Schoolyard fights: an excuse for murder?

This is the audio of Stephen Dudley’s father’s reaction (00:50-01:05 will give you enough) to the Discharge Without Conviction of the 18 year old who assaulted their son who subsequently died. It is raw, disturbing, and as a father of four children, entirely understandable. Brent Dudley wanted that young man to pay a cost for the death of his son. He hasn’t closed the door to restorative justice in the future (04:17 onwards) but right now feels betrayed by the justice system.

Brent Dudley’s reaction did not disturb me. His violent outburst emotion did not disturb me. His desire for some form of revenge does not disturb me. His caricaturing of the 18 year old as a thug and a murderer does not disturb me. Conversely, Justice Helen Winkelmann’s characterisation of the assault on Stephen Dudley as “punches thrown in a school-yard fight” has shaken me. Whilst she was clear that we do not condone violence between children and young people, she was also clear that we should not regard it with the same seriousness as adult offending. This murky and subjective hierarchy of violence has shaken me.

As I understand the summary of his death, after a rugby training in June 2013, Stephen was set upon by a then 15 year old and 17 year old. He was shoulder charged to the jaw, knocked out and punched seven or eight times around the head, neck and chest area, including whilst unconscious. He later died; at his autopsy it was discovered he had an undiagnosed heart condition that lead to his death. The judge’s finding is that there is not a causal link between the assault and the death from the heart condition, she was convinced by the remorse of the accused and didn’t want to unduly affect their future opportunities (one wants to be a PE Teacher apparently). Hence the Discharge Without Conviction of both young men.

Let’s be clear: these two young men assaulted another young man without provocation, and now he is dead. Assaulting people is not acceptable in our community whether it is against a child, a young person or an adult, and whether it is committed by a child, a young person or an adult. We need to communicate that clearly to children and young people so that they are clear as adults; whatever their stage of development, they need to know it does not excuse violence. Children and young people need clear guidelines to establish a good foundation for a values-based life, not murky permissiveness and a grey lack of surety. Justice Winkelmann has done us a disservice by forgetting the judiciary is a part of building a functional community, not a laboratory of double blind controlled case studies.

I think a judicial system that implicitly condones the violence of young men against other people on the basis of testosterone and lack of brain development is an indicator that we are unwilling to apply our values to our society’s systems. A values-based approach to the two young men who assaulted Stephen Dudley could only lead us to conclude that these two young men transgressed our expectations as a community. They would have to be held to account for that transgression because it is more damaging to our community to implicitly condone their actions than it is to their individual future opportunities.

We all struggle with violence every day. I struggle, I see my kids struggling, I see my neighbours’ struggling, I see my communities struggling, I see leadership struggling, I see our nation struggling to know how to limit our own violence and desire for power and control. It is a struggle but it is a worthy struggle. I know I long to consistently live up to high ideals of peace and unity and feel deflated by my constant failures. we want to introduce and encourage our children into this struggle to manage their own violence and find better ways to live, love and conflict. So when Justice Winkelmann says that school yard fights are just a reality and not worth trying to mitigate in the judiciary even in the instance of death, she is giving up on the struggle for a values-based community and betraying our social contract.

E te tama, moe mai rā. E hoki wairua mai ki tōu whānau i noho ki raro i te kapua pōuri i te wā nei. Kāore i warewaretia tāu kōhuru, tāu matekino. Ki a koutou, te whānau Dudley, tēnā ka arohamai ki a koutou i whakaiti i te kooti ki te wiki nei. Mā te Atua i manaaki, i whakakaha ki a koutou. Tēnā koutou katoa.

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2 thoughts on “Schoolyard fights: an excuse for murder?

  1. Totally agree with the article.Absolutely unbelievable and inconceivable that Stephen Dudley’s older attacker was discharged without conviction.
    Very puzzled also over the Judge’s interpretation of ‘a school yard fight’ when it was outside school hours, on another area to the school and rugby coach had left them unsupervised , surely should have ensured they left the ground safely?Would this not be considered a fight in a public place?
    Feel very sad for the Dudley family and hope they can pursue a private prosecution.

    1. Thanks for your comment Therese. Obviously it’s all context, but it is hard to fathom. If we keep on this path of doubtful conviction, public outrage, followed by a review by Crown Law, we’ll be in an expensive cycle that continues to undermine public confidence in the judiciary. Clearly our judiciary needs some sort of avenue to listen to the community – not a kangaroo court, but perhaps modeled on the marae based justice or restorative community panels.

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