A Sydney mother has avoided a mandatory death sentence after being found not guilty of smuggling crystal methamphetamine into Malaysia, but prosecutors plan to appeal the ruling.
The not guilty verdict in the trial of Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto was handed down on Wednesday in Malaysia’s High Court by Judge Dato Ghazali.
The mother of four claimed she was the victim of a set-up after she was found with 1.1 kilograms of methamphetamine in her bag after arriving in Kuala Lumpur on a flight from China.
But late on Wednesday the prosecution decided to lodge an appeal against the not guilty verdict, despite earlier reports they had agreed to Exposto’s immediate deportation.
The judge on Wednesday found that an online boyfriend had scammed Exposto.
Her lawyer, Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, said the judge was convinced of her innocence after hearing his client did not try to bypass searches at the airport.
“The judge described her as naive, not merely innocent but naive,” he told reporters on Wednesday.
Exposto’s lawyers have previously said she fell victim to an internet romance scam and she believed she was in Shanghai to lodge documents for her online boyfriend’s retirement from service in the US army.
She claimed she was handed a black backpack at the last minute and thought there were only clothes inside.
Customs officials found stitching at the back of the backpack and when they opened the stitching, the drug packages were found inside, the Shah Alam High Court was told last year.
But it was Exposto’s willingness to go through the customs checkpoints, Abdullah said on Wednesday, that convinced the judge she was unaware she was carrying drugs.
“It was almost as though she asked for trouble as a trafficker,” he said, noting she was not required to go through the checkpoints.
“But because she was not a trafficker – she was an innocent carrier tricked into carrying a bag – she did all these innocent things.”
Co-lawyer, Farhan Shafee told AAP that expert testimony from Monica Whitty, cyberpsychologist from Warwick University in the UK, was key to the judge’s finding.
Whitty gave evidence that the four stages of a cyber crime had been committed by scammers preying on Exposto.
The first stage is to find a lonely victim, secondly an ideal person is presented – in this case a US officer. The third stage is the grooming, which for Exposto was a two year online relationship.
The final stage is to create a crisis, Shafee said. Exposto’s online boyfriend was to be discharged from the military and urged her to fly to Shanghai to pick up his discharge papers – so they could marry – and deliver the papers to the US Embassy in Australia.
The papers were fake and she was asked to carry a bag, with drugs hidden in the lining.
He said that immediately after the verdict Exposto “was relieved and glad that justice found in her favour. She was more thrilled to be able to call her family in Australia.”
The judge referred Exposto to the immigration department for deportation to Australia but she could remain in custody for months as she awaits the appeal against the not guilty verdict.