The longest day - Lorraine Cohen's day in court

Last updated 05:00 29/05/2014

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The longest day of Lorraine Cohen's life was spent in the Kuala Lumpur Supreme Court on August 9, 1989, as she waited for the court to tell her whether her life would be spared.

Two years earlier she had been sentenced to hang by the neck until dead for trafficking 140.78 grams of heroin, by the man known in Penang as the hanging judge, Dzaiddin Abdullah.

The Lorraine Cohen I knew while covering three years of courtroom drama in Malaysia was a pleasant, likeable toughie.

I'll never forget the look of belligerence she gave the hanging judge as he sentenced her to death.

The same judge had spared her son, Aaron, who was born a heroin addict, telling him that he had escaped the gallows by the "skin of his teeth". Instead, he was sentenced to 20 years in jail and six strokes of the rotan cane for possession of 34.61 grams of heroin for his own use.

I was there, too, for the Supreme Court appeal in Kuala Lumpur when Lorraine Cohen's death sentence was overturned and replaced by a 20-year jail term.

Throughout proceedings in the stately courtroom, she publicly put on a brave front for her son. Away from the limelight, however, it was a different story.

In the lockup, her hands were shaking uncontrollably. She couldn't even light a cigarette for Aaron.

For his part, Aaron took the appeal proceedings in his relaxed stride. He slept through most of the submissions in which prosecutors appealed to have his sentence increased to a death penalty.

The longest hour of Lorraine Cohen's life began when the appeal court rose to consider its verdict. A lawyer - and would-be palmist - took her hands in his own, looked into her eyes, studied the configurations on her palms, and pronounced positively that she would enjoy a long life.

Cohen also spoke quietly to her own lawyer Karpal Singh, who died last month. "This is it, mate. If I go down now, I'm finished," she said.

She had difficulty standing between two female wardens for the verdict in front of her son, who was handcuffed to a male warden at the rear of the dock.

The lord president first of all dismissed the public prosecutor's appeal seeking the death penalty for Aaron, and the defence appeal seeking a reduction of his jail and whipping sentences.

Aaron looked at me from the dock with an inquiring look on his face, seeking an explanation of what had happened. I told him: "You will live, but you have been sentenced to 20 years in jail and a six-stroke whipping." He was not impressed.

Attention then turned to his mother, who was told judge Dzaiddin in Penang had done her a favour. The Supreme Court disagreed with his findings that the needle marks on her arms had been caused by bashings from a de facto husband.

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Instead, it found the marks on her arms were those of a multiple intravenous drug user. Her death penalty conviction was reduced from trafficking to possession.

Like her son, she, too was sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment. They went on to serve 11 years in Penang jail, before being released under a royal pardon and returning home to New Zealand.

- The Dominion Post

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