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

by Samson Lim

30 September 2009

The Wrong Men

On 26 July 1986, Mr. Winai Chaiphanit, 41, Sherry Ann’s caretaker, went to the country’s top-selling newspaper Thai Rat and reported that she had not returned to her rented apartment in eastern Bangkok since leaving for school on the morning of 22 July 1986. He wanted the paper’s help to look for clues and announced a 20,000 baht reward for her return. The next day, the paper published a small story on its front page entitled, “School Girl Goes Missing – Mysterious Taxi Pick-up after Class.”

At about 9am the day before Thai Rat published the story, Mr. Sangat Srimuang discovered a body of a girl in Sam Forrest in Samut Prakan province, just east of Bangkok, near Sukhumvit Road at kilometer 41. Sangat notified the police the same day and by 12:10 pm Police Captain Prayat Ngao-ngam was ordered to investigate the case.  With the discovery of the girl’s body and the missing person report, the police began haphazardly assembling the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

Working from a tip given to them by a rickshaw driver, the police arrested five men. After questioning, and as a result of a cursory and ultimately flawed investigation, five Thai men found themselves charged with Sherry Ann’s murder. The small provincial court in Samut Prakan declared that enough evidence existed to try four of the five accused.

The case was shuffled through the court system with the mechanical predictability of an assembly line. Four years later the court found the four defendants guilty and sentenced them to death.

The defendants, who maintained their innocence throughout, immediately appealed the verdict. Three years afterwards, in June 1993, in an unusual turn of events, the Supreme Court acquitted all four men and ordered them released. Reprieve came too late, however, as one defendant died, another contracted a disease that would eventually kill him and a third became crippled – all while in jail.

This is the story about the police investigation and trial of the four men accused of killing Sherry Ann and how the case brought to light certain glaring deficiencies in Thailand’s criminal justice system.  It ultimately led to concrete changes in the nation’s basic law, the constitution, spelling out in detail for the first time a number of safeguards aimed at ensuring due process in criminal trials. In the face of constant political change, however, the prospects for lasting legal reform in Thailand may be more difficult to sustain than to initiate.

The Precocious Child

Sherry Ann Duncan was born 21 May 1970 in Chiang Mai to Mrs. Kloi Jai Duncan and Mr. George W. Duncan. A precocious child, it was said she could speak English, Thai, and even Mandarin. Upon returning from a short stint abroad with her father, an engineer, in 1978, Sherry Ann lived mostly with her maternal grandmother in Thonburi as it was closer to her school at the time. During that time Sherry Ann would visit her parents on weekends. It was around 1985 that her life began to change. She met Winai, an older man educated abroad and owner of his own company, that year. They became close and she would eventually change schools and move into an apartment, arranged for her by Winai, in eastern Bangkok. Around the same time, her grandmother passed away, perhaps pushing her closer to Winai. In addition to Winai, Sherry Ann had a boyfriend named Somatcha, over whom Winai and Sherry Ann had argued a month before her death. It was this aspect of the girl’s life that led to various insinuations about her relationships with men in the press and that helped make the case a must read story. How much of this was ‘true’ or simply the speculation of news reporters and schoolmates is difficult to know.

The Initial Investigation

The police interviewed Sherry Ann’s friends and relatives and people in the area where her body was found. Armed with their testimony, the police went about as best they could to construct a story about the night of the girl’s death, one that would hopefully shed light on an otherwise puzzling situation. In the end an autopsy report showed that the girl had died from lack of oxygen to the brain without stating how this had happened. It did, however, state that there were no indications of a struggle or that the girl had been sexually assaulted, as people believed then and even now.

A break in the case finally came on 20 August when Mr. Pramern Photphalat, a rickshaw driver, went to Sherry Ann’s mother, Mrs. Kloi Jai Duncan to tell her that he had seen four men carrying a girl fitting the description of Sherry Ann out the back of an office building on the night of 22 July. Together, the two went to the police in Samut Prakan to make a report. The building in question, it turns out, was the location of the offices of Quality Architect and Maintenance, Ltd., owned by Sherry Ann’s caretaker Winai. The next day the police arrested five men – Winai and four of his associates, Mr. Rungchalerm Kanokchawalachai (46), Mr. Phithak Khakhai (30), Mr. Krasae Phloiklum (33), and Mr. Thawat Prayun (30) – on suspicion of murdering Sherry Ann Duncan.

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