The smallest act of violence can have fatal consequences
From the moment Thomas Kelly’s parents, Ralph and Kathy, stepped in front of the media our hearts felt for this grieving family. They had the faces of parents I’d witnessed a thousand times before, the faces of parents who have just lost their child through an act of violence.
Over the past ten years I have worked with over 1,000 individuals and families bereaved by homicide. Many of them including a one-punch fatal assault such as Thomas Kelly’s, or like my father’s.
In just a few seconds in November 2000, my family’s lives changed forever when a 26-year-old male assaulted my then 49-year-old and 55 kilogram father. I waited, as the Kelly’s will, for weeks, for months and then years before the case proceeded to the Supreme Court with the offender charged with manslaughter.
I sat through days of testimony, hearing a number of justifications for the offender’s behaviour, I waited for hours for the jury to return the verdict that would change our lives. And then I sat, for what felt like eternity for the jury to utter two words “not guilty”.
Since then I have continued to work in victim advocacy and crime prevention. I have sat through hundreds of homicide trials, and have heard offenders attempt to rationalise their actions in a hundred different ways. Violence is complex, sometimes it is almost incomprehensible - but it is never excusable.
It was a campaign with a dual purpose, the first being an anti-violence campaign to educate people, young males particularly, that even the smallest act of violence can have fatal consequences. The message was intended for both potential victim and the offender, recognising that in some cases the distinction between both parties can become quite tenuous.
The second purpose was deliberate, and targeted the defence of accident which still remains to this day within Queensland legislation. The crux of the Criminal Code excuse of accident rests within foreseeability, and I have reluctantly supported families through a number of trials where a lack of foreseeability that one punch could kill has resulted in jurors finding the accused not guilty.
The One Punch Can Kill campaign recognises that the accident excuse can only be successfully used if the death of a person through one punch was not foreseeable to an ordinary person. Put simply, the challenge is to increase societal awareness to the level that there is someone on every single jury who understands the impact of one punch.
The One Punch Can Kill campaign has been adopted and funded by the Queensland Government since 2008. While it’s difficult to evaluate the success of any crime-prevention program (how do you, for example, count near-misses?) two points indicate to me that the campaign is impressing upon people’s understanding of violence.
The first is the continued feedback I receive, particularly from our youth. Since 2008 I have spoken with an incredibly diverse Australian audience regarding violence. I have met with dignitaries in our capital cities and vulnerable youth in regional Northern Territory, addressed thousands as a keynote speaker on the topic, and sat in the dust in outback Queensland exploring alternatives to violence with community leaders.
The One Punch Can Kill campaign is becoming well known and has provided communities, police, teachers, parents and leaders with discourse they can use with young people around the consequences of their actions.
The second is that the One Punch Can Kill campaign has had a direct affect on Queensland’s criminal justice system. During a case in Mackay in 2009, visiting backpacker Mark Urch died as a result of one punch, the police were able to incorporate the campaign into their questioning, and secured an admission from the offender that he was aware of the One Punch Can Kill campaign and its meaning. His awareness, and still disregard for human safety resulted in a manslaughter conviction and 7-year sentence.
Since the campaign’s inception in 2008 I have heard it utilised by police and judges alike, reiterating the message that even the smallest act of violence can have devastating consequences.
I have had young people come up to me and proudly show off their One Punch Can Kill wristbands, explaining that if ever they ‘square up’ to fight they will be reminded about the risks.
I would welcome national support of either this or similar campaigns that, in contrast to exploring psycho-social factors for violence reminds us that anyone, irrespective of age, income, educational attainment or peer group can make one terrible, irrevocable decision. In that moment, we need to remind ourselves and our buddies, that one punch can kill.
Jonty Bush received the Young Australian of the Year award in 2009 for her work in the field of victim support and for her work on the One Punch Can Kill campaign.
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