If you’ve ever seen the television drama Dexter, you’d know about Dexter Morgan, a troubled young man who leads a double life – working as a blood splatter analyst with the Miami Police Force by day, and as a vigilante, killing murderers who have ‘slipped through the cracks’ by night.
But what if Dexter was a real person? Would his actions be justified simply because his victims were heinous criminals?
Recent years have seen a surge in the number of ‘vigilantes’, including both individuals and groups – members of the general public who employ questionable tactics in their efforts to take the law into their own hands.
If you watched Channel Nine’s “60 minutes” program on Sunday night, you will have heard about self-proclaimed “Paedophile Hunter” Stinson Hunter – a member of the UK public who lures alleged child sexual offenders by posing as a young girl online, then posts footage of them online.
Closer to home, an Alice Springs based group is making headlines after its founder confirmed that members possessed firearms and employed violent methods in a bid to bring criminals to justice.
The Alice Springs Volunteer Force
The Alice Spring Volunteer Force (AVF) is a new kind of vigilante group operating in Australia’s red centre. Founded by a man named Gary Hall, it aims to reduce the town’s high crime rates by dealing “appropriately” with offenders.
According to Mr Hall, the group was borne out of his dissatisfaction with the judicial system and police force, which he feels treats offenders too leniently.
In a recent interview, Mr Hall also expressed his discontent with the courts’ apparent willingness to grant accused persons bail.
From one perspective, Mr Hall’s concerns may be warranted. Alice Springs is well known for its high crime rates – the tourist hotspot has a population of just 28,605 people, however in 2009 there were 1432 assaults in the town, with alcohol playing a major role in many cases. Theft is also a problem in the area; in the same year there were 1632 cases of theft and 906 instances of property damage. In addition, there were an estimated 774 break and enters over the same period.
According to those statistics, crime in the area has risen significantly in recent years. Break and enters in 2009-2010 were up 52% on the previous year, and assault offences were up 25%.
However, many feel that Hall’s attempts to address high crime rates go one step too far. There have been numerous reports of him attempting to recruit people with a ‘military background’ and ‘firearms experience’. He has also alluded to the group’s violent methods of dealing with criminals, stating that they may arrange for their targets to be ‘kneecapped.’
There has also been evidence to suggest that the group has a racist agenda against the town’s large Indigenous population – screenshots from the AVF’s Facebook page depict members making derogatory remarks. Hall maintains, however, that these comments are not representative of the group’s position.
Thus far, the group’s threats have been confined to Facebook, but there are concerns that this could soon escalate to physical violence.
Some are also worried that the group could further provoke racial tensions and discrimination in the community. This is a serious issue given that the overwhelming majority of young people brought before the courts are Aboriginal – and the nation is already in the midst of an ‘Indigenous incarceration epidemic.’
Vigilante Efforts Gone Wrong
While some may admire Hall’s efforts, there have been numerous instances of vigilante activity going wrong over the years.
In 2011, 62-year-old man Dennis Griffin was murdered by Michael Peter James Kaine. Griffin suffered 19 wounds to his torso, as well as numerous broken bones in his face.
Kaine apparently had a vendetta against paedophiles after he was sexually abused by a priest as a child, and was spurred on by unfounded rumours that Mr Griffin was a paedophile. He had previously told others that he planned to ‘stab the shit out of [paedophiles],’ including one in the Newcastle area.
Police later confirmed that allegations against Griffin were entirely unfounded, and Kaine was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment.
In another case, former motorcycle club member Sam Ibrahim escaped a prison sentence after he was convicted of assaulting and detaining a teenage boy, whom he believed had threatened his wife.
It transpired that his belief was based primarily on the fact that the boy was wearing dark clothing which matched the description given by his wife. But when the boy was presented to Mrs Ibrahim, she told her husband that they had got the wrong person.
Ibrahim was sentenced to 15 months prison, with a non-parole period of five months. This was backdated to the time he was refused bail, allowing Ibrahim to be released after being sentenced.
During the sentencing proceedings, District Court Judge Charteris condemned Mr Ibrahim’s actions, stating that ‘No vigilante group is entitled to interfere with another citizens right to freedom.’
These cautionary tales serve as a chilling reminder of the risks of taking the law into your own hands.
What Does the Law Say About Vigilante Offences?
Those considering joining groups like the AVF should remember that the law does not treat vigilantes differently to any other member of the community.
This position was confirmed in the case of Bonnet v R  NSWCCA 234.
Ms Bonnet was part of a group who carried out an attack upon Mr Venn, a 42-year-old man who they believed was having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old. She was convicted of ‘robbery with deprivation of liberty,’ but sought to appeal her sentence, arguing that the judge had not properly considered her vigilante motivations for committing the offence.
However, the judge did not agree with her argument and dismissed her case on appeal, stating that:
‘vigilante offences are to be discouraged by general deterrence, and even more so where, as in this case, the perceived crime may be unsavoury to the attackers, but is no crime in law at all.’