Attending the manslaughter hearing considered the test case for Victoria’s ‘one-punch’ laws provides a glimpse of how our legal system can fail to deliver the closure sought by all involved. By Jane Gilmore.
Law and ordeal
Jon and Heidi Walker had two sons, Jaiden and Ethan. Their oldest son, Jaiden, is dead. Richard Vincec killed him. Vincec is a beloved partner and father of three children. He is going to jail.
Vincec pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the Supreme Court of Victoria two weeks ago. Jon and Heidi were there with friends and family. So was Vincec’s partner, his parents and his friends.
They sit separated by a narrow aisle between the rows of benches in a court the size of a large lounge room. They don’t speak but they cry quietly at times. Sometimes they struggle to breathe. Once or twice Jaiden’s people fix their eyes on Vincec or his supporters. No one meets their gaze.
The courtroom was built more than a century ago. Oak panelling covers every wall and the judge’s carved bench looms over the room. This might prove the test case for the Victorian government’s one-punch laws and the press section is packed.
CCTV footage of the events leading up to Jaiden’s death plays on the widescreen television. The journalists’ gaze switches from the families to the screen. On the video they see Vincec kissing Jaiden’s former girlfriend and an argument starting. The blow is sudden and off-screen but, in an instant, Jaiden is prone and Vincec has disappeared.
Then, in the court, come the victim impact statements for the judge to consider when deciding on the sentence.
One by one they stand and read. Stilted formal language; the monotone of reading aloud. Tears and grief.
Jaiden’s friend Adrian keeps pausing as he reads. They used to go four-wheel driving and camping together. He still cannot comprehend the suddenness and pointlessness of Jaiden’s death. “None of us will ever recover. I miss him every day.” He tries so hard to not cry. It doesn’t work.
Jaiden’s brother, Ethan, is only 16 years old. He was 15 when his brother was killed. “We used to argue sometimes,” he says, “but he was my big brother and now he’s gone.”
Jaiden’s family stands next to the defence team to read their statement. One of the solicitors stares at the ceiling.
The court staff carry on sorting and stamping papers. Another taps at her phone. “You have to detach,” one of the court staff, not involved in this case, says later. “For most people who come in here it’s the only time they’ll ever see the place and it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to them. For us, it’s every day and it would drive you mad if you let it.”
Jaiden’s aunt is next. She remembers an affectionate, gentle boy who grew into a kind, quiet man. She tells the judge she doesn’t know how to watch her sister lying on the floor screaming in pain because her son is dead and there’s nothing anyone can do to change that.
Richard Vincec is sobbing, clutching at his chest, unable to breathe. His partner curls into the woman next to her. His supporters wipe away tears and stare at the floor.
Heidi Walker has trouble standing. Her statement is read out by the prosecutor. He calmly reads her description of how happy Jaiden would have been to know he had saved lives by donating his organs but that she couldn’t let them take his eyes “because they were just too beautiful”.
Jon Walker tries to tell the judge how the death of his oldest son has affected him. He is not a writer or an orator. He’s a father standing in a courtroom trying to articulate rage and grief. Words are not enough.
Justice Peter Riordan listens from his bench high above the court, sombre and attentive. He gently tells each speaker to take their time. The red stripes on the sleeve of his robes move as he gestures. Doors open and close with an electric hum.
It’s the defence’s turn to put a human face on the man who caused this agony. He’s 26 years old and had a “difficult” life. He had some run-ins with police when he was 18. Then he met “the love of his life”, now the mother of his children, and he “straightened himself out for them”.
Vincec doesn’t speak to the court. His barrister, Robert Richter, QC, speaks for him. The night of Jaiden’s death was an aberration. Vincec was “let off the leash” for a night of watching football and consuming alcohol and cocaine. The single punch – “not a heavy blow, it didn’t even leave a mark” – happened after Jaiden found his former girlfriend kissing Vincec in the street and “passions ran high”.
His remorse, Richter says, is genuine. It’s not self-pity, but recognition of the pain his actions have caused. He reads Vincec’s statement: “I wish I could turn back time. I wish I could have made different choices. I’ll never forgive myself.” Vincec is a father, too. He can imagine having a child taken so cruelly. No matter what happens to him in court or in jail, all his children are alive.
Richter argues that this was not a “coward punch” but just an argument that went too far. Jaiden, he says, was intoxicated. He had a blood alcohol level of 0.19 so when he fell he was unable to catch himself. A victim’s drunkenness is common in manslaughter cases, he says, and is often the cause of severe injuries. He had an eggshell-thin skull, not something anyone could have known about him until it was too late. Jaiden’s family stir restlessly.
Vincec, Richter says, was trying to make amends before the blow. “All he wanted to do was shake his hand.” While he concedes that Jaiden did accept the handshake, he contends it wasn’t conciliatory. Vincec was “outraged by this and just lashed out”. He was angry and drunk, but he had no intention of causing serious harm. It was a microsecond decision and a fatal intersection of small mischances that should have ended in nothing but irritation and bluster. Instead, the blow caused Jaiden to fall and slam his head on the ground. Five days later he was dead.
Richter speaks slowly, shifting his balance from side to side and sometimes leaning forward, hands folded on the bar table. He leisurely runs through his arguments several times. He says his client knows he must go to jail, but argues for mercy.
General deterrence is one of sentencing’s elements in criminal trials. The objective is to create a level of acceptable behaviour that people fear to divert from because the consequences are too dreadful. Richter argues that general deterrence is not relevant to this case because “when tempers are running high, no one is thinking about deterrence”.
After all the evidence is given, the filing begins. Courts have their own incomprehensible language that excludes outsiders. Documents are “tendered” to the court and acts of parliament are shorthanded by section and paragraph. Justice Riordan deals rapidly with the technicalities and says sentencing will occur at a later date.
The hearing ends and exhausted family members straggle out to the corridor. They mill about in awkward confusion, then separate. Jaiden’s parents and Vincec’s partner are the nucleus of each group. Fit young men form a barrier around them, protecting them from the gaze of the other side. There are no security guards. None are needed.
The lawyers come out to explain to everyone what just happened in the court they’d been sitting in for three hours. Their voices echo off the stone floors and drown out the piped music in the lobby, but explanations don’t erase their bewildered expressions. The families have waited five months for this hearing and nothing seems to have been decided.
No date has been set for sentencing. The judge will let the lawyers know when he’s ready. No sentence could be too long. No sentence could be too short.
Outside the court doors the media pack is waiting.
Vincec’s group leaves first. He’s in custody now and his partner is tucked under the arms of friends and family. The media are bobbing and weaving around them. She’s tiny and can’t stop crying. Her supporters pack tightly around her, trying to shield her from the cameras. But the cameramen and photographers do this every day and they know how to get the pictures they need. Within hours her face is all over news sites.
Jaiden’s family leaves a few minutes later. Microphones and cameras appear in front of Jon Walker as he steps out, clutching his wife’s hand tightly. He gives a few terse sentences about the need to make sure Vincec is punished for his crime, then the group walks off. Cameramen run backwards, lenses focusing in on faces, runners guiding with a hand on their backs. Again, friends try to shield the families but it doesn’t work. A policeman watches, his lip curled in disgust.
After all the waiting and excruciating tension of the hearing, both families leave court with their lives shattered by the absence of someone they love.
But one day Richard Vincec will come home.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 14, 2017 as "Law and ordeal".
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