Aussie granny gets death penalty

SYDNEY woman Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto has been sentenced to death by hanging in Malaysia after an appeal court today sensationally overturned her earlier acquittal on drug smuggling charges.

In a shock decision, three Judges in the Court of Appeal in Kuala Lumpur unanimously found Exposto guilty.

"We find the merits of the appeal, we allow the appeal and set aside the judgment of the judge and find her guilty as convicted. The only sentence under law is death by hanging," the judges found.

They noted that Exposto had the right to a further appeal and wished her luck.

Exposto was emotional as the verdict was read.

Her lawyer, Shafee Abdullah told her it was a temporary setback and "you will win and you will walk away", saying she will appeal.

Today's shock decision came five months after Exposto was acquitted of drug trafficking and dashed her hopes of walking free and flying home to her family in Australia.

The 54-year-old, from Sydney's west, had faced a prosecution appeal against her acquittal last year on charges of trafficking 1.5kg of methamphetamine into Malaysia.

In handing down the verdict, Court of Appeal judge Mohtarudin Baki, told Exposto: "This is our decision. It is unanimous. We find there are merits of the appeal, we allow the appeal and set aside judgement of the High Court judge and you are guilty as convicted. The only sentence under the law is death by hanging. You have another round of appeal and we wish you luck."

The judges did not give any reasons for their decision but is expected to explain in their written ruling which will be released to her lawyers later on.

A handcuffed Exposto was escorted into court this morning, immediately looking around the courtroom for familiar faces. Her lawyers and Australian Embassy officials arrived shortly after.

After the verdict today she was hugged and consoled by her lawyers and consular officials.

Exposto's elation at being acquitted on December 27 last year was shortlived when the prosecution announced an appeal, meaning that she has continued to live under threat of the death penalty ever since.

The prosecution argued that Exposto was not entitled to be an innocent carrier, as found by the lower court, that she had been wilfully blind and that her defence was made up.

"Facts of the case show that she met someone to take retirement documents before her flight, it does not make sense that she was just helping someone she did not know carry something. There were many opportunities for Maria to scrutinise the bag which was given to her by someone she met only hours earlier. She should have been suspicious,"" the prosecution submitted, adding that Exposto had engaged in a "sly game" and was willfully blind.

The prosecution argued that earlier, in 2013, email correspondence revealed Exposto and the supposed soldier talking about their conversation being monitored, pointing to guilt.

Exposto's lawyer, Shafee Abdullah, responded, telling the court that Exposto was an innocent carrier hoodwinked by an internet romance scam.

One of the Judges inquired: "Are you arguing that this is like a disease of the mind, she was scarred by this romance? That's quite a wide proposition."

Mr Abdullah said it was "pure scam using romance" to which one of the Judges replied: "Romance is magic, love is magic!"

Mr Abdullah said Exposto had been broken-hearted when she realised she had been scammed.

One of the Judges pointed to Exposto in court: "She is smiling, she does not look like she has been conned." Mr Abdullah replied that Exposto smiled all the time.

Death by hanging is mandatory for anyone convicted of trafficking more than 50 grams of drugs in Malaysia and if the prosecution appeal succeeds, she would be sentenced to death. If not she would be freed, although the prosecution would still have the option of a further appeal.

And despite being found not guilty and granted bail, Exposto has remained in custody in Kuala Lumpur, unable to raise the $10,000 bail money needed.

Exposto's appeal hearing was originally set down for May 10 but was postponed because the day was declared a public holiday due to the stunning election victory of Dr Matathir Mohamad, after 61 years of one-party rule in Malaysia.

Exposto was found with 1.5kg of methamphetamine in her backpack in 2014. 
Picture: Supplied
Exposto was found with 1.5kg of methamphetamine in her backpack in 2014. Picture: Supplied


Exposto was arrested on December 7, 2014 when she flew into Kuala Lumpur international airport, from Shanghai, on a stopover to Melbourne. She mistakenly left the airport and 1.5kg of methamphetamine was found in her backpack when she went through Customs, something she did not have to do on a stopover.

This fact was a central plank of her defence case - that if she had known the deadly drugs were in her bag she would never have voluntarily left the airport that day and submitted her bag to scanning.

The defence case was that Exposto was the victim of an online love scam and that she had been duped, by her online lover, into carrying the drugs without her knowledge. Exposto had consistently maintained her innocence throughout.

The Judge at her original trial concurred.

Justice Ghazali Cha said the defence had raised reasonable doubt and that Exposto had let her love for a man she met online overshadow everything else, including her own family and future.

During her trial Exposto told the court that she had fallen for a man she met online called Captain Daniel Smith, who she believed was a US soldier serving in Afghanistan. Exposto said that in September 2013 he had proposed marriage to her when her own marriage in Australia was going "a bit sour".

She said Smith sang to her a few times a day and sent her love poems and photos of himself. "He made me feel loved, he made me feel wanted", Exposto reportedly told the court.

The court heard that Exposto had sent the man several times out of love and pity and had been persuaded to travel to Shanghai on the pretext of signing retirement documents for the supposed US soldier.

On the evening of December 6, 2014 a man, acting for the soldier, passed her a backpack and some documents to sign for the soldier.

She understood she was to carry the backpack, purportedly containing presents for the man's family in Melbourne. She saw shirts inside still wrapped in plastic.

Exposto was incarcerated at Kajang Women’s Prison, Kuala Lumpur.
Exposto was incarcerated at Kajang Women’s Prison, Kuala Lumpur.

When she landed at Kuala Lumpur airport at 4pm on December 7, 2014, during a five-hour transit, she followed other passengers to the transit area and willingly placed her three bags for inspection even though she was not asked by Customs officers to do so.

They then asked to rescan her backpack and she denied it was hers. When it was cut open, Exposto expressed surprise at its contents - the drug ice.

The defence case was that Exposto consistently denied the bag was hers but was given to her by a man called Tega in Shanghai. In addition to the drugs in the bag, the shirts and retirement documents of the US soldier were found in the bag.

Her defence had submitted that had maintained a consistent storyline and had not employed an "after thought defence". The Judge agreed with this proposition in his original verdict.

Her defence team had also called expert witnesses - cybersecurity experts and psychologists with experience in internet scams who had testified the case fitted the characteristic of an internet scam - that Exposto was motivated to find an ideal partner and found it in a retired army officer. She had been subjected to grooming where he had expressed his love for her.

The defence had also argued the way the drugs were concealed could not be seen by the naked eye.