It may seem a bit pointless to ask what really happened at Stringybark Creek – everyone knows the Kelly Gang ambushed a Police party of four who were out searching for the gang and three of the Policemen were shot and killed.
The important thing to remember however is that this was the central event of the Kelly story, the action that ultimately resulted in Ned Kelly being found guilty of murder and hanged, and yet, Kelly sympathizers then and still today maintain that this was a miscarriage of justice, that the trial was a travesty and that Ned Kelly shouldn’t have been found guilty. They believe his claim that he killed in self defence, that it was either kill or be killed by corrupt Police. Of all things to do with the “Kelly outbreak”, this is the watershed event about which Kelly supporters disagree most with just about everyone else in Australia – either you regard Kelly as a police murderer who received his just deserts, or you regard him as a martyr and a victim of corrupt Police and Government, unjustly convicted and wrongly executed.
So how can it be pointless to ask again, what really happened at Stringybark Creek? Was Ned Kellys claim of killing in self defence credible, and would he really be likely to escape conviction if he were tried in a modern court and be defended by someone other than a novice lawyer, as some claim?
Now firstly I am not a lawyer and have had no training of any kind in the Law, but I can Google and I can read and I can think, so I am going to put my thoughts onto paper – well “e”-paper – and I will be interested in others thoughts and responses.
Firstly I have learned that in modern English law ‘self defence” can be a complete and sufficient defence against a charge of murder. Not only that, it is not necessary for the defendant to wait to be attacked before responding –
Lord Griffith said in Beckford v R AC 130: “A man about to be attacked does not have to wait for his assailant to strike the first blow or fire the first shot; circumstances may justify a pre-emptive strike.”Read more: Self Defence | Criminal Law Cases | Law Teacherhttp://www.lawteacher.net/criminal-law/cases/self-defence.php#ixzz3EH9Or6ks
Furthermore, its not necessary for a defendants belief that he is under threat to be reasonable or valid – his belief may be entirely mistaken, yet still be acceptable as part of his defence :
In Beckford v R (1988), the defendant police officer shot dead a suspect, having been told that he was armed and dangerous, because he feared for his own life. The prosecution case was that the victim had been unarmed and thus presented no threat to the defendant. The trial judge directed the jury that the defendant’s belief in the need to shoot in self-defence had to be both honest and reasonable. In rejecting this direction, the Privy Council approved the approach in Williams. Lord Griffiths commented that juries should be given the following guidance: “Whether the plea is self-defence or defence of another, if the defendant may have been labouring under a mistake as to facts, he must be judged according to his mistaken belief of the facts: that is so whether the mistake was, on an objective view, a reasonable mistake or not.”
Read more: Self Defence | Criminal Law Cases | Law Teacherhttp://www.lawteacher.net/criminal-law/cases/self-defence.php#ixzz3EHAcOp1A
What this all means for Ned Kellys trial, if it were held today under English Law – and as far as I can tell Australian law is much the same – is that its not necessary to prove that the police really were going there to kill him, as Kelly always claimed. Even if you could prove that they were NOT planning to kill him – which is the likely truth – that wouldn’t be enough to invalidate the “self defence” claim because all that’s necessary is for Kelly to claim that he BELIEVED they were. And that belief doesn’t have to be reasonable or evidence based. But it does have to be genuinely believed, and this is one thing a Jury will need to be convinced of.
Sympathizers these days don’t seem to have understood this point as they still try to prove by various circumstantial means that the Police were actually planning to kill Kelly on sight. They claim for example that the Police were “disguised” – though the Gang had no trouble at all in identifying them; that the guns and ammunition they took could only have meant they were planning murder; that the Police took along the 19thcentury equivalent of body bags, specially made “body straps”; that certain Police had vowed to kill Kelly on site then claim there had been a confrontation – and so on.
None of this is necessary – all that has to be claimed is that for whatever reason, however reasonable or unreasonable, Kelly believed his life was directly threatened, and that he had a right to strike pre-emptively, and shoot Lonigan. And for that matter the others as well.
So if Ned Kelly was tried again, the challenge for the defence would be to convince a Jury that Kelly genuinely believed he was about to be killed and so responded in a pre-emptive strike. Kelly wouldn’t even have to claim that all he was planning to do was deprive the Police of their guns and horses. A successful “self defence” argument would at least reduce his possible conviction from murder to manslaughter, or even acquittal. No doubt a good defence would include the claims about the armaments the Police were carrying, the leather straps and the plain clothes, the failure to bring the actual arrest warrants and the reported comments by Inspector Brooke-Smith that he would shoot Ned Kelly then lie about the sequence of events. All of these alleged facts, whether true or untrue could be seen as contributing to Kellys view, however mistaken it may have been, that the Police really were coming to kill him. The defence would possibly elicit from McIntyre his reported conversation with Ned Kelly that Kelly said he hadn’t planned to shoot anyone, that he could have done so easily from his hiding place in the spear grass, and his one-time claim that Lonigan ran rather than surrendered and was reaching for his gun. Kellys defence would be that he had to disarm the Police or else he would be killed, and he used lethal force to do so only because the police didn’t react the way he ordered them to.
The prosecution on the other hand would set out to try to convince the Jury that the “self defence” argument was merely a device to try to escape from a murder conviction, and that Ned Kelly approached the Police camp intending to kill them. They would remind the Jury that after the “blackballing” incident Ned Kelly had publically vowed to kill Lonigan, they would quote Ned Kellys threat from the Jerilderie Letter that anyone not obeying an outlaws orders would be speedily dispatched to “Kingdom Come”. They would probably get the post mortem report that casts grave doubt on Kellys version of events – it showed Lonigan had been shot three or four times not just once as Kelly claimed, they would no doubt mention the rifling of the dead mans possessions and suggest robbery was part of the reason for the killings and no doubt they would claim that what happened to Scanlan and especially to Kennedy, who was chased through the bush and killed, demonstrated the motive was to kill, not to defend. In modern Law it is not regarded as self defense to kill someone fleeing – I read of a case where the victims chasing after a violent rapist and killing him was not regarded as a killing in “self defense’ but as murder, though perhaps “self defense” may have been accepted if the killing had occurred during the attack.
I came across a transcript of a mock “retrial” of Ned Kelly staged by the Victorian Bar association in August 2000. In fact there are two such transcripts so the Bar Assosciation must have run this mock trial twice that month, and they were broadcast on the ABC’s Law Report. The actual Lawyers playing the role of defense counsel attacked McIntyres testimony, saying there were inconsistencies between the various accounts he gave, and therefore he could not be believed. He also suggests somewhat obliquely that the wound in Lonigans left thigh had been caused by Lonigan himself, attempting to undermine the suggestion that Kellys testimony of having only fired one shot was itself false. The defines were trying to show that Lonigan went for his gun and thereby Kelly was forced to shoot him or be shot himself. In fact, even if all Lonigan had done was run for cover, if Kelly had already formed a view that Lonigan and the rest of the Police party was there to kill him, the self defence plea wold still be valid. In any event, the audiences apparently acquitted Ned in both mock trials.
From an Australian Legal firms website we have this description of the Principles for a defence of “Self Defence” :
There are two questions to be answered by the Court when self defense is raised:
1. Is there a reasonable possibility that the accused believed that his or her conduct was necessary in order to defend himself or herself and,
2. if there is, is there also a reasonable possibility that what the accused did was a reasonable response to the circumstances as he or she perceived them
The first question is determined by a completely subjective point of view considering the personal characteristics of the accused at the time they carried out the conduct
The second question is determined by an entirely OBJECTIVE assessment of the proportionality of the accused response to the situation the accused subjectively believed they faced
The accused need not have reasonable grounds for their belief that it was necessary to act in the way they did in order to defend themselves as the common law required. It is sufficient that the accused genuinely holds that belief
The jury is not assessing the response of the reasonable person but the response of the accused. In making that assessment it is obvious that some of the personal attributes of the accused will be relevant just as will be some of the surrounding physical circumstances in which the accused acted. So matters such as the age of the accused his or her gender or the state of his or health may be regarded by the Jury.
Where the accused’s conduct involved the infliction of death and was not a reasonable response in the circumstances but the accused believed the conduct necessary to defend himself to prevent the unlawful deprivation of his liberty, the accused may be found guilty of manslaughter.
If I was on the Jury I would probably form the opinion that Ned Kelly did indeed believe the Police were there to kill him. I would regard this belief of his as more or less without foundation but explicable in terms of what is known of the accused from reading his Jerilderie Letter, and learning about his background and his personality and his state of mind – it was such that his obsessional hatred of Police convinced him of this delusional belief, and therefore he killed believing it was in self defense. If it were up to me, he would have been convicted of the manslaughter rather than murder of Constable Lonigan.
An often overlooked and seldom mentioned fact about the Stringybark Creek killings is that Kelly was never tried for the killing of Scanlan or of Sergeant Kennedy. If he was, in the case of Kennedy I would not have accepted “self defense” as his justification for murdering the fleeing policeman. For that death, he would have to be convicted of Murder.
So he would have been hanged anyway!
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