SINGAPORE, Dec 1 — An 18-year-old who killed a fellow student at River Valley High School with an axe on campus was sentenced to 16 years’ jail on Friday (Dec 1), more than two years after the incident which shook the country.
In delivering the sentence, Justice Hoo Sheau Peng said: “No matter how severe, depression cannot be a licence to kill or harm others.”
The judge said that the case was “without precedent”, occurring in a school environment where young people “ought to feel the safest”.
She noted that both the prosecution and the teen’s lawyers were in agreement that this offence did not warrant life imprisonment, as the teen did not pose a long term threat to society.
However, the judge emphasised that the teen was highly culpable for his actions as he retained control of the situation and exhibited a “chilling degree” of premeditation, cold logic and planning.
Earlier, the court heard that the teenager was driven by depression and suicidal thoughts and went to school with an axe, intending to pick a victim “entirely at random” and carry out a plan which would result in his own death when police intervened in the life-threatening situation.
He intended to hurt more students, but could not bring himself to after killing 13-year-old Ethan Hun Zhe Kai, who was a Secondary One student at the time.
The teenager, now 18, pleaded guilty to one charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder earlier on Friday.
The accused, who was 16 at the time, cannot be named due to a gag order, as the law forbids the publication of identities of young persons under 18 who are involved in court proceedings.
However, a gag order on the name of the victim was lifted at the request of the victim’s parents.
Mr Mervyn Cheong and Ms Lim Yi Zheng from Advocatus Law, who represent the victim’s parents, said that the parents had requested for the gag order to be lifted as they want to remember Ethan fondly without wondering if they might breach the court order.
A statement by Ethan’s parents, Mr Hun Yew Kwong and Ms Sng Hui Ching, through his lawyers read: “We are heartbroken. We believe many who knows (sic) Ethan will be too. Yet, we want to encourage everyone to remember Ethan fondly instead.
“Remember him for his goodness, his kind heart, and his peace-loving nature. Remember that he would want us to be happy.”
According to court documents, the slashing occurred on July 19, 2021 some time between 11.16am and 11.44am at a toilet in River Valley High School, located in Boon Lay.
The teen locked himself in a toilet cubicle and took out an axe and knife he had brought to school. He then waited in the cubicle until someone entered.
At around 11.28am, the victim entered and the teen approached him from behind, before proceeding to slash his head, neck and body.
Deputy Public Prosecutors (DPP) Kumaresan Gohulabalan and Sean Teh told the court that the teen apologised to the victim halfway through the attack and decided to stop his plan of killing other students after seeing that the boy lay motionless.
The teen then called out to two to three groups of students and asked them to call the police after the fatal assault. He was later approached by a teacher who asked him to drop the axe. He complied to the request.
At 11.41am, the accused called the police and said: “I just killed someone with an axe, I don’t know who. Are you going to send someone or not?”
Another teacher arrived and moved the axe further away from the teenager and called the police after entering the toilet.
Paramedics from the Singapore Civil Defence Force pronounced the boy dead at the scene.
The prosecution told the court that the accused did not know Ethan and had picked a victim “entirely at random”.
Prior to the incident, the accused had contemplated suicide and explored ways of committing suicide from January that year.
After a failed attempt to end his life in February two years earlier, he came to the conclusion that the only way he could overcome the “psychological barrier” of taking his own life was to commit the offence and induce law enforcement to cause his death while intervening in the situation.
He had also become desensitised to violence and the thought of taking a life after watching online videos and suffered from major depressive disorder at the time.
In February and March that same year, he also wrote two poems which alluded to mass killings in a school and conducted online searches of a similar nature.
The teenager also purchased two axes and a knife from three stores online, a black badminton bag to conceal the weapons and an axe sharpener. However, he did not find the axe to be suitably sharp and thus sent the weapons for sharpening at a store at least once.
On July 14, a few days before the fatal incident, the teen planned a school slashing and brought the axe, knife, a roll of caution tape and the badminton bag to school.
However, he did not follow through with this plan and felt “unsettled” after he was unsuccessful in his attempt at completing his plan of suicide.
Methodical planning of the attack
The prosecution asked for a jail term of 12 to 16 years’ imprisonment, grounded on and the “vicious” and premeditated manner of attack.
The attack was not a product of a moment of impulse but rather a “methodical plan” to hurt students at the school, where the teenager had conducted research and made purchases to execute his plan, said DPP Kumaresan.
While the offender’s mental health condition should be a mitigating factor in sentencing, the prosecution said that the teen had to take responsibility for his actions and thought process prior to the onset of his major depressive disorder.
DPP Kumaresan said that the onset of the teenager’s major depressive disorder was six months before the incident was only one reason why he committed the offence.
Referring to a psychiatric evaluation done at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), DPP Kumaresan said that the accused’s nature of keeping things to himself, refusal to seek help and the harmful effects of his “misguided” internet searches were also contributing factors.
The prosecution also refuted the defence’s argument that the teenager had “chanced” upon the online videos depicting scenes of deaths including murders and suicides as search engines are designed to filter out such content to protect young viewers.
In reference to the testimonials tendered by the family and friends of the accused by his lawyer attesting to his character, DPP Kumaresan said it was “heartening” to hear others willing to say positive things about the accused.
While he must be given a second chance to “live like any of us” at some point, DPP Kumaresan said that a predominant consideration for sentencing should be the life of Ethan that was taken.
“The boy will never get to have these testimonials in his favour. We need to remember that a 13-year-old boy’s life was needlessly lost,” said DPP Kumaresan.
Depression in “remission”
Mr Sunil Sudheesan from Quahe Woo and Palmer LLC, who represented the teen, sought a lighter sentence of five years’ imprisonment, citing his client’s major depressive disorder as the main factor that caused him to commit the offence.
He first apologised on behalf of the teen, who he said would have a “sincere and lifelong” remorse for what he had done.
The teen’s major depressive disorder was the main driving factor of the offence, Mr Sudheesan argued, as it contributed to his “irrationality of choice” in how he planned to commit suicide.
His plan was borne of his impression of an “overseas reality” where law enforcement intervened in such incidents with lethal force, which caused him to think his acts would be a viable plan for suicide, he added.
Mr Sudheesan disagreed with the prosecution’s characterisation of the teen as methodical and argued that the offender was a young man who “suffered horribly from the throes of depression”.
“By all accounts, he was a good boy. He was studious, called caring and generous and displayed good temperament,” said Mr Sudheesan.
The teen no longer posed a threat as he is in “full remission” from his depression, his lawyer added.
He now has better insight into his mental health condition, attends counselling, takes his medication and receives support from his parents, which is a “safety blanket” against re-offending.
The teen was previously charged with murder, before the charge was reduced to culpable homicide not amounting to murder in February this year.
This was due to an assessment by IMH doctors who found that the teen was suffering from clinical depression at the time of the incident, the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) previously said.
He has been in remand since the incident and appeared in past court hearings via video-link.
He appeared at Friday’s hearing in person with a closely shaven head and wearing a white t-shirt. The judge also allowed the 18-year-old to speak with his brother and parents for 20 minutes while the court was adjourned.
In a ministerial statement addressing the incident in parliament on July 27, 2021, Minister for Education Chan Chun Sing gave a chronological account of the incident.
Mr Chan said that a psychological support post had been set up on the day after the incident to provide support to staff and students who needed immediate help.
He added that the Ministry of Education (MOE) would make an effort to strengthen its mental health support network in schools and aimed to deploy over 1,000 teacher-counsellors in the next few years.
A year after the incident, MOE announced in a statement on July 16, 2022 that River Valley High now had additional counsellors and conducts well-being awareness talks for its students.
The ministry also said that a student development hub had been set up to provide one-stop access to wellness services alongside an activity centre that provides spaces for student-led activities.
These measures have had a positive impact on River Valley High students and the ministry would continue to provide all necessary support to the school, said MOE.
The punishment for committing culpable homicide not amounting to murder is life imprisonment with caning, or a jail term of up to 20 years with a fine or caning. — TODAY
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