Earlier this week, Malaysia’s Federal Court of Appeal quashed a drug trafficking conviction against Australian grandmother Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto, who was sentenced to hang year after being caught with 1.1 kilograms (2.43 pounds) of crystal methamphetamine.
Her death sentence was widely seen as a test case in Malaysia which initiated a moratorium on the death penalty late last year and announced capital punishment for drug trafficking would no longer be mandated under law but would be left to the discretion of the judges.
However, a full bench of five judges were unanimous in overturning her conviction after the defense successfully argued the 55-year-old mother of four was the victim of an online romance scam and had unwittingly carried the drugs through Malaysian customs.
Malaysia’s chief judge, Tengku Maimum Binti Tuan Mat, told prosecutors they had not produced enough evidence to support her conviction or the death penalty, while noting expert testimony as well.
The mother of four sat motionless in the court as defense lawyer Muhammad Shafee Abdullah argued a lower court had erred in their findings, saying, Witty along with testimony from customs officials and Exposto had left no doubt she was the victim of a scam.
A lower court initially found Exposto not guilty and believed her defense; that she was set-up by a man calling himself “Captain Daniel Smith” who claimed to be a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, the father of a teenage boy and a widower.
Photos of a dashing young captain accompanied their romantic online exchanges, and this, Shafee said, had “affected her heart and she fell in love with him”.
“Smith,” the defense said, concocted a story that he needed her in Shanghai where he would lodge documents that would enable him to formally retire from military service. After his retirement, they would be free to live together. She went, he did not.
Instead, she met a stranger who asked her to carry a backpack containing clothes to Melbourne, and, subsequently, packages of meth, also known as ice, were found hidden inside the lining of the backpack during a voluntary search while she was transiting through Kuala Lumpur.
Customs agents testified that when told there was ice in her bag she responded: “can’t be” – thinking the agents meant ice from the fridge, and when asked how she obtained the bag. Exposto spoke freely without seeking legal advice or help from the Australian High Commission.
“Her behavior was totally consistent with innocence,” Shafee said, and the same photos purporting to be “Smith” have since emerged online in other Internet scams.
However, the not guilty verdict was appealed by prosecutors who argued Exposto was willfully blind and claimed she often smirked in court (Shafee described it more as a smile and said that was simply her natural look).
Exposto was subsequently convicted and sentenced to hang as mandated by legislation, a judgement described by Shafee as “perverse”.
That verdict was overturned by the high court, and Exposto’s five-year ordeal was over with much relief for her family and friends who were in court, including her son Hugo who said the family had never lost hope.
Exposto’s case was also reminiscent of Australian drug runners Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers, who were the first Westerners sent to the Malaysian gallows, in 1986, which had put the country in the headlines and soured relations between Kuala Lumpur and Canberra. And while this may be just a single case, its implications will also be seen more broadly in terms of what it says about Malaysia’s domestic politics as well as its approach to the world.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt