SINGAPORE: A woman who killed her 24-year-old domestic helper from Myanmar after beating, burning, and starving her to 24kg has hired a new lawyer and is seeking a reduced charge and a gag order on her case.
Gaiyathiri Murugayan, 41, pleaded guilty in February to 28 charges, including culpable homicide, voluntarily causing grievous hurt by starvation, voluntarily causing hurt by a heated substance, and wrongful restraint. Another 87 charges will be considered in sentencing.
The prosecution had said then that it sought life imprisonment for Gaiyathiri's acts.
Gaiyathiri was originally charged with murder following a recommendation by the Attorney-General, but this was brought down to culpable homicide due to the evidence that surfaced. Ms. Piang Ngaih Don came to Singapore to work for Gaiyathiri in May 2015 in what was her first job overseas.
Five months into Ms. Piang Ngaih Don's employment, Gaiyathiri began abusing her physically. In the last 35 days of the victim's life, Ms. Piang Ngaih Don was given little food, five hours of sleep per night, and no privacy as she had to shower or go to the toilet while Gaiyathiri or her mother watched.
Ms. Piang Ngaih Don lost 15kg in 14 months and was kicked, stamped, punched, and hit with objects like a broom and a metal ladle.
Gaiyathiri also lifted the maid up by her hair, shook her violently, and pulled out a clump of her hair. On one occasion, Gaiyathiri used an iron to burn Ms. Piang Ngaih Don's arm.
In the 12 nights before her death, Ms. Piang Ngaih Don was tied by a string to a window grille at night.
She died on the morning of Jul 26, after a combined assault by Gaiyathiri, and Gaiyathiri's mother fractured a bone in her throat and caused irreversible brain damage.
On Thursday (Apr 29), the remanded woman came to court with her new lawyer Joseph Chen, replacing Ms. Diana Ngiam and Mr. Sunil Sudheesan who had prepared her mitigation previously.
New Lawyer Wants Lowered Charge
Mr. Chen told the court that he would like to ask the prosecution to reconsider proceeding on the charge under 304a, for culpable homicide not amounting to murder, which is punishable by life imprisonment.
Instead, he sought a reduced charge without life imprisonment. According to the penal code in force at the time of the offense, the charge of 304b with no intention to cause death carries up to 10 years' jail and a fine. Caning is not applicable for women.
After some back-and-forth exchanges, Mr. Chen said his client would not retract her plea of guilt. He asked for time to put up a further mitigation plea for Gaiyathiri.
"With the court's indulgence, as well as the public prosecutor's facilitation, she will put in further mitigation to highlight those factors to support her case that her culpability is reduced with the focus and emphasis on the stressors that result in her feeling an increased tension due to her worry about the children's health," said Mr. Chen.
This "increased tension" is to be seen along with her mental disorders, he said. Gaiyathiri suffered from major depressive disorder and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, both of which substantially contributed to her offenses, the court heard previously.
Because of these disorders, she qualified for the defense of diminished responsibility, with her obsessive-compulsive personality disorder a significant risk factor for aggravating the severity of depressive symptoms of peripartum onset. It would have worsened her depression to an extent that partially impaired her mental responsibility for her actions, the court heard in the previous hearing.
The judge said some of the points relating to Gaiyathiri's children had been raised in her previous mitigation. According to the document prepared by Gaiyathiri's previous defense lawyers, Gaiyathiri was "overwhelmed" with caring for her children, who began to fall sick with gastrointestinal issues requiring regular hospital visits.
Because the doctor told Gaiyathiri that her children's illnesses were due to poor hygiene, her preoccupation with cleanliness and hygiene was "triggered", said lawyers Diana Ngiam and Sunil Sudheesan previously.
"Our client attributed the cause of her children's illness to the poor hygiene of the deceased, for example, the deceased's practices of not washing her hands before touching cooking vessels and taking cooked food with unwashed hands," the lawyers said.
Mr. Chen said that Gaiyathiri wanted to amend or remove "one or two parts" in the statement of facts that formed her guilty plea.
Deputy Chief Prosecutor Mohamed Faizal expressed "surprise" at this but said he would respond at an appropriate juncture.
Mr. Chen also said he "will have to follow up on (Gaiyathiri's) instructions to apply for a gag order to the best of our ability". He later told the media she wanted a "blanket prohibition on further reporting". The prosecution said they would respond to this at the appropriate stage.
Justice See Kee Oon adjourned the case for Mr. Chen to make his further mitigation plea by May 28, and for the prosecution to respond. He fixed the next date for the case on June 22.
Gaiyathiri's husband, suspended police officer Kelvin Chelvam, faces five charges linked to the case of assaulting Ms. Piang Ngaih Don and lying to the police that CCTV cameras in his flat had been removed.
He is set to return to court next month for a pre-trial conference. His mother-in-law, Prema Naraynasamy, also has pending charges.