HIV-specific crime to be amended or repealed

Regardless who wins the next Victorian election, section 19A of the Crimes Act 1958 (Vic) will be on their legislative agenda. The provision makes it an offence to “intentionally causes another person to be infected with a very serious disease”. It was added in 1993 in response to community fears about an AIDS epidemic, and “very serious disease” is defined to only include one disease: HIV, which causes AIDS. Health experts say section 19A is counterproductive because it stigmatises people with HIV, discouraging them from seeking treatment. At the 20th International AIDS Conference, held in Melbourne earlier this month, the Victorian Health Minister, David Davis, announced the government’s intention to amend section 19A”. This was cautiously welcomed by delegates at the conference, though they still had concerns; the Victorian AIDS Council said: “We are concerned by … the possibility that section 19A could be converted into a general provision covering other infectious diseases. We believe that would be a step in the wrong direction.” Soon afterwards, the Shadow Health Minister, Gavin Jennings, promised to repeal the section altogether.

Leaked transcript breached right to silence

In today’s Lee v The Queen judgment, the High Court unanimously ordered a retrial over drug and firearms charges, in an important decision upholding the privilege against self-incrimination. Two men had been forced to answer questions by the NSW Crime Commission under special powers that suspend the “right to silence”. The men were later charged by the DPP, and the prosecutor obtained a copy of the Crime Commission transcript, breaching a suppression order. The High Court ruled: “It is a … departure in a fundamental respect from a criminal trial which the system of criminal justice requires an accused person to have, for the prosecution to be armed with the evidence of an accused person obtained under compulsion concerning matters the subject of the charges.” Barrister Edward Greaves points out that the decision will force all investigative bodies with compulsory examination powers to ensure they keep their records out of the hands of prosecutors. The High Court said if leaks occurred, trials should only go ahead when “another prosecutor and other DPP personnel, not privy to the evidence, were engaged.”

Death penalty study provides support for abolition

A new study has found that between 2.8% and 5.2% of defendants sentenced to death in the United States were likely innocent. The University of Michigan Law School designed the study, and had the numbers crunched by medical researchers trained in population statistics analysis. Law professor Samuel Gross said, “Since 1973, nearly 8,500 defendants have been sentenced to death in the United States, and 138 of them have been exonerated. Our study means that more than 200 additional innocent defendants have been sentenced to death in that period.”  Last week, The Economist reported that although “America is unusual among rich countries in that it still executes people”, the trend was towards fewer executions and more states abolishing the death penalty. It concluded, “It may be a long wait, but the death penalty’s days are surely numbered.”

Charges laid over fatal wall collapse

WorkSafe, the agency that regulates workplace safety in Victoria, has charged two companies over a wall collapse that killed three pedestrians last year. The builder, Grocon, and a signage company it hired have been charged under section 23 and section 26 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (Vic). According to the Herald Sun, WorkSafe alleges that the companies failed to obtain a permit or conduct appropriate risk and engineering assessments before attaching an advertising billboard to the wall. It later collapsed in high winds. The companies face up to $9 million in fines if the allegations are proved.

Doctor wants to be charged over euthanasia help

Dr Rodney Syme has challenged Victorian authorities to prosecute him for providing the death drug Nembutal to patients who wish to end their lives: “I just believe passionately that there are too many people suffering too much not to try a little bit harder to change things… And a lot of these things it seems will only be changed in a court decision, so bring it on.” While suicide is legal, it is an offence to incite, aid or abet an attempt to commit suicide. Dr Symes says police and the DPP are turning a blind eye because they do not support the law, but he wants euthanasia legalised and regulated: “Desperate people are doing desperate things, without any effective guidance regarding this medication, dosage or indications.”

Pick-axe killer guilty of defensive homicide

A Victorian woman has been acquitted of murder despite hitting her partner with a pick-axe 16 times and burying him in a shallow grave. In its closing address, the prosecution argued, “You can ask yourselves, members of the jury, … was it because she was sick of him and because she could see that there was a nicer life… just along the way[?]” Her defence was that she had suffered years of abuse and was “living in a state of sustained terror”, and that she acted in self-defence. The jury returned a guilty verdict on the alternative charge of defensive homicide, under s 9AD of the Crimes Act 1958 (Vic). This form of manslaughter arises when the accused believes her conduct was necessary to prevent her death or really serious injury, but “she did not have reasonable grounds for the belief”.

Baby charged, bailed over attempted murder

A nine-month-old baby in Pakistan has been granted bail on an attempted murder charge. His whole family was charged over an alleged stone-throwing incident. The baby’s grandfather told reporters, “Everyone in the court was saying ‘How can such a small child be implicated in any case’? What kind of police do we have?” Article 40 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires governments to establish “a minimum age below which children shall be presumed not to have the capacity to infringe the penal law”. The minimum age of criminal responsibility in Australian jurisdictions is 10 years old, with a rebuttable presumption against responsibility between 10 and 14.

Killer to spend 25 years in psychiatric care

A Melbourne man has been ordered to spend 25 years in a psychiatric hospital after being acquitted of the murder of his parents on the grounds of mental impairment. The family is upset that he did not face trial. However, the court heard expert evidence from three independent psychiatrists, who all agreed that the accused was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and that the psychotic episode was not drug-induced. Section 20 of the Crimes (Mental Impairment and Unfitness to Be Tried) Act 1997 (Vic) creates a defence to criminal charges where a person “could not reason with a moderate degree of sense and composure about whether the conduct, as perceived by reasonable people, was wrong”.

Australian company accused of foreign bribery

According to The Age, “Infrastructure and mining giant Thiess may have breached Australian bribery laws by paying Indonesian police and military officials in return for security at its mines.” The police and soldiers are accused of beating workers protesting over their working conditions. Most laws only prohibit conduct within the relevant jurisdiction, but the Commonwealth Criminal Code imposes “extended geographical jurisdiction” for certain crimes. It prohibits bribery that occurs overseas, if the offender is an Australian citizen, resident, or company, allowing them to be tried here.

Crime statistics to be independent of police

A new, independent Crime Statistics Agency will be established in July, removing responsibility from Victoria Police. The accuracy of published crime statistics has been controversial: “in 2011 … an ombudsman’s report found police released incomplete and misleading data on the eve of the 2010 state election claiming a big drop in CBD assaults. Simon Overland resigned as police chief commissioner hours after the report was released.” The new agency will ensure crime data is not manipulated. Police Minister Kim Wells said, “It’s important that they work independently of Government and independent of police.