Crime

Shaun McNeil and the media vs justice for Daniel Christie

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(Screenshot from Facebook.com/danielchristie11.1.14)

The hatred generated by the media against Shaun McNeil over the bashing death of Daniel Christie will sorely test the idea of a fair trial being possible, writes Tighearnán Kelly.

IT HAS BEEN A DEPRESSING START to the new year for Australia.

The public woke to the devastating news on New Year’s Day that yet another young man had been rushed to hospital for doing nothing more than walking down a street.

The Australian media have, in turn, echoed a bubble of community outrage that such a horrific act could occur for the sake of someone's ego.

The public lashing of Shaun McNeil, particularly after Daniel Christie's death, has contributed to the NSW Attorney General, Greg Smith’s, intervention in the case, including a demand that a charge of murder be brought against McNeil by public prosecutors.

Herein lies the issue.

It is questionable that without the community outrage surrounding this case that Mr McNeil would have been charged with murder, however due to the public awareness of this issue it is highly unlikely that Mr McNeil will be afforded a 'fair' trial according to NSW law.

McNeil is, in the truest sense of the term, receiving a trial by media, such as the following report on Channel Nine's Today programme:

Interference with judicial process is the safe haven of criminal defence lawyers, it will be the impetus for multiple mistrials and appeals that will keep this incident in the public eye for the next two years at least.

As an indication of the scale of this response when compared to what regularly occurs in Australia, a study undertaken by Dr Jennifer Pilgrim of Monash University reported that 90 Australians have died from being struck in 'one punch' or 'king hit' style assaults since 2000. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, people assaulted in New South Wales in 2012 alone totalled: 68,745. That equates to roughly 1,000 people assaulted out of 100,000 in that year. In a 2011 study, the Australian Institute of Criminology found that the number of reported assaults in Australia increased by approximately 32,000 since the year 2000.

This number varies from year to year and actually decreased in 2013; however the number of assaults remains significantly high, enough that it is reasonable to assume that at least ten per cent of the population has or will be assaulted in New South Wales.

So why the sudden outpouring of anguish against this one man?

The reasons are complex but it is within human nature to want to find a scapegoat for our frustrations. McNeil is tattooed, physically imposing and fond of taking selfies. The fact that he was bragging about being intoxicated before the incident just added fuel to the fire of media ignorance that blames violent outbursts on external factors, such as drugs and alcohol, rather than attitudinal ones, such as self- loathing and boredom.

There has also been an outpouring of community outrage about the relatively light sentencing of Kieran Loveridge for the killing of Thomas Kelly. The sentence was the ignition point for the political fire that is making NSW politicians jump around with indignation like frogs on a sunstruck pavement.

Which brings us back to our Catch 22.

In order for this type of assault to be taken seriously, do governments need to intervene? Given the community outrage in the Thomas Kelly case it could be argued that some judges may not have an appropriate understanding of community expectation when it comes to sentencing. This is the nature of a judicial system that is not democratised but bureaucratised.

At the same time government and media interference creates a social expectation of public vengeance, not justice, vengeance. In which the public expects the judiciary to punish offenders based on their emotions, despite not being present at the event and with limited understanding of all the contributing factors in the case.

Judiciaries pride themselves on independence and are likely to baulk at the Attorney-General’s interference in their affairs, the old mantra of separation of powers is still the most powerful polemic in the legal profession.

So where does that leave McNeil?

Probably in a good position, surprising as this may be to some.

The hatred generated against him within the community by the media will sorely test the idea of a fair trial being possible. By appeasing mass sentiment rather than addressing the social issues that contribute to violence, the Attorney-General has created an impossible situation for the courts.

He will soon realise that he has shot himself in the foot, only to find out someone else was wearing his slippers.

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So, where is justice?

One can only hope that the government acts to curb violence, addressing poverty and education deficits could be a start.

What is not helping is the public condemnation of Mr McNeil, fuelled by a rabid media desperate to pull themselves from the mire of low patronage.

Justice needs to be served for Daniel Christie, whatever that may be and creating a situation that prejudices the court case will not accomplish that end — it will destroy it.

Read more by Tighearnán Kelly at tighearnanjkelly.wordpress.com.

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