Man who murdered pregnant wife, daughter appeals against death penalty

·Senior Reporter
·4 min read
PHOTO: Teo Ghim Heng/Facebook
PHOTO: Teo Ghim Heng/Facebook

SINGAPORE — A former property agent sentenced to death for killing his heavily-pregnant wife and their four-year-old daughter in 2017 has appealed his conviction and sentence at the Apex Court on Wednesday (13 October).

Teo Ghim Heng, 46, strangled his wife Choong Pei Shan and then his daughter on 20 January 2017. He placed their bodies side by side on his bed and slept next to them for a week with the air conditioning on. He then set them on fire in his home before policemen came knocking.

He was found guilty on two counts of murder with intention under section 300(a) of the Penal Code by Justice Kannan Ramesh on 20 November last year. Those charges carry the mandatory death penalty. 

Teo is represented by lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam, Johannes Hadi and Suang Wijaya, who argued on Wednesday that Justice Ramesh's finding - that Teo did not suffer from major depressive disorder at the time of the offences, which could have substantially impaired his mental responsibility - was against the weight of the evidence.

The lawyers argued that Teo’s impaired state of mind due to his major depressive disorder availed him to the partial defence of diminished responsibility, and that Section 300(a) under the Penal Code was unconstitutional.

Said the lawyers, “(Teo) was a quiet and reserved man who doted on his wife and daughter. By all accounts, they were a close and loving family. We also know that (Teo) was under tremendous stress from his precipitous occupational decline and financial ruin.

“On 20 January 2017, in the midst of being berated by his wife, something snapped in him. He strangled his wife and then their daughter to death. Two of the three psychiatrists who examined him diagnosed him with depressive disorder. The last psychiatrist, while accepting that there was an overall ‘loss of who he (previously) was’, diagnosed him instead with adjustment disorder."

Arguing before Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, Justices Belinda Ang, Chao Hick Tin, Steven Chong and Judith Prakash, Thuraisingam cited witnesses who testified to Teo’s character during the trial.

The principal of his daughter’s kindergarten had testified that he did not talk much and scared some teachers due to his “stoic look” . Others testified to his introverted personality.

However Justice Chong noted that this was not “remarkable behaviour”.

“I think you need to engage the court on adverse findings... all this is (a) general description of his behaviour pre-offence. His immediate conduct post-offence, in that six to seven days between the murder and his arrest, is pretty significant. I think you need to deal with that,” he said, referring to Teo's reaction to his offence, his responses to family members who were looking for his wife, and to those trying to enter his house.

Several family members and Teo's colleagues had visited the flat but did not get a response. Teo had also lied to his family members and in-laws to explain his family’s absence from Chinese New Year reunion dinners and Chinese New Year visits.

Arguments over his 'abnormal state of mind' 

Thuraisingam then pointed out a psychiatric report on Teo’s “abnormal state of mind” as seen by how he continued to sleep on the same bed as the corpses for some eight days, and how he tried to commit suicide on multiple occasions.

Teo had been labouring under mounting debts, which gave him a feeling of hopelessness, added the lawyer. During the murder of his wife, Teo has testified that his mind went blank, showing that he was in some form of distress, said Thuraisingam.

However CJ Menon said Teo’s financial difficulties were not controversial. He added that the trial judge had dealt with the argument of diminished mental responsibility in “considerable detail” by looking at corroborative evidence against Teo’s self-reported symptoms to the psychiatrist.

The trial judge had considered that Teo's decision not to abort his unborn baby, and to sell the flat to raise money, was suggestive of an “element of hope”, said CJ Menon. 

Justice Prakash also said that if Teo had truly given up, he would have confessed or truly killed himself. However Teo had tried to put everyone off his trail, made excuses and carried on life as per normal.

Arguing against the defence was Deputy Public Prosecutor Winston Man, who said that Teo’s “error of judgment” did not cross the threshold of diminished responsibility as Teo presented the picture of a “wholly-functional human” being able to make concerted efforts to perform well at work and to delay discovery.

The prosecution argued that the assessment of the psychiatrist relied on by the defence was “not sufficiently robust” and “unduly relied on self-reported symptoms”.

Judgement was reserved and will be given at a later date. 

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