Nine people accused in a vice case walked free yesterday after a judge ruled that discussions between investigators and a key witness - which were secretly recorded by the wife of one of the accused - had seriously undermined the case for the prosecution.
Deputy District Court Judge Michael Jenkins ruled that the defendants had no case to answer over their alleged role in a HK$40 million operation to provide sexual services at saunas.
He made his ruling after hearing audio recordings made on 47 days during the trial, in which undercover police Constable Lam Tsz-hon was heard discussing the evidence with investigators during adjournments.
'I do not go as far as to say these witnesses deliberately fabricated evidence,' the judge said.
'The fact is that they discussed specific areas of evidence which they should not have done,' he said, adding that there was a risk the witness was opened to 'unconscious contamination' during the discussions.
The court heard that Constable Lam, a member of the Organised Crime and Triad Bureau, had infiltrated one of the saunas involved, Temple Street Sauna, in 2004 by working as a waiter.
He was heard discussing the evidence with the officer in charge of the case, Senior Inspector Daisy Li Suk-yee, and four other investigators, all triad bureau members.
The four, including a sergeant and three constables, were prosecution witnesses who had posed as customers and patronised the saunas on 66 occasions.
Judge Jenkins said the behaviour of the investigators had called their credibility seriously into question.
He said he had warned every witness not to discuss evidence with other people but the investigators had ignored the warning.
'Each witness is expressly told by me that they should not discuss evidence during adjournments,' he said.
'I concluded that these prosecution witnesses upon whose evidence the prosecution had heavily relied had ignored the warning.'
The hearing, originally estimated to last for only 20 days, began before Judge Jenkins on April 17 last year and closed yesterday on its 151st day.
The unexpected twist came on December 5, when the prosecution was about to close its case.
Defence lawyer Raymond Yu Chiu-cheuk, representing a general manager of Temple Street Sauna, Cheung Sai-kit, unexpectedly applied to produce the 47 audio recordings.
The manager's wife, Ng Wai-bing, told the court she had instructed a friend to place the recorder inside the waiting room and she had kept a record of who went into the room.
Constable Lam claimed that he was unable to recognise any of the voices in the recordings.
But Judge Jenkins ruled yesterday that the recordings were clear enough and said Constable Lam's claim was 'unbelievable'.
The judge also noted that the making of audio recordings inside the court building could constitute a summary offence.
He said he would notify Acting District Court Chief Judge Patrick Li Hon-leung about it.
A police spokesman said every police officer was given guidelines about testifying in court, and the force would study yesterday's judgment to consider if any follow-up steps were needed.