Jurors in the Hong Kong trial over the death of a five-year-old girl and the abuse of her brother were reminded on Thursday not to let feelings cloud their judgment while deliberating the fate of the children’s family members.
“You should not let your emotions affect your decision,” Mr Justice Albert Wong Sung-hau told the panel of three men and four women. “Please do not succumb to any emotional feelings as children are involved.”
The High Court jury is expected to retire next week for deliberations on a string of charges, following the conclusion of the judge’s legal directions and his summary of the evidence.
Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.
The children’s 29-year-old father and 30-year-old stepmother have admitted to abusing both of them over a period of 150 days from August 10, 2017, but have denied murdering the girl, who died of septicaemia on January 6, 2018.
Meanwhile, their 56-year-old step-grandmother has denied all four counts of child cruelty alleging the wilful ill-treatment and neglect of both the girl and her eight-year-old brother over the same period.
None of the defendants can be named because of a gag order from Wong aimed at protecting the children’s identity.
Prosecutors have said the chronic abuse was a significant cause of the girl’s death because it weakened her immune system’s ability to fight the salmonella infection that eventually killed her.
That was reflected by the experts’ finding of a “very serious” shrinkage of the girl’s thymus – a vital organ responsible for the production of T-cells that fight salmonella – which had decreased to a size more commonly seen in the elderly, despite it generally being at its largest in children her age.
The parents have accepted they caused the death, but their offer to plead guilty to manslaughter, as opposed to murder, was rejected by the prosecution.
Both said they did not know about the deterioration of the thymus when they used corporal punishment for the purpose of teaching the girl, and both denied having the intent to cause her grievous bodily harm, which is required to prove murder.
While there was no direct proof the parents had that intent, prosecutors believed the jury could infer they did based on the circumstantial evidence, in particular, the extent and severity of the girl’s injuries, and the lack of proper medical care.
In directing the jury, the judge said this intent was a separate issue for consideration, even if the parents’ claim was accepted.
“Teaching and disciplining, and having the required intent are not necessarily mutually exclusive,” Wong said. “That a person hates another does not necessarily mean he bears the intent to harm the other, and vice versa.”
To answer this key question of intent, he said the jury would have to consider the parents’ conduct and understanding of the effect of their acts or omissions, as well as their knowledge and perception of the child’s injuries and general health.
Jurors would also have to think about the manner and circumstances under which the injuries were caused, and how serious they were.
In the case of the stepmother, Wong said her claim of severe depression was a further point of consideration, as the psychiatric illness was said to have affected her judgment.
But the condition of the girl’s thymus would be irrelevant, he said, given there was no evidence her parents had the slightest awareness of its deterioration.
Wong further directed the jury to consider the alternative charge of manslaughter if they were not satisfied that prosecutors had proved murder beyond a reasonable doubt.
As for the step-grandmother, the judge said the jury would have to consider whether the children were in her custody, charge or care, and if so, whether she had deliberately or recklessly ill-treated or breached a duty of care she owed to them in a manner likely to cause them unnecessary suffering.
The judge will continue summing up the evidence on Friday.