 – The RCI released a report claiming that Teoh had committed suicide after relentless questioning by MACC investigators. It named three officers as playing a role in Teoh’s death: Hishammuddin Hashim, Arman Alies and Mohd Ashraf Mohd Yunus.

September 22, 2011 – Teoh’s family applied to the Shah Alam Court to revise the coroner’s open verdict.

December 1, 2011 – The Shah Alam High Court dismissed Teoh’s family’s application for a revision of the coroner's verdict.

February 2, 2012 – The Court of Appeal grant’s Teoh’s family leave to appeal against the Shah Alam High Court decision.

September 5, 2014 – The Court of Appeal reversed the open verdict in Teoh’s death.