Less than 30 seconds may be all it takes to change lives forever.
It was just after midday on 22 October 2002, when 44-year-old Chris Harris was returning home after celebrating his birthday with family.
He was waiting for a train at Redfern train station when 17-year-old Rodney Ivan Kerr yelled: “What the f*** are you staring at?” Mr Harris sat silently, waiting for his train.
The teenager began to threaten Mr Harris, while his own friends tried to hold him back. But Kerr broke free and continued his attack.
The platform was unattended, and the only exit was a flight of stairs at the other end. Fearing for his safety, Mr Harris leapt away from Mr Kerr and onto the train tracks. Tragically, an oncoming train killed him instantly.
The whole encounter took just 28 seconds.
Criminal charges followed for Mr Kerr, who argued that although he was drunk and aggressive, he was not guilty because he had no weapon and did not touch Mr Harris. The teenager’s lawyers argued that their client did not intend to cause harm to Mr Harris, only to intimidate him. They maintained that Mr Kerr could not have imagined that Mr Harris would react the way he did, and that the end result could not have been foreseen.
What did the court say?
“The fact that Mr Kerr was drunk may be an explanation for his conduct. It plainly is not an excuse… Mr Kerr regrets his behaviour. He regrets that it led to the death of Mr Harris. He still has difficulty in accepting that his behaviour caused that death…Whilst he behaved aggressively and unacceptably, such behaviour had extended over a period of twenty-eight seconds. In that short interval he had changed his life forever.”
The Judge went on to state that:
“Mr Kerr’s crime involved the death of another human being… An ordinary citizen, minding his own business was repeatedly abused and threatened with physical violence, such that he felt constrained to take the extreme step of crossing the railway tracks to escape. In doing so he lost his life. In those circumstances I must impose a custodial sentence.”
The Judge imposed a sentence of three years imprisonment, with a non parole period of 12 months.
Manslaughter in NSW
The law in NSW relating to manslaughter is found in section 18 of the NSW Crimes Act, which also contains the offence of murder.
Manslaughter is any unlawful killing that does not amount to murder, encompassing acts that cause death in the absence of any intent to kill or cause grievous bodily harm.
There are three broad situations which can give rise to manslaughter:
- Criminal negligence;
- Dangerous and unlawful actions; and
- Excessive self-defence.
The prosecution must essentially prove that the defendant’s act or omission caused the death of the deceased, and that a reasonable person would have realised that the act or omission was dangerous.
The jury in the case of Mr Kerr found that his actions were unlawful and dangerous. Since this case, there has been a sharp increase in penalties for alcohol-fuelled violence; and mandatory sentencing for one-punch assaults have also been introduced. But Kerr’s case still stands out – because unlike most cases which involve a physical assault, Kerr never made physical contact.
His case is a stark reminder that people can be liable for serious criminal charges, even if they don’t touch anyone.