Judge hitting the wrong mark in attack on media

Article from:The Australian

26 March 2009

By Caroline Overington

IT is difficult to believe, but judges do sometimes get it wrong. So it's a pleasure to highlight a speech in which they get it right.

NSW Supreme Court judge Ronald Sackville made such a speech to the Right to Know conference in Sydney on Tuesday.

True, he criticised an article, written by me, that appeared in The Australian on March 7.

He said the article, about a sex offender given a lenient sentence, did not reveal that the offender had spent 14 months in prison awaiting sentencing.

He claimed my article failed "to adhere to basic standards of accuracy and fairness".

The article was about the decision by now retired NSW District Court judge Chris Geraghty to release a 23-year-old man who broke into a house in Grafton late at night, and was later charged with sexual intercourse with a four-year-old girl.

The facts are not in dispute: Ronald Dean King was a stranger to the family. He got into the house by crawling through the bottom half of a broken door that was held with a nail.

All the adults and the children in the house were sleeping. King found the girl in bed. According to the judgment, she woke up while King was molesting her. She was so traumatised she could not stop shaking, even when her sisters got into bed beside her.

The article included commentary from people who disagreed with the judge's decision to give King a two-year suspended sentence, and release him. The maximum sentence for such an offence is 25 years, and the standard non-parole period is 15 years.

But that's not what got Justice Sackville's goat. No, he was more concerned about the article's "serious omission".

And it's true: there were omissions. The piece did not say King had been on a bond when he was arrested. It did not say King had already benefited from not one, but two suspended sentences, imposed on August 14, 2007.

It did not say King's criminal record includes breaking, entering and stealing, stealing cars, misbehaviour, assaulting police and drug offences. It did not say what the judge himself said, that King was "not a first offender but a person who has shown disrespect, serious disrespect, for the law".

It did not say "semen was found on the (child's) pyjama pants, her underpants, and the fitted sheets from the bed". It did not say a test of the inside crotch of the girl's underpants "indicated saliva may be present".

It did say that when the girl was taken to a Brisbane hospital a doctor found evidence of trauma in her vagina and this was "supported by the symptoms of pain on urination and the tenderness during examination process".

It did not say that when King was asked about the assault, he said he "hadn't done the rape of the little girl" but had "just" stuck his fingers inside her.

But that is not what Justice Sackville meant when he said the article failed "basic standards of accuracy and fairness". He complained that it should have said King spent 14 months in custody while he was awaiting sentencing.

It should have said King was allowed out of his cell for only an hour a day, he was assaulted by other prisoners, his mother could not give him a hug, because he was allowed only "boxed" visits, and that Judge Geraghty took that period into account when he decided to release King.

Justice Sackville is right. The article should have said King spent 14 months in custody awaiting sentence after he broke into a four-year-old girl's home, molested her, masturbated and ejaculated over her.

The Director of Public Prosecutions has appealed against the leniency of the sentence. The case is next in court on April 8.