One Punch [ can kill many dreams ]

Before Matt Coley left his one-bedroom apartment in Avenal, Invercargill in the far south of New Zealand on April 8th 2016, he emailed our mum several times. He was convinced his science fiction novel could become a New York Times bestseller and was ruminating about whether he should labour on it himself to get it finished, or outsource it somehow to “a better writer.”

He commiserated about not having anyone to go out with that night, and about some of the various disappointments he’d experienced with people in the past; "I never see it coming. Too much faith in humanity. Nuff said.”

By 2am the next morning Matt was lying in Invercargill Hospital, in a futile battle for his life. He’d been punched in the head by a sixteen-year-old youth who was high on a concoction of LSD, cannabis and alcohol. It was a single blow that caused a mid-line shift to Matt's brain; thousands of blood vessels in his head burst and he suffered a massive brain hemorrhage. He was never to regain consciousness.  

Matt and I in Milford Sound, the last time I saw him alive and well in March of last year.

Matt and I in Milford Sound, the last time I saw him alive and well in March of last year.

At around dawn my parents received a visit from the Whitianga police. They lived in the sleepy little town of Coromandel and at that hour only the Whitianga police could be reached.

“It was a mother’s worst nightmare,” my mother describes the moment, “the police car arriving with the news my son was in Invercargill Hospital with a serious head injury, and that he was not likely to survive."

Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, I was at home in Brooklyn, New York, packing light for a “romantic” weekend getaway with my husband –the first in a very long time– to Quebec City in Canada. We were excited about our imminent adventure; our 19-year-old niece was coming to “hang” with our 12-year-old daughter while we explored a part of Canada we’d never been to; we were planning one night in the city and then a night near a relatively remote ski resort called Le Massif for a day’s snowboarding (a passion shared across both our families, including Matt before he was plagued with knee injuries).

My husband in chilly Quebec City, half an hour before we found out about Matt.

My husband in chilly Quebec City, half an hour before we found out about Matt.

It was as cold as the middle of winter in New York, even though it was early April. We’d been in Quebec City for an hour, had settled into our hotel room and were out wandering about the old town when I got a call from Mum. 

At first I ignored her call. She knew I was away on this weekend alone with my husband; so rare it hadn’t happened in over twelve years and I knew instantly it must be serious. She wouldn’t bother me otherwise. But I didn't want to believe anything could be wrong. I was happy; perhaps happier than I’d ever been in my life, and I wanted to savour at least a few moments of that happiness with my husband.

We found a cute restaurant that was deliberately kitsch and had a menu to die for (being the chef he was I imagined Matt would’ve loved it). I drank in the vibe and a few more happy moments before plucking up the courage to call Mum back. It was too cold to stand outside and too noisy in the restaurant so I called her from the vestibule at the entrance.

The vestibule (on the left) of the restaurant I called Mum from.

The vestibule (on the left) of the restaurant I called Mum from.

“Cherie. It’s Matt. He’s had a doozy.” Mum's voice was shaky and sombre.

“What do you mean “a doozy”?” I asked, fearful and somewhat incredulously. 

“He’s been knocked out. Punched in the head. It’s serious; Dad and I are getting ready to go down to Invercargill."

Denial is a powerful coping mechanism but it doesn’t always work for the best. I couldn’t believe that Matt might die from this and my husband, in his eternal optimism, was convinced he would be fine. Matt had been beaten up before, and had survived. He’d beaten dyslexia, he’d surfed many of the most hard-core surf breaks in New Zealand, Cornwall, and Perth, and he’d survived personal traumas that would fill a fat novel. He was a survivor.

We were clearly in a state of denial. I even had some unfathomable idea that I could somehow get him fixed if I just found the right people in Invercargill who could work some magic. I searched online for “Invercargill reiki healers” and phoned around, to little avail.

But I also couldn’t understand why he hadn’t been flown to a bigger hospital. I’d seen way too many Grey’s Anatomy episodes and believed that great neurosurgeons existed and could work wonders in the O.R. What was going on? Why wasn't he being operated on if it was so serious?

“This is going to go one of three ways,” I said to my husband: "1) He’ll pull through and be fine, 2) He’ll survive but he’ll be brain damaged, or 3) He’ll die. I spent a traumatic night mostly awake, meditating and praying, insanely hopeful that it would only be #1.

At 6am the next morning Mum called to tell me Matt wasn’t going to make it. That news was by far some of the most painful I have ever experienced in my life. I lay in my husband’s arms and sobbed, not believing I would likely never see my youngest brother alive again.

When I pulled myself together we started planning for my return to New Zealand. I was away from home with just enough clothes for the weekend, no laptop, intending to be home in Brooklyn with our daughter on Monday. Now here I was, stifling sobs while searching frantically for flights online. The trip was too complicated so we phoned Air New Zealand. The familiar sound of a Kiwi accent on the line was somewhat soothing and made it all the more poignant while in a part of the world I'd never been to before, knowing my brother was about to die in the far south of New Zealand.

We drove 2.5 hours to Montréal, where I boarded a 6-hour flight to Vancouver, waited there for several hours before boarding a 14-hour flight to Auckland, then another to Christchurch, and another to Invercargill. 

My husband returned to New York to be with our daughter, and to let her know that the uncle who had always sent her funny gifts from New Zealand would never send her anything again, nor would she ever email with him again, or see him again. Oh and her mother was now on the other side of the world and wouldn’t be back for another couple of weeks.

Ominous clouds flying into Southland from Christchurch.

Ominous clouds flying into Southland from Christchurch.

Somewhere along the way on that journey, perhaps not long before I boarded the flight in Vancouver, Matthew took his last unassisted breath. Mum described his blood pressure skyrocketing, then plummeting, his chest rising and filling to the brim, then one long last expiration. She also intuitively saw her own deceased father come back to help Matt through the disembodiment experience. She was nevertheless also initially in denial and refused to believe he was really gone until the doctors took the intubator out of his mouth to prove it. They put it back on and kept him on life support so they could "harvest" his organs.

In New Zealand the law requires the family's consent for organ donation before it can happen. Consequently donors are few and far between because it’s seldom the family agrees. It wasn't easy for Mum to get on board. I get it –for a mother to know her “baby” (and they’re always “babies” regardless of the age) would be cut up and parts of him sent in multiple directions is inevitably difficult to stomach. But we ultimately all agreed to honour Matt's desire to be an organ donor; if he had it on his driver's license he'd thought it through and that was his choice. There was a bit of buzz in the medical world in NZ as people lined up for a healthy man's vital organs. Matt ended up donating his lungs, liver, and kidneys to four needy people, and for that we have some consolation (and I’m sure he would have too).

Matt hooked up to the intubator and other tubes.

Matt hooked up to the intubator and other tubes.

I didn’t know he'd died while I was traveling. Mum spared me the news until I arrived at Invercargill airport.  Though I half expected to get the bad news when I arrived, I was nevertheless devastated. I had so wished to be with him as he departed, to help him with that transition somehow, but it was too late. Perhaps if I'd not been in such denial when I heard the news I could've been on a flight sooner. If only.

I couldn’t help but imagine his experience. He didn’t die immediately and initially, for a short while, Mum and Dad believed he showed some signs of response. I imagined the shock he would’ve felt coming into some kind of awareness, realizing he couldn't move; that he was stuck in a motionless body, and probably dying. I knew that if anyone could handle that, it would be Matt. He was a legendary surfer, had ridden some of the most hard-core waves in the country, often alone, and had no doubt come close to drowning more than once. Moreover, he had a macro perspective on life; he thought cosmically, in terms of lifetimes and interplanetary beings.  But would that have made it any less painful, frustrating, or scary? Can you imagine how he must’ve felt, with his parents holding onto him, giving him reiki, crying, praying, hoping he would recover? Mum felt that he fought hard. He wanted to live because he did have so much to live for. Yet suddenly, he was about to lose it all.

Matt on life support at Invercargill hospital.

Matt on life support at Invercargill hospital.

Matt was definitely a fighter. Not in the physical sense of fighting other people but in the sense of fighting against those things he found unconscionable in life, especially injustice (one of the reasons he wanted to be a journalist), and against the handicaps, obstacles and impediments he encountered throughout his own life. He'd been battling his own life challenges since he was a toddler, when he contracted a toxoplasmosis infection from the wild cats that lived in the bush beside our home on the outskirts of Waiomu, a small village on the Thames Coast of the Coromandel. I’m not sure what it’s like to live there these days; every time I drive through Waiomu now I’m amazed at how perfectly manicured the place seems to be but back in the ‘70s when Matt, our brother Graeme and I were kids, the place was a frontier of wilderness. It wasn’t easy to keep nature at bay from our home.

Matt was only a toddler when the toxoplasmosis infection hit him and the doctors at Thames hospital told Mum there wasn’t much they could do about it and that it would pass with time. But the disease caused him to be weak and listless as a child and it stunted his growth. He was small, pale and frail for many years and didn’t catch up physically until his late teens. It may have also contributed to him developing dyslexia and perhaps even some mental health issues later on.

Matt as a toddler with our parents at our grandparents' home in Taupo.

Matt as a toddler with our parents at our grandparents' home in Taupo.

On top of the toxoplasmosis and dyslexia, when he was nine years old he had a severe knee injury while doing high-jump during a school sports day at Hikuai school (near Pauanui) and was plagued with recurring injuries to the same knee throughout his life. In fact, the last time I saw him alive in March of last year when I visited him in Manapouri he was on crutches and unable to work because of it.

Matt on crutches in Milford Sound last March.

Matt on crutches in Milford Sound last March.

Matt at nine years old after knee surgery, and in July of last year a week after knee surgery.

Matt at nine years old after knee surgery, and in July of last year a week after knee surgery.

Constantly battling the ongoing knee injuries often made it difficult for him to work. He was still paying off a student loan from a business management degree at Waikato university and needed to make a living while he was working on his novel or on some entrepreneurial endeavour. He usually worked as a chef and thrived on the adrenaline rush and satisfaction of cooking successfully for a full house at peak service times.

But Matt wasn’t only a hard-working chef and a driven writer, he was an entrepreneur. We were brought up in an entrepreneurial family. My parents had had a number of businesses (some of them successful, some of them not) and I think all of us had some kind of drive to create something worthwhile that worked financially.

Matt and I had collaborated on a number of projects together, including graphic and web design, magazine publishing, and more recently, industrial design: a few months before he died, when he told me he’d started shaping surfboards “to do something with his hands” I’d sent him a link to a site some friends in Hawaii have that sells hand-made “hand planes” – a body-surfing aid that looks like a miniature surfboard (it straps onto one hand and you body-surf in a kind of superman style with one arm forward). As far as he could find, no-one was making them in New Zealand yet and he was determined to be the one of the first. He'd created several of them, named the brand BodyTorq, designed a logo, and was working on tweaking the design and figuring out how to get the strap made. We’d brainstormed about the design and the marketing and I'd promised him I could do the website when he was ready to sell them. When one of our aunts from Taupo visited him a month before he died he’d told her all about this and was apparently excited about the endeavour.

We found Matt's temporary workshop in a shed near his flat just half an hour before we were due to leave Invercargill. It was a heartbreakingly bittersweet discovery.

Matt's board-shaping workshop we fortuitously found just half an hour before we left Invercargill.

Matt's board-shaping workshop we fortuitously found just half an hour before we left Invercargill.

One of the surfboards Matt had been working on.

One of the surfboards Matt had been working on.

BodyTorq hand planes in the making, in the corner of the workshop.

BodyTorq hand planes in the making, in the corner of the workshop.

A couple of Matt's first hand planes near completion. He sent me this image in January of this year.

A couple of Matt's first hand planes near completion. He sent me this image in January of this year.

Matt had friends dotted all around the country and a handful overseas too. He wasn’t married and didn’t have a partner (though I believe he had one or two current love interests). His immediate family were spread around the world; parents in the Coromandel, brother and sister-in-law living between Australia and Japan, and myself in New York. But he was relatively new to Invercargill. He’d been living there full-time for around eight months before he died, although he had lived there a couple of years not long before while studying journalism at Southland Technical Institute. He’d chosen to settle in Invercargill after years of moving throughout the country because he said the people in Invercargill were "the friendliest.” They were down-to-earth, non-judgmental and seemed to genuinely care (certainly that was my experience of everyone I encountered there, including the police). He liked Invercargill so much he was planning to buy a property there this year with a flat upstairs and a workshop for his surfboard and hand-plane shaping downstairs, and was just waiting on the sale of our grandmother’s house in Taupo to help make it happen. 

However, the night he was killed, he was alone. He’d been at home alone drinking before he went out and he’d emailed Mum several times. Mum hadn’t seen his emails and so didn’t reply. He didn’t reach out to me and I can only surmise why; we were usually in frequent contact but I had told him a week or so earlier that I was super busy with a number of things, and that’s why I hadn’t replied to his last email fully yet but I was contemplating it deeply (it was, literally, a cosmic piece that wasn’t part of his novel). But I hadn’t responded as promptly as I usually did with him not only because I was busy but because I thought he was doing okay. Better than okay actually; I thought he was doing well. I told him I was intending to reply more fully soon and that I was impressed with how his writing was evolving. 

The entrance to the apartment building Matt lived in, in Avenal, Invercargill.

The entrance to the apartment building Matt lived in, in Avenal, Invercargill.

The view from his kitchen window.

The view from his kitchen window.

The dishes he'd left to dry.

The dishes he'd left to dry.

And I was impressed. In the last couple of years Matt seemed to have fully overcome his dyslexia. His writing had become ever more lucid, poignant, and readable and I felt this really did bode well for his novel.

While Matt was working on his novel I encouraged him to believe that he could do it, and not that he’d necessarily have do it totally alone, but that it would be his book. He was struggling with lack of confidence because of his dyslexia. He'd wanted me to finish it, and even to put my name to it but I’d learned enough about psychology and life in general to understand that for me to take on such a huge undertaking (we’re talking about a fully-fledged science fiction novel here) just to help him out, was not a good idea. Also, I’d had no experience with science fiction and at that time I had a writer’s block the size of Gibraltar and couldn’t imagine the possibility. I told him he could do the bulk of the work and he could finish it.  

At one stage my husband and I paid for an editor and a writing coach and recently had offered to pay for whatever course he needed to finish it (there were some great ones out there that he was on the verge of taking). But Matt was reluctant for us to pay for anything more; he had a strong work ethic and found it humiliating to accept handouts. I could fully understand how he felt so I did what I could to remain connected communicatively, and also to help him brainstorm his next steps. I had figured out that, at least initially; self-publishing was the best way to go and we could do that through Amazon. I had told him I could proof-read it and design the cover (I still have the vision of it clearly in my mind). 

Nevertheless I wasn’t a big sci-fi fan; and for the longest time I just didn’t “get” the point of the plot. That obstacle began to crack last March, when I did finally get it because he told me during our adventure to Milford Sound to Manapouri. I bought some big pieces of blank paper, post-it notes and markers and we were planning to put them up on the wall and work on it together. That didn’t end up happening unfortunately. Mostly we were working on rehabilitating his knee (and that included a trip to Invercargill hospital to pick up a knee brace) but we also went to Milford Sound because neither of us had been there before and it seemed like a good adventure.

The last pic Matt ever took of me, at Milford Sound last March.

The last pic Matt ever took of me, at Milford Sound last March.

Now that Matt’s gone, somewhat inevitably, I feel thoroughly compelled to get his novel published. My writer’s block began to evaporate after some online writing courses I began taking late last year, and since his death I've been working on editing it. I’m convinced his spirit is with me and he won’t move on until it’s done. I only wish he could be here in person to see it happen. That’s the painful part. As human beings one of our biggest challenges in life is not getting what we want –of experiencing "the miseries of having thrust upon us what we would wish to avoid and having wrenched away what we wish to keep." *

The pic Dad took of me with Matt on life support.

The pic Dad took of me with Matt on life support.

Mum and Dad with Matt on life support.

Mum and Dad with Matt on life support.

On the long journey from Quebec City to Invercargill not only was I in the dark about the fact that Matt had already passed away, I didn’t yet know the details of exactly how he'd died. All I knew was that it was from a single blow to the head. For some reason I imagined it had happened near his home in Avenal, not in downtown Invercargill, and that someone must’ve hit him over the head with a baseball bat, possibly in a hit-and-run mugging. I had no idea that single-punch deaths were possible, let alone “a thing” and I didn’t hear the full story until the detective on the case explained it to me while we were sitting in a small windowless room in the hospital waiting for the medical staff to be done with the prep for Matt’s organ “harvesting.”

I was incredulous, dumbfounded, and in a state of shock. My brother had just been killed by 16-year-old’s fist. He would never again feel the salt water of the ocean against his skin; he’d never get to finish his novel, buy the home and workshop he wanted, sell his hand planes and surfboards, marry a woman he loved, have kids, or climb Mt Titiroa with me (something we’d been planning to do before his latest knee injury). He was gone.

Matt in the casket before heading to the crematorium. The scars on his knuckles were made during the autopsy to determine whether he'd used his fists that night. He hadn't.

Matt in the casket before heading to the crematorium. The scars on his knuckles were made during the autopsy to determine whether he'd used his fists that night. He hadn't.

So what exactly had happened? Why was Matt there, in the “wrong place at the wrong time," leaning against the wall of a Night-and-Day convenience store with a 16-year-old youth about to plant a fist on his head? 

On that fateful evening of Friday April 8th, 16-year-old Tyrone Palmer had been to a party where he took half a tab of LSD, smoked some cannabis and had a few drinks. Later on that night, at around 1:10am as the bars in downtown Invercargill began to empty and people spilled onto the streets headed for home, or to a party, or the convenience store, Matt was in the vicinity of the intersection of Esk and Dee streets when he struck up a conversation with the son of a local policeman. They didn’t really know each other at the time. Perhaps if they hadn’t been drinking they might not have exchanged any words at all but they shared some brief moments of drunken camaraderie before going their separate ways.

At that time, young Tyrone, still tripping on LSD, was across the road from this couple of hapless and harmless (and somewhat vulnerably intoxicated) men, crossed the street and began to harass the son of the policeman. For some unknown reason he took off his shirt (so that he wouldn’t get blood on it?) and tried to pick a fight with him. The potential victim was frightened enough to know that he needed to get away from the youth who seemed to be out to exorcise some violence with aggressively threatening behaviour. He walked away speedily with Tyrone following him and fortunately for the son-of-the-policeman, managed to hail a cab and escape. 

Matt wasn’t so fortunate. In the meantime he’d become involved in a heated discussion with a couple of young women who were among Tyron's posse; a discussion that was rapidly turning sour. We don’t know exactly what the issue was but Matt had realized it was an argument that needed to end and had also attempted to escape by simply walking away. But the young women wouldn’t let up. One of them followed Matt down the street and continued to taunt him. Matt went into the Night 'n Day convenience store on the corner of Esk and Dee streets and both of the young women followed him in. While inside the store one of them attempted to push Matt and the other punched him in the chest (she was subsequently charged with assault). Matt didn’t respond with any physical confrontation and continued to attempt to remove himself from the situation. All of this was recorded on CCTV video.

The Night 'n Day convenience store on the corner of Esk and Dee streets in Invercargill where Matt was hit.

The Night 'n Day convenience store on the corner of Esk and Dee streets in Invercargill where Matt was hit.

At around 1:45am the young offender entered the fray. By this time the group had spilled out of the convenience store onto the street just outside and several bystanders were milling around, including a local bouncer, who was attempting to diffuse the situation. For a few more minutes the argument continued between Matt and the young women as they, and Tyrone surrounded him. By this time Matt had backed up against the window of the convenience store and was leaning against it, arms at his side, thoroughly non-confrontationally.  Suddenly, and for no apparent reason according to the witnesses, Tyrone Palmer blindsided Matt with a powerful punch to the temple of his head. Matt slumped against the window, and then to the ground. He never regained consciousness. Tyrone fled the scene and passed an acquaintance on the way, saying, “I’ve just King-hit someone."

That violent single punch caused a mid-line shift to Matt’s brain. This means it was pushed off-center in such a life-threatening way that only immediate neurosurgery could’ve possibly saved him. It would’ve taken seven minutes for his brain to begin hemorrhaging; just long enough for the ambulance to arrive, and for Tyrone to be captured by a nearby bouncer as word on the street quickly got out.

The fact that Tyrone said “I’ve just King-Hit someone” as he fled the scene clearly implies he knew exactly what a "King Hit" was. Does this also mean that he knew a "King Hit" could kill someone? And that he knew a powerful punch to the temple was the easiest way to do it? Who knows. That’s pure conjecture and not something that can be proven. According to the local police his experience in boxing training “didn’t amount to much.” But in the fighting world it’s well known that a powerful hit to the temple can kill someone. A New York cabbie with a son who was a boxer told me about it, and if you want to know how to kill someone you can simply google it.

In any case the possibility that the young offender was proud of his actions at the time is utterly unconscionable and the bravado that surrounds the term “King Hit” needs to be quashed. In Australia, where one-punch deaths have become so prolific that law changes are in effect to help prevent them, the term “Coward's Punch” has become the more appropriate term.

Why is it cowardly? Because the victims don’t see it coming. They’re not given any warning so they don’t have time to put up an arm to obstruct the hit. In the olden days it would’ve been considered ungentlemanly. You'd put your fists up in a fighting pose and ask for a fight. One punch deaths are cowardly, not glorious. Glorious is winning a fair fight. There’s nothing fair at all about being hit in the most vulnerable part of the head by a bare fist without the slightest warning. And in Matt’s case he showed no signs of physical threat to anyone. Afterwards, at the police station, Tyrone Palmer claimed he hit Matt in an act of self defense but it wasn’t long before the facts were ascertained; Matt was utterly defenseless, his arms by his side and never once threatened violence.

Graphics from Australia's "One Punch Campaign"

Graphics from Australia's "One Punch Campaign"

Can I personally muster up some compassion for Tyrone now? Yes I can. He was brought up fatherless and must’ve been deeply angry about life in general to want to inflict such pain onto someone he didn’t even know. He’s clearly ruined his own life (for now) and in the grand scheme of things is carrying a heavy karmic burden. However, because of his age, and the fact he pleaded guilty to manslaughter, he’ll inevitably get off lightly in terms of his sentence but if he’s not appropriately rehabilitated he’ll likely reoffend in some way and I would be happy to participate in his rehabilitation through restorative justice in order to help prevent that.

Perhaps more importantly I want to help prevent this happening to others in the future. I want to make sure the New Zealand public is aware of exactly what happened to Matt. People need to know that a single punch can kill and they need to know why it’s an act of cowardice, not bravado.

In Australia the one-punch death phenomena has become so common in recent years that many states have implemented new laws singling out the act as a distinct type of assault that can incur a minimum of 8 years imprisonment and a maximum of 25; placing it more akin to murder than manslaughter. There’s also been a massive amount of public awareness and media attention around the phenomenon there. Clearly this makes sense. If the general public is aware, and it becomes a commonly understood fact that people can kill with a single punch and that if you do you’ll not only be branded a coward but you'll likely have your freedom curtailed for a long time, then young people will be more reluctant to do it. If that can happen in New Zealand then the death of an extraordinary human being like Matt Coley will not have been in vain. 

"I never see it coming. Too much faith in humanity. Nuff said.”
~Matt Coley, April 8th, 2016
Matt on the way to Milford Sound last year.

Matt on the way to Milford Sound last year.

* "the miseries of having thrust upon us what we would wish to avoid and having wrenched away what we wish to keep." is a quote from the book Vanity Karma about the Buddha's first Noble Truth; the truth of suffering.


Addendum: Tuesday August 23rd, 2016 

Yesterday was the sentencing of Tyrone Palmer in the high court in Invercargill. Unfortunately my brother Graeme and his wife Yoshiko couldn’t make it (because Yoshiko is about to go into surgery) but I read Graeme’s victim impact statement, along with my own, and Mum and Dad read theirs.

We walked up to the front of the court and stood together in solidarity for Matt and shared our pain; of the experience of his death, our loss of Matt and all of his potential that was about to be realized, as well as our incredulousness at this unprovoked and seemingly senseless act of violence. We also addressed the clear need for Tyrone’s rehabilitation in the hope that he will never be the cause of something like this again.

Tyrone was sentenced to 22 months in custody, which now that he’s 17 years old could mean (as one policeman calls it), “Big Boys Prison” but will likely mean an under-20’s youth custody facility.
 
Instinctively, twenty-two months for a life seems somewhat lame but compared with the very real possibility discussed in court of home detention instead of custody, it’s reasonable. From the perspective of New Zealand law, the starting point was four years, which is the general term for a manslaughter of this kind in New Zealand. He got 25% off for his age, 25% off for pleading guilty, and another couple of months off because New Zealand prisons are a rough place for a youngster.

No-one would disagree with the twenty-five percent off for his age. He was 16 at the time and as the defendant’s lawyer pleaded, his brain isn’t fully developed yet. Everyone gets that. His lawyer also claimed leniency because he’d been bullied at school. It’s a well-researched fact that kids who are bullied often become bullies and certainly his behaviour on that fateful night seemed typical of a bully, and although he claimed he was defending his girlfriends, they too seemed to be displaying bullying behaviour towards Matt. 

The twenty-five percent off for pleading guilty is standard practice, but to be honest I don’t get that. In this situation (and many others) where the defendant has obviously committed the crime (there were numerous witnesses and he’d told someone he’d done it with his “I’ve just King-hit someone” comment as he fled), it seems a hollow and excessive reward. I understand it in situations where it’s not clear who, why or how a crime was committed, but not in this instance. I suspect that rewarding criminals with reduced sentences for pleading guilty has become a commonly accepted practice in New Zealand criminal law (regardless of the obviousness of the guilt), more for economic rather than ethical or judicial reasons. By pleading guilty it saves the expense of a trial. Perhaps it also saves the extended heart-wrenching trauma of a trial for a victim’s family but I still don’t understand why the reward for pleading guilty in these instances needs to be so high.

The couple of months off because NZ prisons are so rough is much more understandable to me and if I were the judge and had free reign over the sentencing I’d replace the 25% off for pleading guilty with that rationale. However, *if* NZ prisons were not such rough places, and NZ Corrections were highly effective at rehabilitating criminals and reducing re-offense rates, that rationale wouldn’t apply, would it? 

So the starting point was four years for manslaughter and Tyrone ended up with 22 months of going into a situation where the prospects of his rehabilitation are dubious. What if the starting point were 8 years, as it is in New South Wales for cowardly one-punch deaths? And what if NZ Corrections had a powerful rehabilitation program and NZ prisons were not places where a 17-year-old might be bullied, abused and traumatized, or taught how to become a “better” criminal and were more like Norway's prisons? Then four years for the crime of killing a defenseless man in an unprovoked attack would make sense. Sure, he’d lose the freedom of his remaining teenage years, but to me, that’s exactly what he deserves for taking my brother’s life. 

Perhaps what was most unexpected from the judge was his focus on the concoction of LSD, cannabis and alcohol that Tyrone was on that night. He referred to it a couple of times and said he found it deeply troubling. So did I, but the police had always assured me that it wasn’t all that relevant; in a court of law it was neither a mitigating nor an aggravating factor (or rather, they canceled each other out). But when I did even a little research on it I found that the combination of LSD and alcohol could lead to potentially extreme behaviour that could cause damage both to the person on the concoction and anyone in his or her path. You’d think the cannabis might soften the potential for aggressive behaviour but in this instance it didn’t. So the judge’s instinct about this was correct but it doesn’t seem to be a widely recognized issue in New Zealand, or a valid concern in criminal law – yet.

Finally, Tyrone had written a brief letter of apology to Mum and Dad which seemed to express remorse, and the judge referred a couple of times to reports from a psychiatric nurse that he was actually expressing true remorse. Whether or not he’d been encouraged to write the letter and express some kind of remorse by his family, lawyer or psych nurse it seemed a like a good starting point, and the possibility of restorative justice at some point, where we get to meet him in person could be a good opportunity for healing all round.


Kiwis: check out TVNZ's "Sunday" show this coming Sunday August 29th. If you feel moved to make a difference in your family and community about the issues around Matt's death be sure to let the teenagers and young people in your life know about one-punch deaths, and email or phone your local MP, the Minister of Justice and the NZ Law Commission with your feelings about realistic sentencing, the state of NZ Corrections and youth drug and alcohol issues. You can make a difference!