SMU molest trial: Student found guilty of molesting woman in study room

·Senior Reporter
·6-min read
(Yahoo News Singapore file photo)
(Yahoo News Singapore file photo)

SINGAPORE — A Singapore Management University (SMU) business undergraduate accused of molesting a woman in a study room on campus was found guilty on Tuesday (31 August).

Lee Yan Ru, 25, was accused of rubbing his genitals on the woman as she lay on the floor of a study room in SMU at around 6.30am on 8 January 2019. The two had agreed to meet at SMU for an overnight study session.

In the five hours leading up to the molest, separate incidents also occurred between the two. However, these were not the subject of any charges. 

According to the then 22-year-old victim, she had been rejecting Lee’s advances during these incidents by pushing him away, or telling him to go away and to stop his actions.

In his defence, Lee maintained that the woman had been growing more comfortable with him and had not minded his advances despite her seeming resistance at the time of the incident.

No 'typical reaction' to sexual assault

Pronouncing Lee guilty, District Judge Sharmila Sripathy-Shanaz found that Lee's testimony in court materially contradicted his evidence in a police statement made after the incident, and rejected Lee's assertion that he had believed the woman to have consented to the act. 

DJ Sripathy-Shanaz also said that the victim impressed her as "an inherently credible, forthcoming witness who provided her evidence with clarity and without hesitation or embellishment". She noted the victim's testimony that she "neither welcomed nor reciprocated" Lee's various advances towards her in the course of the night.

"My observations about her demeanour coupled with the quality of her evidence which was textured and rich in detail, shows the intensity of her experience and bears the ring of truth. Her unmistakably clear evidence of what she saw, notwithstanding her shock and initial disorientation, leads me to conclude that Mr Lee was indeed already in the midst of masturbating on her when she awoke," said the judge.

Given that the molest was initiated while the victim was asleep, she clearly was not in a position to consent, the judge added.

Addressing the defence's argument that the victim had not left anytime in the night, DJ Sripathy-Shanaz stressed, "It must be remembered that just as there is no typical victim and no typical sexual offender, there is no typical reaction to sexual assault." 

"We would do well as a society to reject the antediluvian notion that a real victim of sexual assault behaves in a prescribed way," said the judge. She added that she was satisfied by the victim's explanation for her "seemingly counter-intuitive behaviour", and that the victim had believed Lee would not try to make further advances towards her when she was asleep. 

While the victim's decision not to leave earlier might have been "unwise", the judge said she did not find it undermined the cogency of her evidence. 

Met up to study together

According to evidence tendered in court, the woman said that Lee had invited her to study together at the study room at around 12am on 8 January.

The two then met at about 1am outside the School of Economics and Social Science building of SMU before Lee brought her to the study room. There, the woman studied until 2am when she began feeling tired.

At that point, she began watching a show on Netflix, and Lee allegedly sat beside her. Lee claimed that the light was a little too glaring and suggested for the two to move under the table.

While under the table, Lee allegedly placed both his hands under her shirt and squeezed her breasts. She then claimed that Lee tried to kiss her but she refused his advances. After she tried to crawl out from under the table, Lee had tried to pull her back and the victim grabbed onto a table leg to resist. 

Later, at about 4am, Lee allegedly fell asleep on a chair while the woman covered her head with a jacket and fell asleep on the floor. As she was sleeping, she suddenly felt a weight on top of her. She removed her jacket to find Lee masturbating above her.

Lee later testified in court that when she told him to “stop”, he did not perceive this to actually mean, stop”. Instead, he claimed that he believed she wanted him to carry on as she had spoken in what he described as a playful, jestful and coy tone.

He only ceased upon ejaculating towards her facial area. Some semen reached her hair, according to a police officer who gave evidence in court.

After the incident, Lee wiped the woman’s neck, face and hair with tissue paper and discarded these in a plastic bag.

Afterward, the woman left the room for the security counter at the first level, followed by Lee. She spoke to the building’s security officer before calling the police.

Lee's evidence in court contradicted police statements: Judge 

In passing judgement on Lee, DJ Sripathy-Shanaz said she considered his police statements taken together with his testimony in court. 

"Ultimately, I find that there was no unqualified mention of Lee's police statement of the alleged mutually playful, sexually intimate, coy mood between the parties, the mantra that he so readily bandied throughout the trial," she said. 

On the contrary, Lee's statement contained "numerous expressions" referring to the victim avoiding him, saying 'no', resisting him, saying she felt uncomfortable, and struggling - all of which betrayed his knowledge that the victim neither welcomed nor consented to the sexual advances, noted the judge.

Lee had agreed that the victim held onto the table leg when he attempted to pull her back. When asked by his own lawyer in court, Lee admitted that he thought the woman did not want to get closer to him by pulling the table leg. 

Under cross examination, Lee had prevaricated on why she held onto the table leg, claiming not only that the woman voluntarily returned, but that the interaction was "playful". 

When confronted with the discrepancy between his statement and testimony, Lee "weakly" claimed that he was merely referring to her pulling on the table leg, and it did not mean she was resisting him, noted the judge, who accepted that the victim had rejected all of Lee's advances by making plain her refusal either verbally or through her body language. 

"Given the inexplicable material omissions and contradictions in Mr Lee’s testimony in court and his police statement, I find that Mr Lee has concocted nothing more than a fanciful account of events to buttress his narrative that he had been engaged in mutual playful banter of a sexual nature with the complainant throughout the night and leading to the act in question," said the judge. 

"To my mind, this was nothing more than a desperate bid to reshape the truth and I reject it accordingly." 

Commenting on the specific act of molest, DJ Sripathy-Shanaz noted that even if Lee had truly believed the woman had consented to act by her behaviour prior to the offending incident, there was "no basis to stretch any perceived prior consent", which was in fact a "dramatic escalation in sexual explicitness and of a different character altogether". 

"Consent is ultimately specific to each act, and not a blank cheque to be cashed heedlessly,” she said, quoting the prosecution's submissions.  

Lee will return to court on 18 October for his sentencing and mitigation hearing. 

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