The cyanide coffee murder: a poor reflection of Indonesia’s justice system?

Photo: Jen/CC BY 2.0

A controversial and high-profile murder case in Indonesia seems to be going around in circles with little evidence and changing testimonies. The points of law involved seem to be less important than the latest instalment of this tragic soap opera.

By Fawnia

Indonesia’s soap operas are notorious for their lengthy episodes and never-ending plot twists, but television drama has met its rival in one long-running criminal trial; the hearings of Jessica Kumala Wongso.

Jessica is accused of killing her friend, Wayan Mirna Salihin, and the scandal of the story has continually appeared on national news programmes. The whole ordeal started way back on Jan. 6 2016, when Wayan Mirna Sahilin, aged 27, fainted after sipping Vietnamese coffee in Olivier Café, Grand Indonesia. She was with two of her friends, Jessica Kumala Wongso and Hani; the three of them having become acquainted after studying abroad in Australia. Despite being rushed to a local clinic, Jessica died soon after.

Since then, an in-depth investigation has been conducted by the police which pointed to cyanide poisoning as the cause of death, and put Jessica; the one ordering and paying for the drinks, in hot water. Her supposedly “suspicious” behaviour was caught on the café’s CCTV recordings, where she was filmed blocking the camera’s line of sight by surrounding her tables with paper bags. On January 30, Jessica officially became the sole suspect in the case.

Since then, almost no progress has been made. Trial sessions have become mundane and drawn-out as she denies involvement in her friend’s death over and over again. At one hearing, Jessica even insisted that she tried to call an ambulance but she did not know the number. When questioned about why she ordered and paid for her friends’ drinks in advance, Jessica reasoned that it was a habit she had picked up in Australia. Jessica’s lawyers also questioned the ruling of cyanide-laced coffee as the cause of death, as well as the authenticity of the CCTV recording.

All for show?

The inherent tragedy of the death of a newly-wed has brought extra public attention to the case; placing a further burden of expectation on the shoulders of the police and justice department. Furthermore, Jessica’s attorney has repeatedly highlighted the state of her mental health and how the accusation has caused it to deteriorate.

Jessica says the police detention she has been under since January is inhumane, spending her days in a tiny room with no ventilation which floods when it rains. The defendant also broke into tears as she explained there were often cockroaches in her cell and she had felt pressured to confess to her guilt for the crime.

The accused woman was originally charged with premeditated murder and the prosecutors initially demanded the maximum sentence of death. But at the latest hearing, prosecutors ruled out the death penalty and instead asked the Central Jakarta District Court to sentence Jessica to 20 years imprisonment. Prosecutor Ardito Muwardi denied this was lenient and insisted that she had deliberately claimed no recollection of the event just to confuse the judges, as well as creating a fake alibi.

Though with only circumstantial evidence at hand, Jessica’s defence team has quickly shot down the rebuttals from the prosecuting team. As there is no direct evidence linking Jessica directly to the case, the trial sessions are now nothing more than an extended series of a crime drama.

One of the defence team lawyers has further pointed out that the Olivier’s barista, Rangga Dwi Saputra, could have been acting as an accomplice of Mirna’s husband to poison her, even receiving Rp 140 million (US$ 10,700) as compensation. Rangga refuted the claim.

A scapegoat or a cold-blooded murderer?

Despite the significant legal process, the mystery surrounding Mirna’s death remains. And once again, the public is left to wonder just who is responsible for her death.  While most regard Jessica as the only convincing suspect, others find the lack of definite motive and decisive evidence are proof of her innocence.

Jessica’s ‘always cool face’, as one citizen described it, adds to the suspense of the “soap-opera”. And her calm appearance has invited mixed opinions. Is she merely a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or is she a perpetrator masking her guilt with eerie composure?

Again, Indonesia’s justice system is in the limelight. The question now is whether the outcome of the case will restore the public’s trust in law enforcement, or will it worsen public’s scepticism. Focusing on the matter at hand, the best both sides can do is to make sure the truth prevails, and to bring whoever responsible to justice. The public, after all, is only expecting that much.