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The Murder of Sherry Ann Duncan and Prospects for Due Process in Criminal Trials

by Samson Lim

30 September 2009

Based on the evidence they had compiled, the police were probably not wrong to make the arrests. Of particular importance was the testimony of Pramern. His statement to the police indicated that he had seen clearly four of the suspects carrying a girl with ‘golden hair’ walk out from the back of a building on Suan Phlu Lane at approximately 11:30pm the night the girl disappeared. Pramern, who was in the area looking for passengers, pulled his rickshaw in closer to the group to ask if they needed a ride. They waved him off, saying that they had their own car. Pramern then noticed a white, two-door sedan parked in the alley next to the building. He said it was a clear evening; there were no clouds in the sky. Ambient light from the moon overhead and from nearby street lamps illuminated the otherwise deserted street. Pramern, who was brought to the station to identify the suspects, successfully pointed out the four men to the police.

In Thailand, police frequently take accused persons to the scene of an offense to act out the crime; these morbid play-acts are then aired on TV newscasts. On 29 August, the suspects were taken to the scene of the incident to act out Pramern’s testimony. The police took photos and included them in their files as evidence. Together with testimony from various witnesses and circumstantial evidence including criminal records for some of the suspects, a white, two-door Mazda owned by Winai, autopsy reports, and the dead girl’s belongings, the Samut Prakan provincial court proceeded to try Winai’s four associates for the murder. Winai himself was released due to lack of evidence linking him directly to the case. In 1990, after a drawn out and well-publicized trial the court convicted all four suspects for murder and sentenced them to death.

A Different Story Comes to Light

A few years after the verdict, the story of Sherry Ann’s death was given a different ending. During a second trial, this one in 1996, another set of defendants was tried for the same crime – the murder of Sherry Ann Duncan – after the second trial it was revealed that Pramern, the prosecution’s key witness in the first trial, had fabricated his testimony at the behest of the Samut Prakan police. He did not actually see Winai’s four associates dragging Sherry Ann from the back of an office building on the night of 22 July 1986. In fact, he was not anywhere near the offices of Quality Architect and Maintenance that night. His testimony was a lie and the reenactment that followed was staged to ‘make’ the police’s case. When this new trial ended, the story of the girl’s murder had a new group of villains.

Turning Back the Clock

How did this alternative ending come about? Winai, after being released, was filled with a horrible sense of injustice of having been wrongfully convicted and proceeded to pursue the case on his own, insisting that his associates were innocent. He claimed another group of suspects was responsible. Officers from the Crime Suppression Division of the national police thus began a secret investigation in parallel with the trial of Winai’s associates. On 3 June 1988, a letter marked ‘secret’ from the Crime Suppression Division to the office of the special prosecutor of Samut Prakan province was written asking that the court consider suspending the trial of the four men accused of murdering Sherry Ann Duncan. The letter stated that the Crime Suppression Division had sufficient evidence to indicate that the four men on trial were not involved in the death of Sherry Ann. It added ominously that if the case went on a grave ‘injustice’ could result.

The special prosecutor decided to continue the case because the evidence in the Crime Suppression Division’s secret investigation files could not be accepted. According to Ministry of Interior document number 31/9 dated 28 October 1954 criminal cases could not be stopped once initiated and the police had no power to investigate cases while they were being tried. Since the court could not accept the Crime Suppression Division’s report, it technically had no evidence that the four men accused were in fact the wrong men. Therefore, the trial would not be stopped. The information contained in the Crime Suppression Division’s letter thus remained as marked – ‘secret.’

When the four men were finally declared innocent by the Supreme Court, the public had been worked into a tizzy. Local papers, oblivious to their own role in making the case a sensational, must-read real-crime drama, came out with pages of editorials decrying the injustice that had been done. Meanwhile, rumors and gossip about the identity of the ‘real’ killers circulated the eating houses and market places of Bangkok. Just as the chatter had subsided, a second set of defendants was arrested in 1995 and another trial was initiated for the murder of Sherry Ann. As part of this second trial, Pramern was again a key witness and again took part in a reenactment. In this one he showed Crime Suppression Division officers how he met officers from Samut Prakan at a shabby curtain-motel near a petrol station in Phra Khanong district to ‘discuss’ what he had seen on 22 July. With the second reenactment, one crime story was replaced by another. Rumors became facts and facts became lies. The urgent ‘secret’ in the letter dated 3 June 1988 was finally revealed and the pitfalls of the legal system that that secret facilitated were exposed.

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