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Memoirs of the Trial Judge

It was all because of the Godber case. He received anonymous letters uttering threats against him. He was under great public pressure. He was criticised for failing to mete out a heavy enough sentence……

For Ti-liang Yang, who presided over the trial of Godber, the landmark case provided him unforgettable memories. His subsequent re-encounter with Godber during the latter’s four-year prison term also lingered vividly in his mind. How exactly did he feel during the trial? The former judge, for the first time since the trial was concluded, recently shared his experience.

Threatening Letters

“Shortly after the trial began, I received an anonymous letter with a note demanding that I impose a heavy sentence on Godber, or else something bad would happen to me,” said Mr Yang.

This was just one of the threatening letters that arrived on his desk. Even today, Mr Yang still has a clear recollection of what the letters said. One appealed to his Chinese origins and demanded that Godber, who had squeezed a lot of money from Chinese people, be given a heavy sentence. He said these letters were hard facts showing the deep resentment some people had about corruption and their fervent desire for immediate action to eradicate the crime. But for Mr Yang, a rational and fair trial was all that mattered. Therefore, on receipt of the letter, he just read it out in public, denouncing the act as a contempt of court. He also made it very clear that his judgement would not in any way be affected. But on the eve of the judgement day, he received yet another threatening letter. Without compromising his principle, he reiterated his stance. He was not scared and he requested neither protection nor additional security measures.

“I’ve never heard of a judge being beaten up for his decision in a trial. Getting one or two of those letters at times doesn’t mean much to me,” said Mr Yang. But his friends certainly thought otherwise. After reading press reports about the case many of his friends both locally and overseas wrote to him, expressing their concern and praising him for his courage.

Trial by the Public

To the former judge, the letters were not a cause for concern. Rather it was the intense public pressure for him to convict Godber that troubled him. The case had attracted huge public attention because the accused was a senior expatriate police officer. The community took him as a big tiger and demanded that he be given severe punishment. With such strong sentiments prevailing in the community, Mr Yang said the public had already handed down an open verdict - that Godber was guilty.

This was the first time during his career that Mr Yang experienced such strong public feelings about a case. Even people around him felt the heat as many were worried about him. “When I was attending a service at church one Sunday, the Bishop came over and told me he would pray for me. An ordinary parishioner as I am, I was really flattered to be mentioned in his prayers!” he said.

Reflecting on the case, Mr Yang said that the nature of the offence and the related point of law were, in fact, not very complicated. However, fully aware of the community’s “verdict”, Mr Yang knew that whichever way he ruled, the outcome would still be controversial. In fact, there was high expectation that he would convict Godber because of the public pressure. Was he totally unaffected by the public mood? “No!” he said frankly. But he was very sure of which way to go - the judgement should be made strictly on the ground of evidence and the point of law. With this principle in mind, he found Godber guilty.

Justice Done

What was the public’s reaction to the judgement? “Nobody said I did a good job. Instead many people were dissatisfied with my judgement. Why? They thought the penalty was not heavy enough,” he said.

The public reaction was understandable. With the Government spending more than a year and deploying huge resources to extradite Godber from England, many in the community simply thought that a four-year jail term and the forfeiture of the $25,000 bribe money were not commensurate with the crime the former police officer had committed. To them, the Government had paid a high price but the outcome of the trial had not done justice to the efforts.

Mr Yang had a different view. Noting that Godber had already got close to maximum penalty for similar offences, he said the significance of the case should not be measured by the severity of the sentence. He believed that the crux of the issue was whether justice had been done, regardless of the amount of bribe involved. The success in catching the tiger was a testimony to the ICAC’s mission to fight graft. The fact that even high-ranking officials could not escape the ICAC’s scrutiny gave the community the greatest assurance. As Mr Yang saw it, it was a landmark case for the development of Hong Kong and for the history of its anti-corruption work. All these were worthy of the efforts.

Yang Ti-liang’s Re-encounter with Godber

They meet again! A year or so after Godber’s trial, the former Chief Superintendent bumped into the trial judge, Yang Ti-liang, though this time at the prison clinic of Siu Lam and not in the courtroom.

The close encounter was not exactly unexpected. For Mr Yang had made it a practice to visit those whom he had convicted to see how they were doing in prison. On the day the pair met, Godber was no longer that erstwhile indomitable senior policeman. Instead, looking pale and thinner, he was just an assistant to the prison doctor, helping out with prescriptions and other clinic chores. The pair saw each other but Godber pretended otherwise. Mr Yang could only react in the same way and finish off the rest of his visit as if nothing had happened.

In Mr Yang’s eyes, it was a pity that Godber, commended by the Queen for his achievements in the Police, had let himself be trapped by his greed.

Yang Ti-liang's “Mosts”

effective ways to unwind

The work of a judge is highly pressurising. Mr Yang had some very effective ways to unwind his pressure - immersing himself in reading so as to forget all the pressure generated of work or just tumbling into bed after a long day in court.

ingenious way to disengage

Mr Yang said he would always throw himself into the cases during a trial, reflecting on every detail day and night. But when a case was over, he would put everything behind him and get ready for the next one. Just like the week after Godber's trial, when many people were still talking hectically about Godber's sentence at lunchtime in a restaurant, Mr Yang was not interested in knowing their comments and already had his mind on another case.

affectionate reason for recording court cases

In order to share his judicial experience with his children and grandchildren, Mr Yang has developed a habit of keeping a summary of the major cases he had presided over for many years. His notes regarding the Godber trial were of course among the most valuable of his collection!

See attached picture

embarrassing moment

Mr Yang's re-encounter with the key figures of the Godber case was not limited to the defendant himself. Some years after Godber's trial, Mr Yang also bumped into one of the tainted witnesses, the former expatriate police superintendent, in a restaurant in London's China Town. That tainted witness was dining with his wife and children at the table right next to Yang's. Although they both saw each other, the former officer looked uneasy and obviously was not interested in saying hello to the former judge. The "forced" close encounter was most embarrassing for both of them.