A 45-year old Sydney man is facing murder charges over a fire inside Vadja House, a boarding house in Newtown, at around 1am on Tuesday, 15 March 2022.
Three people died in the blaze and eight managed to escape, although two of those who got away remain hospitalised in a critical condition.
The defendant is reported to be a former resident of the boarding house, but his motives for the alleged conduct remain unclear.
He has been charged with three counts of murder under section 18 of the Crimes Act 1900 and one count of destroying or damaging property by fire or explosive under section 195 of that Act.
He appeared briefly in Central Local Court via audio visual link on 16 March 2022, where no application was made for his release on bail.
He has been remanded in custody and will next appear in court on 12 May 2022.
Police are still collecting evidence from the scene of the incident. They are also trying to retrieve two bodies from inside the building, but they say investigations are being hampered by the fact that the building is structurally unsound.
Witnesses report observing what sounded like an explosion before the property caught alight in the early hours of Tuesday morning.
Neighbours say the structure was run down and cramped, raising concerns about whether this may have contributed to residents finding it difficult to escape.
St Vincent de Paul Society New South Wales chief executive, Jack de Groot, described the boarding house as “a place of last resort” for some of Sydney’s most vulnerable.
“Someone living in a boarding house is experiencing a form of homelessness,” he remarked.
And now, those residents who have had a lucky escape have lost everything – many will struggle to find somewhere to live.
Right now, 50,000 applications are on the waitlist for social housing in New South Wales – these applications represent at least 100,000 people.
Murder is an offence under section 18 of the Crimes Act 1900 which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
To establish the offence, the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant:
- Caused the death of another person,
- Did so by way of a voluntary act or omission,
- Did so with the intention to kill or inflict grievous bodily harm, or with reckless indifference to human life, or during or immediately after the commission of an offence punishable by a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison (constructive murder).
An act or omission is considered to have ‘caused the death’ of another if it was a ‘substantial or significant caused’ of the death, even if some other cause was also operating at the time.
An act or omission will have caused death unless there is a break in the chain of causation, which will only occur if the original injury is merely the setting in which the subsequent cause operates, or if the subsequent cause is so overwhelming that it significantly diminishes the relevance of the original cause.
Examples of where the chain of causation is not broken include:
- Where the victim refuses medical treatment on religious grounds,
- Where subsequent medical treatment is poor, unless the injury had almost healed, and
- Where the victim engaged in unconscious acts that led to death.
The prosecution must prove causation, and a defendant is entitled to an acquittal if the prosecution fails to do so.
For example, a defendant was found not guilty in a case where the prosecution was unable to disprove that an underlying disease was the cause of the complainant’s death.
Voluntary act or omission
The defendant’s act or omission must be voluntary, and automatism (acting unconsciously) is a defence to murder.
So, for example, a person must be found not guilty if they commit the act while ‘sleepwalking’ in the absence of self awareness and self control.
Intention to kill or cause grievous bodily harm
An intention to kill or cause grievous bodily harm (GBH) means that at the time the defendant engaged in the subject act or omission, he or she meant to kill or cause GBH to the victim.
GBH means ‘very serious harm’, and includes but is not limited to:
- Any permanent or serious disfigurement,
- The destruction of a foetus, other than by a medical procedure, and
- Any grievous bodily disease.
The required intent may be established where:
- A continuous course of events led to the victim’s death, and the defendant meant to kill or cause GBH at any time during those events,
- The defendant meant to kill or cause GBH but genuinely believed his or her actions would not lead to that outcome, or
- The defendant meant to kill or cause GBH to a particular person but instead caused the death of a bystander.
Reckless indifference to human life
A defendant is recklessly indifferent if he or she did, or omitted to do, an act foreseeing that death would be the probable result.
Constructive murder, sometimes called ‘felony murder’, is where another person’s death occurred during or immediately after the defendant or an accomplice committed, or attempted to commit, a criminal offence punishable by a maximum penalty of at least 25 years in prison.
Such offences include:
- Robbery while armed with a dangerous weapon,
- Robbery with wounding, and
- Sexual intercourse with a child under 10 years.
Penalty for murder
Section 19A of the Crimes Act 1900 prescribes a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for the offence of murder, and it is important to be aware that in New South Wales life imprisonment means ‘for the term of a person’s natural life’.
Standard non parole periods
Murder offences also carry what’s known as ‘standard non parole periods’ (SNPP), which are guideposts of reference points for a sentencing judge when determining the minimum term a person must spend behind bars before he or she is eligible to apply for release on parole.
The SNPPs for murder are:
|Murder — of a police officer, emergency services worker, correctional officer, judicial officer, council law enforcement officer, health worker, teacher, community worker, or other public official, exercising public or community functions and the offence arose because of the victim’s occupation or voluntary work||25 years|
|Murder — where the victim was a child under 18 years of age||25 years|
|Murder — in other cases||20 years|
Defences to murder
Self defence is the most common defence to murder.
The defence is contained in section 418 of the Crimes Act 1900, which states that a person is not criminally responsible if he or she believes the actions were carried out in self-defence, and the conduct is a reasonable response to the perceived circumstances.
Self-defence is a complete defence, which means the person is entitled to be found not guilty for their actions.
The defence is available where the conduct is necessary to:
(a) defend oneself or another person, or
(b) prevent or terminate the unlawful deprivation of ones liberty or the liberty of another person, or
(c) protect property from unlawful taking, destruction, damage or interference, or
(d) prevent criminal trespass to any land or premises or to remove a person committing any such criminal trespass.
This extends to situations where a person steps in to defend another person.
However, section 420 of the Act makes clear that self-defence is not available where a person uses force that involves the intentional or reckless infliction of death only to protect property or prevent a trespass.
And section 421 provides that where a person uses excessive force to defend themselves or another, including to prevent the unlawful deprivation of liberty, and that force results in their target’s death, the person will be criminally responsible for manslaughter rather than murder provided that he or she believed the conduct was necessary in the circumstances.
Significantly, section 419 stipulates that if evidence of self-defence is raised, the prosecution must then prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the actions did not amount to self-defence. If the prosecution is unable to do this, the defendant must be acquitted.
As mentioned above, automatism is also a defence to murder.
Charged with murder?
If you or a loved-one has been accused of murder, call Sydney Criminal Lawyers anytime on (02) 9261 8881 to arrange for a conference or prison visit with a defence lawyer who is vastly experienced in advising and representing clients in serious criminal cases, including murder and manslaughter.