Justice ( & ) Mercy

Yesterday Tyrone Palmer appealed his 22-month sentence for killing my brother, Matt Coley, in April of this year. I can't even begin to describe the whirlwind of emotions this has thrown me into, let alone for my parents who made the trek down to Wellington from Coromandel, went to High Court and took a stand publicly. I am so very proud of them. I know they're doing this for Matt, and because they care. They care about the truth around issues of justice and youth violence; they care about the need for strong deterrence as well as effective rehab for violent offenders in Aotearoa New Zealand.

And so do I. Yesterday I was sifting through some of our never-ending "stuffology" in order to condense and compact, and I found this beautiful note from Matt that he'd written to Annabelle for her birthday a couple of years ago. It said, "May all of your dreams come true ... Happy Birthday Annabelle, Dance the day away!! Luv, Matt xoxo P.S. The gold is Arrowtown River gold!" (the little bottle of gold is in a "safe" place somewhere; we'll find it eventually).

Matt sent this note to his niece along with a tiny vial with some Arrowtown gold in it.

Matt sent this note to his niece along with a tiny vial with some Arrowtown gold in it.

This note simply tears my heart wide open and sends torrents of tears onto my cheeks. I still can't believe that she will never receive another of those beautiful notes again because some young guy, high on LSD, pot and alcohol, felt the need to "King-hit someone" (his words, not mine).

I can only mildly entertain the notion of someone getting home detention for homicide if the context of that killing were so clearly accidental, and the killer were an obviously considerate, fair and law-abiding person in his normal life. But Tyrone Palmer has proven to be none of these. Not only did he have a previous offense for violent assault (which wasn't used against him at his sentencing because it hadn't quite been fully processed through the system), and attempted to attack someone else that night before he killed Matt (that guy was lucky to escape in a cab), he also threatened someone with his homicidal prowess at a party 3 weeks later, and proceeded to break bail three times. In his defense at the appeal yesterday his (new) lawyer said that he didn't hit anyone while on bail. (!!!).

His biggest (and perhaps only) mitigating factor is his age, and it's true; he was 16 years old when he killed Matt, but it's not true that he's still 16 (which was the impression they seemed to give in court, and is published in the TVNZ article about it below). He was 17 when he was sentenced in August in Invercargill and is still 17 (!). Clearly it would work in Tyrone's favour if the judges were under the impression he's still only 16. 

It's also true that New Zealand is one of the few countries in the world where 17 year-olds go to grown-up court rather than youth court for any offense (most other places it's 18). I agree that this doesn't make sense for lower-level crime but homicide is different and the fact is that even if the age were raised to 18, 17-year-olds who commit homicide would still be sent to High Court because homicide is so heinous. This excerpt from a legal article titled, When children kill: the age of criminal responsibility and criminal procedure in New Zealand, sums it up–

"... children are presumed to be unable to appreciate the real nature of their criminal offending and are shielded from the consequences of such offending, except in the case of murder and manslaughter.

"The question then becomes: “what makes murder and manslaughter different from other offences?” It is irrefutable that the notion of the sanctity of life predates any formal legal system. Thus the obvious answer would be that by taking away life, homicide is the most serious crime one can commit. It can also be said that the idea that serious crime ought to be treated severely regardless of the offender's age very much still exists in modern day. … Many a time, it boils down to the fact that homicide is a horrible crime that leaves devastation in its path, so the fact that the offender is legally a child often does little to affect how the victim or community believes the offender should be punished."

The other argument that he "didn't know one punch could kill" falls flat against the "I've just King Hit someone!" comment he said as he fled the scene. It's common knowledge, especially among those who are predisposed to violence that a "King Hit" (a.k.a. Coward's Punch, cowardly because there's no warning given before this forceful blow hits the head) – can kill or cause serious brain damage. It's not rocket science. You can even find it online, or you'll find out on your very first boxing lesson:

"The Temple is a proven weak point of the human skull and with enough force you can kill a person in one shot. The best delivery of this death punch would either be a powerhouse hook with the middle knuckle aimed directly at the temple, or if you have them on the ground a straight punch to the temple with everything you got should do the trick. At the very least the hit will cause a lot of pain and disorientation, if more power is added it can cause loss of consciousness and blindness, and if you are a beast with the right punch it can be fatal." [ Sci-fighting: Fatal Death Punches ]

Ideally, justice needs to be upheld in all cases. It's the very safety-fabric of our society. Without it we'd be living in constant fear. And in Matt's case justice needs to be upheld, because as Dad said yesterday, otherwise, "We will be handing our youth a license to kill with minimal consequences." Yes. It's that simple. If our youth know they can go around throwing forceful punches to the head that can easily kill someone, and all they might get is home detention, then our justice system is sorely failing us.

Nevertheless we all agree that justice needs its compassionate counterpart; mercy. But mercy needs to come in the form of effective rehabilitation while the offender is in custody, not in the form of freedom. If Tyrone Palmer isn't feeling safe at the youth facility he's in, nor receiving the psychiatric care and effective rehabilitation he clearly needs for his drug addiction, ADHD and PTSD issues, then it's the job of our public health and corrections services to be fixing that, not our justice system (by handing him freedom). Our justice system is crucial to the healthy functioning of our society but for it to function optimally we need to be caring for and effectively rehabilitating our violent criminal youth, including the likes of Tyrone Palmer.

Tyrone Palmer needs to be in a “Custodial Rehabilitation Center for Youth" – a corrections facility where psychologically damaged (and potentially dangerous) youth can receive adequate psychotherapy, learn effective mindful practices like yoga and meditation, trauma-recovery processes like creative writing and painting, learn some kind of trade skill like cooking or carpentry, and receive education about the effects of drugs (like the dangers of mixing LSD with alcohol and other drugs: http://www.lsdabusehelp.com/dangers-of-mixing-lsd-with-alcohol-and-other-drugs). Surely if Tyrone Palmer were in one of these facilities the notion of an appeal to his sentence wouldn’t even be a consideration, would it? 

I understand the usual excuse is lack of funding, but this is such a profoundly important issue that demands appropriate funding, if only (from an economic perspective) to prevent the subsequent expenditure of not taking a proactive approach to the problem. My brother’s death has cost myself and my family in so many ways, psychologically and financially (even with the help of Victim Support), and I’m sure it’s cost the New Zealand Crown somewhere in the vicinity of  $1m in police, judicial and corrections – even without a trial. And in situations where unlawful violent assault doesn’t result in death the financial costs to the victim’s family and social services are enormous, especially when permanent brain damage is a result. How is this not economically relevant?

It's time for our justice system, our public health system, and our corrections system to work together to prevent these painful, ludicrous, and socially damaging situations from recurring. Personally, I am doing my best to lobby for both more serious consequences for homicide and unlawful violent assault, and more effective rehab for our psychologically damaged and dangerous youth and offenders who need genuinely effective rehabilitation before they hit the streets again.

Here's hoping Matt's death will not be in vain.

FYI: The facts around Matt's case:

1. Tyrone Palmer was high on a concoction of LSD, pot and alcohol when he was out at 1:30 on the streets of Invercargill.
2. He was 16 at the time he killed Matt, he's now 17.
3. Earlier on the night he killed Matt, he chased someone who was the son of a policeman, taking his shirt off and threatening him aggressively (the guy managed to escape in a cab).
4. Matt was trying to extricate himself from the situation he was in but they kept harassing him until they cornered him (outside the convenience store, where Tyrone killed him). We still don't know what the "argument" was about.
5. Matt had his hands at his side when Tyrone threw the punch and was showing no signs of aggression.
6. The punch that Tyrone threw was so forceful it caused a "mid-line shift" to Matt's brain and immediate subsequent haemorrhaging.
7. As Tyrone fled the scene he said to someone he knew, "I've just King Hit someone".
8. Tyrone broke bail three times (that the police know of)
9. Tyrone has ADHD and drug addiction issues. He was bullied as a child. He doesn't have a father.
10. What came up after the sentencing was a report that three weeks after he killed Matt, Tyrone used his "homicidal prowess" as a threat against someone at a birthday party (see the comment from "Lee" on my blog post One Punch Can Kill Many Dreams below).

See below excerpt from the transcript (The Queen VS Tyrone Palmer) from Tyrone Palmer's sentencing in August for a more detailed account of the events leading up to Matt's death that night in April.

Grieving family of one-punch victim plead with court to refuse offender home detention:

When children kill: the age of criminal responsibility and criminal procedure in New Zealand:

One Punch Can Kill Many Dreams:

Matt in San Francisco for my wedding fourteen years ago.

Matt in San Francisco for my wedding fourteen years ago.

PS ... we are working on Matt's novel. It's a painfully bittersweet experience; uncovering the massive amount of work he'd done, and putting the pieces together of the intriguing story he was working on –all the while knowing he'll never see it come to fruition.


In the High Court of New Zealand Invercargill Registry

[4] I also want to acknowledge the statements by Mr and Mrs Coley and by Matthew sister, and for his brother. They are important parts of sentencing, as they disclose a sense of profound loss, but a hope that something will come of this for you and for other young people in particular.

[5] The Summary of Facts is not in dispute. On Friday 8 April this year, you and some companions were socialising in Invercargill. You consumed alcohol, together with a half tab of LSD or Lysergide and a small amount of Cannabis.

[6] Later, you went into town with some young people. In the early hours of Saturday morning, you saw another man speaking with Mr Coley.

[7] You and your group approached this man and one of the young women in your group had an altercation with him. He walked away but you and others followed and confronted him, and you took off your sweatshirt and ran after him. This man was spoken with later and said you acted very aggressively.

[8] Sometime later you became involved in a discussion with Mr Coley, who it is accepted was intoxicated, but at all times was neither aggressive nor threatening.

[9] The discussion went on for about 10 minutes before he walked off down Dee Street.

[10] At about 1.45am, Mr Coley was walking away from the Barluca Night Club in Dee Street and became involved in an argument with some of the young women.

[11] He then left the area and walked south on Dee Street. He was followed by the young women from your group who again confronted him outside the Esk Street Night n Day Store.

[12] You were outside the Store and became involved in the argument. You went into the entranceway of the Store and continued to argue with him.

[13] Mr Coley did not appear to be confrontational at all and it seems he was trying to get out of the situation he was in. But inside the Store, one of the young women attempted to push him, and then another pushed him outside onto the footpath.

[14] You, with the group, followed him and stood around him outside the Store and verbally abused him.

[15] A young woman from your group then punched him or pushed him in the chest. You and the group stood around him and he was not able to get away. The punch

[16] There then followed the incident which has led to your appearing before the Court for sentence today.

[17] You punched him once to the head and he fell back onto the Night n Day Store window, and then went straight to ground.

[18] He had his hands by his sides when you hit him. To repeat, he was not confrontational in any way.

[19] The punch is described and accepted as being delivered with considerable force and it “clearly blindsided the victim” as the Summary records.

[20] He remained on the ground until ambulance staff arrived and took him to Southland Hospital.

[21] You ran from the scene and you told someone you know you had just “king hit” someone, although I bring to account what Mr Young has just said to me with regard to your attitude and understanding at that time.

[22] You were stopped by police and security staff in Don Street. You admitted hitting Mr Coley when first spoken with but said you acted in self-defence. You later changed the story and said the victim, Mr Coley, did not come at you, but you thought he was going to punch you, so you punched him in the head first. That is not an explanation which washes.

[23] You refused a formal interview and would not consent to a medical examination.