Singapore: Man on death row for killing pregnant wife and daughter appeals against conviction

Teo Ghim Heng burnt his wife’s and four-year-old daughter’s bodies in their bedroom in 2017 and fended off her family members for a week or so. — TODAY pic
Teo Ghim Heng burnt his wife’s and four-year-old daughter’s bodies in their bedroom in 2017 and fended off her family members for a week or so. — TODAY pic

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SINGAPORE, Oct 13 — A 46-year-old former property agent, who was sentenced to death for killing his pregnant wife and four-year-old daughter in their Woodlands flat in 2017, has mounted an appeal against his murder conviction.

On Wednesday (Oct 13), five judges from the Court of Appeal reserved their decision on whether Teo Ghim Heng should be convicted of a less serious charge. They did not indicate when they would issue their judgment.

Teo was handed the mandatory death penalty in November last year after being found guilty of two counts of murder under Section 300(a) of the Penal Code.

A third charge of causing the death of his unborn son was withdrawn then.

His lawyer had argued that he should instead be convicted of culpable homicide because of a mental illness, which was disputed by the prosecution.

Teo confessed to strangling his wife Choong Pei Shan — who was six months pregnant — and their daughter to death on Jan 20 in 2017. 

The avid gambler was facing mounting pressure to pay off more than S$70,000 in debts. He also owed two months of the girl’s preschool fees. 

He had borrowed money from friends and taken up a new job after the property market slowed down. 

After killing Choong and the girl, he burnt their bodies in a bedroom at their Woodlands flat and fended off her family members for the next week or so, until her brother went over on the first day of Chinese New Year and realised something was amiss.

The main contention during the trial was whether Teo suffered from major depressive disorder that substantially impaired his mental responsibility and judgment for the killings. 

This would give rise to a defence of diminished responsibility under the Penal Code.

Arguments in court

In the apex court on Wednesday, Teo’s lawyers Eugene Thuraisingam and Johannes Hadi from law firm Eugene Thuraisingam LLP made two main arguments similar to the ones they put forward in the High Court.

The first was the diminished-responsibility defence. 

They stated again that Teo suffered from major depressive disorder, which impaired his mental responsibility substantially. This was the finding that the defence’s psychiatrist, Dr Rajesh Jacob, made.

The lawyers dropped their partial defence of grave and sudden provocation, which they raised at the trial but was rejected by High Court judge Kannan Ramesh.

Teo and his wife had quarrelled that morning over their daughter’s preschool fees. She had called him useless in front of the girl, leading to the fatal strangulation. 

In contrast, the prosecution’s psychiatrist, Dr Derrick Yeo from the Institute of Mental Health, said that Teo’s determination to kill the victims showed that he was in control of his actions and was not suffering from any mental disorder. 

Justice Ramesh had agreed with Dr Yeo, finding that Teo made a conscious and deliberate decision to strangle his wife to death and was “in full control of his faculties” during both murders.

The judge similarly found a lack of corroborative evidence to show that Teo suffered from major depressive disorder. 

Justice Ramesh referred to instances of his behaviour before and after the murders, such as sending loving phone text messages to his wife and visiting a pornographic website 132 times the day before the killings. 

The couple had also decided against aborting their second child in 2016 after seeing a counsellor, which the judge said showed “clear hope and positivity towards the future”.

On Wednesday, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon questioned Teo’s lawyers and the prosecution whether Teo had demonstrated that he suffered from major depressive disorder at the time of his offences.

The chief justice told Mr Thuraisingam that going through Teo’s financial difficulties would not take him “very far”. 

He also noted that Justice Ramesh had already taken into account the testimony of several of Teo’s co-workers and former colleagues. 

While one of them had said Teo appeared quite different from his usual “cheerful” and “confident” self in January 2017, Chief Justice Menon said that Justice Ramesh had considered that exact testimony and found it to be an “isolated incident that didn’t stack up with others”.

The chief justice said that it could have been a bad day for Teo and it was unsurprising that he was unhappy then, given his circumstances.

Teo had also been thinking of selling his government-built flat to raise more money, which suggested a willingness to plan for his future.

“It’s not good enough to have problems it’s whether these problems impacted his ability to function,” Chief Justice Menon said.

Justice Steven Chong also told Thuraisingam to focus on Teo’s behaviour in the immediate aftermath of the murder. 

Thuraisingam said that Teo had tried to commit suicide on many occasions, overdosing on more than 100 Panadol pills, drinking insecticide and attempting to set himself on fire.

Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) Winston Man, meanwhile, argued that Teo had made a conscious decision to kill his wife and had taken concrete steps to fix his financial woes. 

In response to Chief Justice Menon’s question on whether it was possible for someone to function well in some settings and poorly in others, and yet be depressed, the prosecutor said that it would have been difficult to compartmentalise his life in that manner.

“If his financial issues caused him great distress and impairment, it would have been difficult to conceal that in his family and work life,” added DPP Man.

Teo, who appeared in court sporting a purple prison jumpsuit and a shaved head, is still on remand. 

The court granted him permission to speak to some family members and a friend. — TODAY

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