One Punch Can Change Your Life — And Hundreds Of Others
By Sharona CouttsJuly 19, 2012
After shocking deaths delivered with one blow, how does a community rightly respond? Radically different actions are being taken across Australia. In WA, a one-punch homicide law was enacted, but with some troubling and unintended use in domestic violence cases. In Queensland, a grieving father is on a mission to educate.
One punch. That's all it took to end 39-year-old Brett Meredith's life.
The off-duty policeman was ringing in the New Year in 2010 at a pub in Katherine, in the Northern Territory, when he was approached by a man named Michael Martyn. Security video footage later showed that Martyn whispered something in Meredith's ear. There was a scuffle, the kind of chaotic, clumsy affair that happens when people's reflexes are smudged by alcohol, and Meredith hit the floor. He had just regained his footing, and was looking in the other direction when Martyn landed a king-hit to his face.
"It was the only punch that was thrown," says Brett's widow, Amee. "That did it."
By coincidence, Amee and her three young children have been in Sydney this week, as public debate has been dominated by news of two deaths bearing eerie similarities to the circumstances in which she lost her husband.
Thomas Kelly died two days after an unidentified assailant punched him in the head on Saturday July 7, while the 18-year-old was walking hand-in-hand with his girlfriend on the main strip of Kings Cross.
The following weekend, former National Rugby League player Craig Field allegedly "king hit" a 50-year-old cattle-farmer and father of two, Kelvin Kane. Kane later died from his head injuries, and Field and another man, Shaun Fathers, have been charged with murder.
The brutality of the deaths has startled people across New South Wales. There's talk from parents, politicians and community members about how to tackle this sort of violence, which springs apparently from nowhere and can ruin lives even when it doesn't claim them.
Such offences, however, are not new, not distinctive to this time or place. Different Australian jurisdictions have taken different approaches, sometimes with surprising — and not always positive — results. As the people of NSW contemplate how to deal with the recent episodes of violence, it's worth paying attention to other efforts around the nation.
Since her husband's death, Amee Meredith has become a force for law reform in the Northern Territory. Martyn was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison. Amee has been campaigning to introduce a specific crime called "one-punch homicide," which she believes would spare victims' families from the trauma of going through a murder or manslaughter trial.
The Territory's police association has supported her campaign, and shadow Attorney General John Elferink is on board. He introduced a private member's bill to create the offence, and he says he'll make sure it becomes law if his party, the Country Liberals, wins the Territory's elections in late August.
But the law is controversial in Western Australia, which was the first — and so far, the only — Australian state to adopt a one-punch homicide offence. Now critics are sounding the alarms about jumping to change laws in response to very specific attacks, which can sometimes lead to unintended, and unwanted, consequences.
Western Australia's experiment
In 2008, Western Australia's Attorney General Jim McGinty believed the state had a problem.
"We had a massive spate of young men being killed. It would have been almost a dozen in a relatively short span of time, killed in similar circumstances to the young man who was killed in Kings Cross," McGinty told The Global Mail.
"The problem we confronted was that they couldn't be charged with murder because there was no evidence that they intended to kill. And they couldn't be convicted of manslaughter because, they'd say, 'one punch didn't kill him, it was hitting his head on the ground that killed him, and I didn't know that one punch could kill'."
What that means, in plain English, is that most places don't punish people for accidents, no matter how tragic.
And some WA juries apparently did not think it was common knowledge that you could kill a person by king-hitting them, so they were acquitting defendants in one-punch cases, deciding that the deaths were accidental.
McGinty said victims' families were "outraged" because the people they held responsible for their loved ones' deaths were walking away free.
"The problem reflected a broader social problem, where young men seemed to think it was ok to go out and be violent with no consequences, at the worst being charged with common assault. And at the end there was a dead human being there, and there was an enormous sense of injustice, that the system was incapable of giving any justice to the families of victims who were innocent, and who were dead."
In response, he created a new law specifically aimed at king-hit deaths. In a break from long-standing legal tradition, the new offence, "unlawful assualt causing death", cut out the requirement to prove that a defendant had any awareness that the person they hit could die as a result. It was meant to make for easier convictions in cases where someone king-hit a person, who later died.
"This new offence reinforces community expectations that violent attacks, such as a blow to the head, are unacceptable," McGinty said in a press release at the time. "When people die of such attacks, their attackers will now be held accountable for the full consequences of their violence."
McGinty notes a drop in the number of typical one-punch deaths since the WA law was introduced, but he says that might be due to the higher awareness of the risks of king-hits.
While no one seems to oppose holding one-punch killers accountable, women's and human rights advocates are now raising concerns over the law.
"Since the unlawful assault causing death offence was enacted, the majority of convictions have been against men who have killed their partner or ex-partners," says Rachel Ball, director of policy and campaigns at the Human Rights Law Centre in Melbourne, which wrote a highly critical analysis of the law.
They say some men who kill their partners or family members are pleading guilty to the one-punch offence so they can avoid the more serious charges of manslaughter or murder, which carry twice the maximum sentence.
Ball says the problems with the law are highlighted by the case of Saori Jones.
In December 2010, Jones, a 31-year-old immigrant from Japan, was found dead in her estranged husband's apartment, after a week of concerned phone calls to police from the women's shelter where she had been living.
Her husband, Bradley Wayne Jones, was a drug-taker and a drunk, whose violence against his petite wife had more than once resulted in court orders against him.
Here's how the West Australian reported what happened:
[Bradley] Jones told police that on December 11, when she had come to collect their daughter, he was drunk and landed a "full-on punch" to her head that knocked her off her feet and caused a "huge bruise" on the side of her face.
According to the prosecution, he "stated he could not recall his actions once she was on the ground or if he assaulted her further and only came to his senses when his four-year-old called on him to stop".
"The victim lay prone on the floor. Whilst she lay injured and unresponsive, the offender lifted up her shirt to enable their 10-month-old son to breastfeed."
Jones said he cleaned vomit and blood from Mrs Jones' face and put her on his bed. She was alive but he did not call an ambulance.
He was charged with manslaughter but pleaded to a lesser crime of assault causing death because the body was so badly decomposed that a cause of death could not be established.
He was sentenced to five years jail and could serve less than three.
News of the case mobilised the Women's Council for Domestic and Family Violence Services of WA. They were shocked by the short sentence and the fact that the decision effectively said that Saori Jones's death was an accident.
"The partner of Saori Jones could be out next year on parole," says Angela Hartwig, chief executive of the Women's Council. "He left her body to rot for 10 days and didn't get any medical attention."
In the course of her campaigning, Hartwig and other advocates identified other harrowing cases of domestic violence, where far from involving "one punch," the death occurred in chronically violent relationships.
- A man whose de facto partner died after a beating he inflicted on her, just one day after she had been in a serious car accident. He was sentenced to three and a half years in prison.
- A man who punched his de facto partner in the stomach while she sat in bed, because she had eaten a meal without making one for him. She died from the injuries she sustained — two broken ribs and a lacerated spleen — which exacerbated other, underlying illnesses. He was sentenced to two years and 10 months imprisonment.
- A man who killed his partner after three days of alcohol-fueled assaults. He repeatedly punched her in the head, the face, kicked her and used a kitchen chair to hit her on the back and the head while she lay on the ground. In the midst of her partner's violent binge, the woman sought medical help. Doctors noted that she had a closed left eye and swelling to her eyelid and mouth, and that she could not remember whether she had lost consciousness during the beatings. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
Advocates say these men should have known that the violence they inflicted on their partners could have led to their deaths. They say they're outraged that such cases were treated without regard to whether the killers knew, or should have known, that their partners could die.
In an email statement to The Global Mail, the West Australian Director of Public Prosecutions, Joseph McGrath, said the state only opts for a one-punch prosecution if there isn't enough evidence to pursue more serious charges.
"If there is sufficient evidence, then the State will always charge an offender with murder and manslaughter," McGrath wrote.
Former Attorney General McGinty says his law was never intended to be used in situations of domestic violence.
"If it is being used as a soft option in domestic violence cases, then it is a misuse of the law. This was designed for gratuitous male violence, where people were walking free having taken the life of a human being, like the boy who died in Kings Cross."
The Women's Council and other groups are demanding changes to the law, so that it cannot be used in cases of domestic homicide, particularly where there is a history of violence in the relationship.
They've collected 2,600 signatures on a petition calling on government to reform the law that Hartwig says sends a worrying message to the community.
"It says, 'You can kill your wife, just say you didn't mean to, and you can get off with three years in prison.' That is not holding anyone responsible for their violence."
A different approach: the One Punch Can Kill campaign
Taking a completely different approach to what's happened in the Territory and the West, Paul Stanley has dedicated his life to educating young Queenslanders about the dangers of violence, since he lost his son, Matthew, to a one-punch death in September 2006.
Matt was leaving a birthday party near the family home in Cleveland, a coastal suburb to the southeast of Brisbane, when another teenager threw a punch.
"The witnesses said, the way that he crumpled, [Matt] was probably unconscious already," recounts Matt's father, Paul. "Then he hit his head when he fell. The other kid kicked him in the guts, knee-dropped him, and some of his mates poured beer over him and screamed at him for being a coward."
Since then, Paul has become a campaigner against youth violence.
He's established the Matthew Stanley Foundation and has been integral in two public awareness campaigns in Queensland: one program called One Punch Can Kill and another, Walk Away Chill Out.
Paul says he's spoken to 150,000 kids in the last four years. "I do this not only as a job, but as an obsession," he says. "Talking to them about Matthew, about how he died and what happened to him."
When asked about the WA-style laws, Stanley doesn't hesitate. By now, he says, people should understand that delivering a king-hit can kill. He believes there should be no excuse for violence that results in death.
"You can't turn around and say, 'Oh I'm sorry, I didn't mean for that to happen,'" he says. "These things are forever. That one punch that you throw can change your life, and the life of the person you punch, and hundreds and hundreds of others."
If everyone understood that, there'd be no need for laws like the one-punch homicide provision in WA, he says.
The NSW Attorney General's department told The Global Mail that they constantly review the state's criminal laws, and that the department is not currently contemplating introducing an offence specific to one-punch homicide.