Police are blaming a six-month delay in dropping burglary charges against an autistic man on the time taken to get a medical assessment.
This morning, police dropped charges against looting-accused Cornelius Arie Smith-Voorkamp, and his partner and alleged co-offender Michael Anthony Davis. Police said it had initally appeared to be in the public interest to prosecute the alleged burglars and said a report explaining Smith-Voorkamp's diminished responsibility due to his condition only arrived last Thursday.
The police decision followed the advice of two judges and the completion of a second psychiatric report on Smith-Voorkamp who has Asperger's syndrome which causes him to compulsively collect light fittings.
In this case, he spent 11 nights in custody for looting, and his partner spent six weeks in custody, for what defence counsel Jonathan Eaton said was "literally the theft of two light bulbs".
The police had repeatedly refused to drop the charges or to allow Smith-Voorkamp to have the diversion scheme which allows first offenders on lesser charges to make amends and avoid a conviction.
The case was heading for trial and came to a pre-trial session before Judge Stephen Erber at the Christchurch District Court sitting in the Maori Land Court today. Judge Erber was one of the judges who had earlier advised the police to drop the charge after the first psychiatric report on Smith-Voorkamp, telling them they would have difficulty proving criminal intent.
The breakthrough came today with a psychiatric report which the police and crown had considered.
Crown prosecutor Phil Shamy told the court: "The police, having reviewed the matter, and the nature of the alleged offence, being at the lower end of the scale, and the potential penalty, and the fact that he has no previous convictions, seek leave to withdraw the charges against him."
He said they were willing to give Davies the benefit of the doubt and accept that he was only there to look after his partner.
Davis repeated that outside the court, saying he did not regret going into the building where Smith-Voorkamp had gone after the February 22 quake seeking light fittings. "I would never regret that. He's my rock," he said.
Smith-Voorkamp said he felt good but the last six months had been a rocky road. "I can now get on with my life without being worried about anything." He said he had been scared about facing the charges of burglary and possessing tools for burglary.
Eaton said Smith-Voorkamp, who had been filmed at a court appearance in the watch house beneath the Christchurch Central Police Station, had unfairly become the face of looting.
'LONG AND TIRING'
Smith-Voorkamp said he believed he should never have been charged and Eaton said been caught up in the hard line approach of the police and the courts to looters.
"If there is a lesson to be learnt out of this case, it is that we just can't put everyone in the same box," said Eaton. "Things got a little lost in the system. It was treated as just another earthquake case. There was no careful or close scrutiny of the case."
Eaton said Smith-Voorkamp now had no interest in pursuing an early allegation that he had been assaulted by the police at the time of his arrest. Film at the time showed him with a black eye.
"During the trauma of the arrest he wasn't exactly sure how that had occurred. It is not an issue he has formally pursued or has any interest in pursuing."
Smith-Voorkamp said the case had been "long and tiring" with 11 nights in custody, six months on bail, and a long series of court appearances.
PUBLIC INTEREST CONSIDERED
In a statement released this afternoon, Assistant Commissioner of Operations Dave Cliff said the initial decision to bring charges was based on both the evidence and public interest.
"The defendant and co-defendant were, on the face of it, caught in the act of burglary and with instruments capable of being used for burglary in a badly damaged building in the red zone three days after the February earthquake."
The decision to charge also took into account the need to deter others from looting and heightened public safety concerns following the quake, said Cliff.
Police were then told about Smith-Voorkamp's Aspergers condition.
Cliff said "due process" under the Criminal Procedure (Mentally Impaired) Persons Act 2003 then had to be followed. But there was a delay in getting a medical assessment because it was not ordered by the courts.
Agreement then had to be reached with Smith-Voorkamp's lawyer to commission an independent report to assess whether he could have had the intent to commit burglary at the time he was caught.
Last Thursday, police received a copy of the forensic psychiatric report which concluded Smith-Voorkamp had diminished responsibility at the time.
Cliff said there was no longer a public interest in prosecuting Smith-Voorkamp.
"The diminished responsibility of Mr Smith-Voorkamp added credibility to the explanation of Mr Davis that he was there to look after his partner."
Leave was therefore sought to withdraw both charges laid against Davis also.
Smith-Voorkamp and Davis were seen entering a badly-damaged building, surrounded by a six foot wire fence, in the red zone on February 25.
"There were significant continuing aftershocks and these men had no good reason to be the building," said Cliff.
"There was understandably huge anxiety at the time that with the central city empty and many properties unsecured."
Cliff said the men ran away from police and when caught, had to be forced to the ground to be handcuffed.
Smith-Voorkamp suffered a bang to the side of his face.
"The pair were affected by alcohol and potentially drugs at the time of arrest."
TWO OFFICERS INVOLVED
He said only two New Zealand police officers were involved in the arrests. No other police or defence staff were present as was later claimed.
Cliff said he fully backed the actions of the officers involved as "entirely appropriate".
He added that Smith-Voorkamp had initially pleaded guilty to the charges, but subsequently vacated his guilty plea.
He then applied for diversion while denying responsibility.
However, diversion required the offender to accept responsibility.
CALL FOR POLICE TO REVIEW HANDLING
The delay has prompted Green Party human rights spokesperson Keith Locke to call for a review of the police's handling of such cases, saying it should not have taken six months.
"It was clear from early on that there was no criminal intent, and that Mr Smith-Voorkamp had an fixation with light fittings as a result of his condition.
"There now need to be a full review of how police handle cases involving people with ASD from autism or Asperger's syndrome."
Locke said the police should never have proceeded beyond arrest to a charge, and should not have asked the judge to remand Smith-Voorkamp in custody.
"This is a good opportunity to put in place improvements in the way police deal with people with ASD," said Locke.
AUTISM ON THE RISE
Autism NZ chief executive Alison Molloy said she was also ''delighted for him and for his family'' that charges had been dropped.
"'Light bulbs were his obsession, and given the amount of stress the earthquake caused him ... seeing those light blubs in a derelict building seemed the perfect opportunity to rescue them.''
Molloy said the cases of diagnosed Autism and Aspergers syndromes were growing, especially among a "number of teenagers and young men in particular".
Training police to recognise signs of the syndromes would help cases like Smith-Voorkamp's in the future she said.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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