Justice in the Dominique Lee’s case

NSF Private Dominique Sarron Lee died in 2012 during a training exercise. He had an allergic reaction to the zinc chloride in the smoke grenades that were used. Pte Dominique’s family had, in 2015, brought a law suit against SAF, Pte Dominique’s platoon commander, and the chief safety officer of the exercise.

All three defendants applied to strike out the lawsuit. The High Court agreed with the defendants and struck out the lawsuit. And seemingly to add insult to injury, Pte Dominique’s family was ordered to pay legal costs to the defendants.

Pte Dominique’s mother, Mdm Felicia Seah, wrote a heart wrenching “letter” to her son on a Facebook page that is dedicated to Pte Dominique. Pte Dominique’s mother has also sought help from the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP).

SAF has responded to Mdm Seah’s letter. In it, SAF clarified that the platoon commander and the chief safety officer of the exercise have been punished according to military law in 2013. SAF has also waived legal costs (though it’s still not clear whether the family of Pte Dominique has to pay legal costs for the other two officers).

It is unlikely that Pte Dominique’s family would find SAF’s response sufficient. Losing someone in such a manner is painful. I cannot say that I fully understand what Pte Dominique’s family is going through. But it must be extremely painful. I wonder what they need for them to finally find closure.

Perhaps they want someone to be punished even more. Perhaps they think that they will only find closure if the platoon commander and the chief safety officer of the exercise are sent to prison. But will they? Will that really help them find closure? It may. But is there justice in that?

SAF has been using smoke grenades that contain zinc chloride for over 30 years. Pte Dominique was the first to have died as a direct result from inhaling the zinc chloride from the smoke grenades. It is definitely unfortunate. But could anything have been done to prevent this? Bear in mind that the Coroner’s Inquiry found that it was unlikely that Pte Dominique’s allergy could have been predicted. This is why no criminal charges were brought against the platoon commander and the chief safety officer of the exercise.

Then imagine if all training safety regulations have been followed and Pte Dominique had still died as a result of his allergy to zinc chloride. What then? Would Pte Dominique’s family still sue SAF? Would we be as sympathetic to the family then? Would we be as angry at SAF then? Would we still be baying for the blood of the platoon commander and the chief safety officer of the exercise?

“But the number of grenades used exceeded the safe limit!” True. But the Coroner’s Inquiry couldn’t say for certain if Pte Dominique would still have died if the concentration of zinc chloride was lower. In other words, even if the officers had followed the training safety regulations and only used two grenades and discharged them at the required distance apart, Pte Dominique may still have died.

If the coroner had found conclusively that Pte Dominique would not have died if the concentration of zinc chloride was lower (i.e. if only two smoke grenades were discharged), then there is definitely a case to prosecute the platoon commander and the chief safety officer. This would also be the case if Pte Dominique’s family can find some expert witness to prove that.

On the other hand, without any conclusive evidence to show that Pte Dominique wouldn’t have died if the concentration of zinc chloride was lower, shouldn’t we assume that the two officers are innocent? Shouldn’t that be the core tenet of our justice system? That someone is innocent until proven guilty? And if Pte Dominique’s family isn’t able to show that they have any new and credible evidence that contradicts what the coroner has found, then should there even be a trial?

One young man has had his life cut short. That is a great tragedy.

It would be another tragedy if the lives of another two men were ruined because they were punished excessively. Especially since they have already received some form of punishment. Punishing the two men any more than what they deserved isn’t going to bring Pte Dominique back. It won’t serve to prevent similar incidents from happening. In fact, I would say that it would serve no purpose whatsoever.

We can’t bring Pte Dominique back to life. But we can stop another tragedy from happening.

[Featured image: the Uniform by Flickr user Gramicidin. CC BY 2.0]

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2 thoughts on “Justice in the Dominique Lee’s case

  1. Just three points. One, in a case like this, how do you bring in expert witnesses to testify against the G ? Two, the costs to be paid were awarded by the court; in these circumstances, I believe MINDEF will not pursue the costs to be paid; they may even just waive the costs as a gesture. And finally, the manner this case has been handled: it does not in any way give assurance to those parents with male children. I have a son; I don’t like the way this has been handled; extremely poor PR.

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    • I think SAF has already waived the costs to be paid. Not sure if the other two guys have done the same…

      If the family had really wanted to fight the case and appeal against the striking out of the suit, the family would need to bring in some medical expert to testify that the density of zinc chloride would have made a difference in whether Dominique died. It would definitely be costly. But… I think that would be the proper legal process.

      I agree that the PR wasn’t well handled. But that’s a different issue altogether. Imagine if your son was the platoon commander instead of Pte Dominique. How would you feel?

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