Perhaps because of the intriguing and positively probing characteristics of most Netflix true-crime documentaries, there is always a bar of expectation for every such release. Unfortunately, the latest Indonesian documentary film, Ice Cold: Murder, Coffee, and Jessica Wongsoo, fails to meet this bar, and despite raising some pertinent questions, it seems lacking in a number of aspects. By the end of this documentary, it is more the Indonesian criminal justice system that is brought into scrutiny than the particular case itself. Although that is definitely a commendable effort, structuring the film with that subject more in focus would have surely helped the work.
Who is Jessica Wongsoo?
Unlike what the title of Ice Cold: Murder, Coffee, and Jessica Wongsoo might seem to many, Jessica is not the victim of some heinous crime, but rather the accused killer in one of Indonesia’s most debated criminal cases. The documentary film does not really chart Jessica’s life to much extent until her visit to Australia for studies. At this time, the young woman became very close friends with another Indonesian woman living in Australia for her studies, Mirna Salihin. Unfortunately, it is Mirna who is the victim in this case, and despite her name being missing from the title, very unlike the usual Netflix naming conventions, the film does provide some background on the woman.
Born to a seemingly rich and very influential businessman named Edi Salihin, Mirna was always charming and daring from her very childhood days. Growing up into a young woman, she too visited Australia for studies and met Jessica, becoming best friends with her. Mirna returned to her country a few years before her friend, though, but the two always stayed in touch. In 2016, seven years after they had first met, the two friends decided to catch up on January 6. Since Mirna loved Vietnamese cold coffee, the friends decided on a famous luxury café in Jakarta named the Olivier Café. It was Jessica who arrived at the place first, at around 3:30 in the afternoon, and she made the reservation at the café for her friends, who were to arrive sometime later.
Jessica then also ordered the drinks for her friends, which were served at the table at 4:24 p.m. However, Mirna and another friend, Hanie, reached the café almost an hour later, at 5:16, until the coffee had been sitting at their table. When Mirna sipped the coffee a couple of minutes later, she started having a horrific convulsion, and the authorities rushed to aid her. As the woman was sent to the hospital, the manager of the café checked on the coffee and indeed found it to have a rotten taste and smell. The color of the drink had also apparently turned more yellow than usual, making it seem as if something had surely been mixed in it.
By the time Mirna was taken to the nearest hospital, it was already too late, and the woman passed away a few minutes later. A police investigation of the mysterious death soon began, as murder was immediately suspected, and a postmortem was conducted. On the day of the woman’s funeral, the police reached out to the family and told them about their finding—Mirna had been poisoned with cyanide. Jessica was, quite obviously, the lead suspect for the police, since she had spent the longest time with the coffee by herself. Twenty-four days after the death of Mirna Salihin, her best friend Jessica Wongso was arrested on suspicion of having poisoned and murdered the woman.
What was the prosecution’s claim?
When the court trial started on June 15, the case had already gained some attention in the public and media owing to the strange nature of Mirna’s death. But the court case, in itself, became a massive point of attraction and debate for the public over the next four and a half months. Through real footage from inside the courtroom, Ice Cold also raises questions about the manner of proceedings in Indonesian courts, as the space often became a stage for heightened unnecessary drama. Starting with the case of the prosecution, the first and foremost claim was the sequence of the events.
As Jessica had arrived at the café more than an hour before her other friends arrived, her ordering the coffee for the rest immediately seemed suspicious. After booking the reservation, the woman had initially left the café for some shopping, and when she returned at around 4 in the evening, she carried a number of bags containing things she had just bought. When seated at the table and waiting for her friends to arrive, Jessica moved the bags around, seemingly without any purpose. However, the coffee had already been served by this time, and if she did have anything sinister in mind, this was the perfect time to execute it since she was the only one at the table. The only concern for Jessica would have been the security cameras that were spread around the café, and very interestingly, the shopping bags came in handy. The woman moved around the bags in such a manner that the coffee glasses remained hidden from the cameras’ view for the rest of the time.
Next, was the manner in which Jessica had been arrested by the police, for the woman could not be found in her house in the rich Kelapa Gading neighborhood in Jakarta. Instead, the police tracked down Jessica and her mother at a hotel room, where they were apparently with all their baggage, ready to flee the country. The fact that the woman was apparently considering leaving the country while being so closely linked to the death of her best friend was also perceived as proof of her guilt by the prosecution and their supporters. As far as the evidence was concerned, the police claimed with certainty that cyanide had been found in the body of Mirna during their autopsy. The glass of coffee that the woman had drunk from was also picked up by the authorities and investigated, with cyanide being found on it as well.
Jessica had answers to most of these doubts, though, starting with the claim that she did not know her friends would arrive so late, as they were supposed to reach the café by 5. This was the reason why she had ordered the drinks so early, simply not wanting her friends to wait long for the drinks since she was already present. She then claimed to have moved around the shopping bags because she was bored from all the waiting and was only just playing around with the bags. According to her version, she had no idea about the placement of the cameras or the position of the coffee glasses. The case had already been so sensationalized in the media that she and her family could not live at their own house in peace, and therefore the hotel room. However, none of these claims were taken seriously by the prosecution.
Later, when the defense counsel started to find holes in the case, the prosecution moved to make character judgments about Jessica, claiming them to be psychiatric evaluations of the woman. Jessica was termed extremely cold and heartless, and therefore cruel and cunning, because of the fact that she did not show grief in conventional ways. The woman always remained unaffected and calm despite the frenzy around her in court, and this was also shown as proof of her devilish selfishness. When questioned by the media in between the trial dates, Jessica often answered with a smile on her face, and many took this to be extremely offensive considering the circumstances. The prosecution tried to prove that the woman had mental ailments for a long time, and even dragged in older matters. Some of the apparent psychiatric experts that were brought on by the prosecution used extremely dated and problematic beliefs to judge the woman, such as the shape of her nose or the gleam in her eyes.
What were the points presented by the defense lawyers?
Although the Mirna Salihin murder case initially seemed like an open-and-shut case, at least based on how the prosecution presented it, there were a number of loopholes that existed in it. These were all pointed out by the celebrity defense lawyer Otto Hasibuan, who was hired by Jessica’s family to fight for her. The very claim that there were traces of cyanide in Mirna’s body was itself questionable, since there was much confusion regarding the autopsy. When the police primarily checked the dead body two hours after the death, there was no trace of cyanide found. Three days later, when the autopsy was performed, her stomach was found to have only 0.2mg of cyanide, which is less than even the content found inside an apple seed. In comparison, the lethal dose of cyanide for humans happens to be between 50 and 176 mg.
When experts were brought in by the defense team, it was found out that the postmortem being referred to by the police was not a proper examination of the dead body like it generally is. Only a small sample of the stomach had been tested by the authorities, and the claimed 0.2mg of cyanide was found in this sample. Soon, the prosecution was questioned about why the entire body was not examined, and their only answer was that the family members of Mirna had not allowed for a full postmortem exam since it was still considered wrong and unnecessary to mess around with one’s corpse. Despite such bizarre methods of work, the police and the prosecution stuck to their theory that Jessica had poisoned her friend with cyanide.
When trusted experts were brought in by the defense, they clearly stated that Mirna’s death could have very well been caused by some other natural problem in her body, like a cerebral attack or heart failure. But there was no way to find this or prove that she had died specifically from cyanide poisoning since no proper autopsy had been performed. The prosecution also claimed that the glass from which Mirna had drunk had also been found with heavy traces of cyanide. But again, the defense experts claimed that adding so much cyanide to the glass would have turned the poison into a gaseous form as well, affecting at least all of the friends at the table. Moreover, the glass that was presented in court was found to not be the real one, and security footage of the police entering the café to collect the glass had also been, very conveniently, deleted by the authorities.
Mirna’s businessman father, Edi Salihin, was also extremely vocal and disruptive in court to prove Jessica to be the murderer of his daughter. In fact, the man also appears in the Netflix documentary and still seems quite a strange individual. The man used to carry a handgun even in court and had apparently threatened some of the defense members as well. During one of the trial sessions, Edi placed false evidence on the tables of the judges and the lawyers, only so that the case would turn against Jessica. He had also met with the café authorities shortly after the death of his daughter and had seemingly discussed something confidential with them.
The motive for the murder, as stated by the prosecution, was that Mirna had repeatedly asked Jessica to break up with the man she was currently dating, since he happened to be Mirna’s boyfriend from her time in Australia. Frustrated by these requests, Jessica apparently killed Mirna as some sort of twisted revenge. Incidentally, the prosecution also brought over a police witness from Australia to talk about how Jessica had numerous legal charges against her during her time on the continent. However, when a different expert from Australia was brought by the defense to prove the insignificance of 0.2mg of cyanide, the man’s visa was canceled, and he was sent back.
What was the judgment passed by the court?
When the trial was finally over almost five months later, the three judges found Jessica Wongso guilty of premeditated murder and sentenced her to twenty years in prison. She continues to serve this sentence to this day and will be nearing ten years of imprisonment in a couple of years. Despite the jubilation of many for this sentence, the fact remains that the flaws of the judicial system lay bare in front of society after this lopsided trial. Jessica could have very well been the murderer, but sentencing her only based on circumstantial and even questionable evidence is definitely not the fairest thing to happen. The documentary crew also tried reaching out to Jessica for an interview in prison at present, but the authorities denied the team such permission, despite the Indonesian authority having earlier allowed interviews of other murderers and even terrorists.
As stated by some of the experts at the end of Ice Cold, it seems like the police and authorities were in a hurry to pin the blame for the mysterious death on someone, and Jessica was the obvious target. Mirna’s businessman father might have also used some major influence to get the case shut at the earliest, and the prosecution simply did not seem to care much about proving the truth. Jessica and her lawyers had also appealed the sentence, to no avail, and have now run out of all appeals. It is also to be mentioned that Ice Cold does not necessarily do too much extra from the court trial other than add the obvious perspectives to it. Mirna’s newlywed husband, for instance, remains missing from the documentary, just like he had been suspiciously left out of the court trial. The documentary then also ends with a strange post-credits scene about the history of coffee cultivation in Indonesia, which only comes off as a silly flex of knowledge by the director.