Ten Years ‘On the Top’ for One-Punch Death

On 10 January, 2015, in a case that captured much of the nation’s attention, the family of 18 year-old Daniel Christie were faced with the unimaginable decision regarding whether to terminate his life support. Eleven days earlier, on New Years Eve, Mr Christie was the victim of an unprovoked punch that saw him collapse in Kings Cross and hit his head on the road, the incidents leading to Mr Christie’s death.

Today, the New South Wales Supreme Court handed down a ten year sentence for Mr Christie’s attacker, Mr Shaun McNeil (27 years old). The sentence includes a period of non-parole of 7.5 years, and is also a sentence in satisfaction of the manslaughter of Mr Christie and the assault of two other victims in Kings Cross that same night (both surviving).

Justice Hulme described the attack as both “cowardly” coming from a “powerfully built man” and also one of the “most extreme” cases of manslaughter. The Supreme Court has released a statement on the sentence that can be found here, and I encourage all to read it: http://t.co/5YapknUZP5

While there is no diminishing the tragedy for the Christie family and the community at large, it is important that in cases such as this, where the national imagine has been gripped firmly, that we do our best to inform ourselves of the totality of the circumstances. In few fields of criminal law sentencing does this seem more apparent than in regards to ‘one-punch’ deaths. Perhaps it is the inherent cowardice involved in attacks like this, the unpredictability of the attack, the feeling of great outrage at how little victims deserve it. Regardless, there is no denying the topic has seized Australia’s attention and perchance for outrage for the past few years. To put the matter into perspective though, in 15 years there have been but 18 one punch deaths. By comparison, domestic violence deaths make up approximately 40% of crime-related deaths every year.

All too often it seems that we are happy to swallow the minute glimpse of information that news sources (often bias riddled sources at that) can spit out into the public domain in 140 characters of less (that is, once you take away the terrible #hashtags).

Former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions, Nicholas Cowdery, is well known for his stance on the the intersection between the law, the public, and the media, having previously commented that: “[Headlines] are deliberate attention-grabbers; but they are also, deliberately or not, opinion-shapers.” (‘Thomas Kelly: This was Never a Case of Murder, SMH, 10 November 2013).

The sentencing process is a long and complex exercise in discretion, and the judiciary may not always get it right. What we need to remind ourselves though is that few people are better poised than a judicial officer to pass the judgement that they must. Almost no one else in our society has the access to the material, the background knowledge, and the experience to carry out the sentencing process. It is at times like this that we must remember this, and consider the totality of information before we dust off our soapboxes.

Now it’s time to put mine away.

By Nathan Johnston

Law Clerk