SINGAPORE: A man accused of molesting a woman on a Singapore Airlines flight from Japan to Singapore was acquitted of the charge on Tuesday (Sep 15), after the judge found that the woman's testimony was not strong enough for a conviction based solely on it.
He found that the account of American national Roberto Eduardo De Vido, 56, was consistent and accepted it as "a truthful account of what transpired during the flight".
Mr De Vido had testified that he was sleeping and explained his routine during the flight, on which he was a frequent traveller, said District Judge Bala Reddy.
Mr De Vido was accused of molesting a 25-year-old woman, whose identity is protected by gag order, during a flight on a Singapore-controlled aircraft in June last year from Japan's Haneda Airport to Changi Airport.
He was accused of using criminal force on the woman, who sat next to him, by touching her left thigh and groin and outraging her modesty.
For the charge to be made out, the prosecution had to show beyond reasonable doubt that the accused used criminal force on the woman and that he did so knowing that it was likely to outrage the woman's modesty, said the judge.
In sexual offences where the only evidence before the court is a bare allegation against a bare denial by the accused, the court must be satisfied that the complainant's evidence is unusually compelling before it can convict the accused, he said.
THE WOMAN'S ACCOUNT
In this case, the woman alleged that Mr De Vido had touched her twice after the lights in the aircraft were switched off.
She alleged that his hand touched her left thigh before moving upwards in a "crawling" motion, demonstrating it in court.
She said she initially thought he had touched her by accident, so she told him about it and moved his hand back to his seat.
A short while later, she said his hand "slowly crawled upwards again from above her knee" up to her inner thigh and groin.
At a loss of what to do, she said she crossed her legs and leaned away, and felt uneasy for the rest of the flight.
Mr De Vido had testified that he struck up a conversation with the woman shortly after the flight took off, moving to the middle seat from his assigned aisle seat to continue chatting.
She did not object, and he asked her about her trip to Japan and her later travel plans, recommending her a few good restaurants in Bangkok and entering the details in the woman's phone.
"Notably, he also included his name and mobile phone number in the entry," said the judge.
Mr De Vido testified that the conversation ended when he closed his eyes and went to sleep. He said he woke up an hour before landing and used the washroom, gesturing to the woman if she wanted help with retrieving her bag from the overhead compartment, but she declined.
"I found that there were serious doubts in the testimony of (the woman) besides the weaknesses in the manner in which this case was investigated," said Judge Reddy.
PROBLEMS WITH HER EVIDENCE
He said he found her evidence "highly unsatisfactory and in some aspects incredulous".
"Having carefully observed her giving evidence and also her demonstrations, both during examination in chief and cross examination, I was left in no doubt that she is a completely unreliable witness on whose sole testimony a conviction for a sexual offence cannot be sustained," he said.
He explained that the woman's description and demonstration of how the touching took place was "implausible", as he could not see how Mr De Vido could have reached out with his hands twisted in such an awkward position to touch her.
While noting that there is no prescribed way in which victims of sexual assault are expected to act, the judge said one of the most striking factors was that the woman made no attempt to draw any attention to what was "supposedly a very distressing and disturbing sexual attack on her".
"She was on a Singapore Airlines flight with a predominantly Singaporean crew. She alleged that despite her efforts at dissuading the accused from touching her, he continued to persist and she did nothing to call for assistance from the crew or anyone around her," he said, adding that the woman "could offer no credible answer to why she had not alerted a crew member, or simply got out of her seat and freed herself of the torment".
The woman was also not a first-time traveller and was familiar with in-cabin controls, and could have at least pressed the call button to seek help.
When the flight landed in Singapore, she also made no attempt to draw attention to what had allegedly happened to her, said the judge.
The woman's original statement of what had happened was also different from her account in court.
"In a sexual offence charge such as the present where the victim gives an account in court of the actual act of molestation which is critically different from her earlier statement and is unable to explain the fresh and vivid account not stated in her earlier statement, the court is left in serious doubt over her evidence," said the judge.
He also said the woman had embellished her account as she went along giving evidence on the stand and also did not give any details of the incident to a friend she called after landing, even though she knew he was a police officer.
On the other hand, he found Mr De Vido's testimony truthful and consistent, saying it would have made no sense for him to provide his contact details if he was preparing to molest the woman.
"I was fortified in my finding that the accused had given a truthful account of the events during the flight by his conduct and actions even up to the time of alighting the flight when he offered to bring (the woman's) luggage from the overhead compartment and her politely saying 'no, thank you' which is consistent with his denial of any wrongdoing," said Judge Reddy.
"Such conduct of the accused is clearly not of a person who had just sexually molested (the woman)."
Mr De Vido was defended by lawyers Wendell Wong, Benedict Eoon and Evelyn Tan from Drew & Napier.
If he had been convicted of the charge, he would have faced a maximum jail term of two years, a fine and caning.