CUHK professor’s murder conviction overturned, case sent for retrial

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Professor Khaw Kim-sun (left) and his wife Khaw Siew-fing (right).

21st November 2023 – (Hong Kong) The Court of Final Appeal has overturned the murder conviction of former Chinese University of Hong Kong associate professor Khaw Kim-sun, who was accused of killing his wife and teenage daughter by poisoning them with a carbon monoxide-filled yoga ball. The court ruled that there were substantial and wide-ranging legal disputes in the case, granting Khaw permission to appeal. Following the recent hearing, the court unanimously concluded that the trial judge had erred in instructing the jury on the issue of who placed the yoga ball in the car trunk. Consequently, the case will be sent for retrial.

The 56-year-old appellant, Khaw Kim-sun, stood accused of the murders of his wife, Wong Siew-fing (47), and their daughter, Khaw Lai-ling (16), which occurred on 22nd May, 2015. According to the judgment, the pivotal question in the case revolved around the identity of the person who placed the yoga ball in the car trunk and the motive behind it. The prosecution argued that it was the appellant’s doing and presented environmental evidence to support their claim. On the other hand, the defence proposed the possibility that the daughter had placed the yoga ball in the trunk and removed the plug to release carbon monoxide for pest control, suggesting that the deaths may have been accidental. The appellant contended that the trial judge’s inference regarding the allegedly missing plug had led to erroneous instructions to the jury, resulting in substantial and grave unfairness.

The Court of Final Appeal concurred with the appellant’s argument, stating that the trial judge’s instructions had allowed the jury to speculate and draw inferences about the condition of the car trunk when the victims died. Given that the appellant had other yoga balls at home and a spare plug was found in a drawer, the evidential value of proving that the appellant placed the yoga ball in the vehicle was minimal. The trial judge should have, at the very least, cautioned the jury that there was no evidence linking the plug found in the drawer to the yoga ball in the car trunk. The Court of Final Appeal held that the trial judge’s instructions could have led the jury to adopt legally impermissible reasoning, thereby negating the possibility of the daughter using carbon monoxide for pest control and subsequently placing the yoga ball in the vehicle. Taking all these factors into consideration, the Court of Final Appeal allowed the appellant’s appeal, quashed the conviction, and ordered a retrial on the charges of double murder.