Sleepless nights, sad goodbyes: Seasoned lawyers and cops on the emotional toll of handling sex crimes
Police officers, prosecutors and defence lawyers say they can get emotional when handling sex crimes, but have to maintain composure and professionalism during interviews and in court.
- Six veteran investigation officers, criminal lawyers and prosecutors spoke to TODAY about the challenges they face handling sexual crimes
- Some cases have stayed with them and changed their perspective
- They also pointed to increased public scrutiny on such crimes but said it has not put more pressure on how they work
- The job is about giving victims, perpetrators and their families a voice and an avenue to move on, they said
While preparing to go to trial over a sexual abuse case, Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) Kavita Uthrapathy poured time and energy into building a bond with the victim, a severely intellectually disabled young adult.
But when the offender decided to plead guilty and was put behind bars, something unexpected happened. Both DPP Uthrapathy and the victim could not bear to bid farewell to each other.
“I told her that the case was over and that she would not be seeing me again. Seeing her cry and holding on to me and not wanting to let go — that goodbye was probably harder on me than it was on her,” the veteran prosecutor recounted.
For those who investigate, defend or prosecute those accused of sexual crimes, such emotions have to remain buried and out of sight from open court hearings, documents or news reports.
While it can be difficult to present a stoic front, the job requires them to remain professional — whether it be interviewing victims or accused persons, reviewing violent details of rapes, or listening to distressing testimony in court.
With Sexual Assault Awareness Month falling in April, they told TODAY about the emotional challenges they face, what cases have stuck with them, and whether increased scrutiny on sexual crimes has changed how they work.
‘I LITERALLY HAVE TO LOOK AWAY’
Gaining the trust of victims is key to developing a case, as there is often little to no physical evidence to work with. This means prosecutors must be able to empathise and try to understand what they are going through, said fellow DPP David Khoo.
“The whole process can be emotionally and even physically draining, and we go through a whole gamut of emotions. Even as we do so, it is important to remain objective and professional,” he added.
DPPs Uthrapathy and Khoo have prosecuted sex crimes for about a decade, handling cases including one in which a man sexually abused his wife’s underage brother and another where the leader of a youth gang sexually assaulted and raped a 13-year-old girl multiple times.
Such work can be extremely challenging given the need to go through graphic material — at times, even child pornography — and not everyone has the stomach for it, said DPP Uthrapathy.
When victims testify in court, she occasionally finds it difficult to hold back her tears.
“I literally have to look away and bite down to get a grip. As many times as we hear it, we are only human and sometimes our emotions get the better of us,” she added.
Investigation officers (IOs) from the police’s Serious Sexual Crime Branch, who are usually the first to get involved after a police report is lodged, also go through the same gut-wrenching emotions.
Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Zhang Yiwen, who has about six years of experience in the specialised branch, brought up a case where a victim had been badly beaten up with bruises all over her body.
“I was upset that someone could actually cause such harm on another person. When the accused person was finally caught, I had to maintain my composure and treat all the involved parties impartially and objectively,” DSP Zhang added.
On the other hand, defence lawyers stand up for accused persons, rooting out the mitigating circumstances and whether they had been falsely implicated.
Mr Gino Hardial Singh, who has practised criminal law for two decades after a stint in law enforcement, said that defence counsels cannot be squeamish about such cases.
"Different lawyers have differing approaches. Personally, it’s a combination of maintaining a professional distance (with clients) while being someone they can trust like a good friend,” he said.
Ms Tania Chin, partner in Withers KhattarWong’s criminal litigation team, said that she has not found it hard to handle her emotions as none of the alleged victims in her cases have been very young kids.
The most difficult part, she finds, is managing her clients’ and their families’ feelings.
“You also play the partial role of being a counsellor… I think it helps to be able to give (them) clarity in the legal process and it usually helps them prepare for the eventual outcome,” she added.
Having handled many cases over the years, what are some that have stood out?
For IO Jereld Xu, it was the reaction of a man, accused of sexually assaulting his stepdaughter starting from when she was 8, when he was finally nabbed.
During the investigation process, the man admitted that being arrested was “like having a huge burden being lifted off him”.
After pleading guilty, he asked to speak to DSP Xu to thank him for referring his family members to the appropriate social and financial support systems.
"This gave me a new perspective to these cases and made me realise just how meaningful my work has been all along,” the IO added.
For Mr Singh, one case that has stuck with him among the hundreds he has handled was a man charged with raping his biological mother. Mr Singh had been assigned to it through the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme, which matches lawyers to poor and needy offenders who are unable to afford one.
“Naturally, anger would well up within a person when having to digest the facts. Having said that, it is counterproductive to let your emotions get the better of you,” he said.
The late Senior Counsel Harry Elias eventually took over the case, with the man being convicted and sentenced to 16 years’ jail in 2018.
Ms Chin recalled a case where an elderly man was acquitted of molesting his domestic worker. During the trial, Ms Chin and her colleagues had managed to show that the maid wanted a transfer and falsely accused the most vulnerable member of the household.
“I've been asked many times how I am able to defend a person charged with serious offences. I remind them that everyone deserves the right to legal representation and to have their lawyers put forward the best defence available to them,” she added.
On top of the challenges of handling such cases, all agreed that with the rise of social media and the #metoo movement, there has been increased scrutiny of sexual crimes in the public eye.
In fact, recent high-profile cases in Singapore led to the Government’s proposal last month for harsher penalties for three particular sexual offences.
But the IOs, prosecutors and lawyers stressed that this has not fundamentally changed the way they handle such crimes, and that many different considerations and factors go into decisions or the sentences ultimately meted out.
DPP Uthrapathy pointed out that not everything is publicly reported all the time, especially given the sensitivities involved, while Ms Chin said that netizens have sometimes compared sentences between two very different offences such as traffic and sexual ones.
“Facts and circumstances are always fiercely scrutinised and debated in a crucible of robust lawyering by both the prosecution and defence,” Mr Singh added.
Despite all this, those interviewed said their jobs remain fulfilling as they are able to help victims, perpetrators and their families come to terms and move on.
For DPP Uthrapathy, the real passion and belief in what they do and what they can share with their junior colleagues drives them to press on.
She said: “It is inevitable that some of the more difficult and unsettling cases might cause us sleepless nights.
"But it is important never to lose sight of the reason why we are doing this job in the first place — to seek justice for the victims and give them a voice.”
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