Kolani Junior Lam, serving a life sentence for the murder of his wife, former government CEO Sa’u Justina Sa’u, is challenging the pathologist report that led to his conviction in the Supreme Court.
The Chief Executive Officer of the Unit Trust of Samoa, Sa’u Justina Sa’u-Lam died tragically on Sunday 21st October 2018. An astute CEO known to her peers as driven and motivated, Sau’s untimely death had shocked the nation.
Her husband claimed Sa’u had committed suicide. The Police were not convinced and a week later on the 27th of October, Kolani Jnr Lam was charged with murder.
Justice Niava Mata Tuatagaloa presided over a judge-only hearing and in December 2019, a conviction was handed down with the mandatory life sentence.
Said Justice Tuatagaloa at the time, “Defence believed Justina hung herself and that suicide is the cause of death.. The Court has accepted the report of the pathologist and finds that Kolani Junior Lam strangled his wife using his hands”.
In a historical case for Samoa, then Attorney Genearal Lemalu Hermann Retzlaff had fought to allow propensity evidence or previous incidents of abuse, in order to demonstrate a sustained pattern of violence.
As a result, Prosecution presented 30 witnesses including Justina’s daughter, mother, her best friends and babysitters; all giving allowable propensity evidence of regular abuse riddled with known signs of domestic violence such as power and control, isolation, denial and the cycle of violence where explosive incidents are followed by honeymoon periods.
Court of Appeal
In the Court of Appeal this week Lam’s overseas-based Counsel Mr Mathew Goodwin, launched a challenge against the decision of Justice Niava Mata Tuatagaloa.
Mr Goodwin argued the evidence against his client had been circumstantial, and the pathologist report relied upon by the Supreme Court was inconclusive.
“It concluded the bruises on the deceased’s neck could have been caused by either hanging or strangulation..”
Goodwin argued the bruises were caused by Lam trying to resuscitate his wife who had allegedly attempted self-strangulation.
He added that Kolani Lam had tried to resuscitate his late wife, and in the process of administering CPR, had held her neck.
Justice Raynor Asher presiding over the Court of Appeal, asked Mr Goodwin why there was a need for the defendant to hold the victim’s neck during resuscitation.
“Is it not common knowledge that when someone is trying to resuscitate another person, one does not put pressure on that person’s neck?”
The pathologist who performed the autopsy on Sa’u, Dr Paul Botterill, had stated that while the cause of death could either be due to strangulation or hanging, “it was more likely a result of strangulation”.
In the Court of Appeal this week, Mr Goodwin called Dr Collins who took the stand via videolink.
Dr Collins provided an alternative professional opinion of the forensic findings, however, he also admitted that in his many years of being a pathologist, he had never seen so many bruises on an alleged suicide victim.
Justice Raynor Asher asked about “six distinctive bruises” on the victim’s neck listed in the pathologist report.
Dr Collins replied that it would require real force to cause such bruises.
The Court of Appeal again heard from the pathologist who carried out the autopsy three years ago.
Dr Paul Botterill took the stand and defended his report against the argument that the bruises were caused by the resuscitation.
Dr Botterill explained that if resuscitation had been carried out properly the accused would not have been required to touch the victim’s neck at all.
Dr Botterill added that in his many years of experience in performing post mortems, he had never seen so many bruises on a resuscitated victim.
The Court of Appeal will continue to hear cases through to next week. Justice Tologata Tafaoimalo Leilani Tuala-Warren is presiding over the Appeals Court alongside two overseas-based judges.