Manslaughter case: skull 'remarkably fragile'

KEVIN KING: Pictured in a 2009 file photo.
KEVIN KING: Pictured in a 2009 file photo.

The judge in a manslaughter case has warned that too many people seem to have a "cartoon" world view of violence.

They seemed to think people could be hit or dropped to the ground and they would be able to just get up, Justice Stephen Kos said.

But the human skull was remarkably fragile, and it was high time that was more widely appreciated.

He made the comments during the sentencing of former bar manager Kevin King for the manslaughter of Blenheim man Matthew Heagney, 24, in August 2009.

King, 52, and two other staff from Shapeshifters Bar in Blenheim removed Heagney from the premises. During the incident, Heagney's head hit the pavement, causing his death.

In 2010 King was found guilty of manslaughter, but that conviction was quashed on appeal and a retrial was held in the High Court at Wellington last month.

Part way through the retrial King changed his plea to guilty after details of the indictment were altered. The change meant it was no longer alleged Heagney died as a result of an assault, but instead the charge related to the circumstances of King releasing him outside the premises.

Today, Justice Kos sentenced King to 12 months home detention, reduced by 39 days to take into account the time King spent on home detention before his appeal. He had also been sentenced to 12 months home detention after the first trial.

The judge said Heagney had tried to get into Shapeshifters at 2.43am, but the bar had stopped allowing more people in at 2.30am and he was refused entry. He had managed to slip past door staff and spent five minutes inside before trying to leave.

Doorman Cameron Wright-Munro had seen him and tapped him on the shoulder, intending to trespass him. Heagney reacted and took hold of Wright-Munro.

Knowing Wright-Munro was young and inexperienced, King had approached Heagney from behind, putting his arm around Heagney's neck and pulling him away. There had been a brief struggle and King had put Heagney in a sleeper hold.

King, Wright-Munro and another staff member, Dewy Zuidema, lifted Heagney off the ground and carried him outside. Closed circuit television images showed Zuidema appeared to release Heagney's legs.

How King came to release Heagney was not clear, but Heagney ended up on the footpath. The back of his head hit the concrete, causing his death, the judge said.

The Crown had said King was aware sleeper holds could reduce consciousness, and that he had dropped a semi-conscious person, who had ceased struggling, onto the footpath. In doing so, the Crown had said, King was negligent in his duty to exercise reasonable care.

The defence had said King did not render Heagney semi-conscious, and had dropped him accidentally, partly because Zuidema stumbled, and partly because of a pre-existing weakness in an arm.

Justice Kos said King had no previous convictions, and his pre-sentence report showed he was extremely remorseful. He did not doubt King's remorse, although it could have been offered more readily.

Speaking to everyone involved in the case, the judge said there would never be peace without contrition and forgiveness.

It was plain Heagney had been a fine and decent young man, who showed a remarkably high level of responsibility for his age, the judge said.

In a family impact statement, Heagney's father Pat, said the family would never forgive King for what he had done to his son, the family and friends.

Supported by the dead man's younger brother Ryan, Pat Heagney said the loss of his son had been devastating. It was important for the court to understand how extraordinarily close the relationship had been.

Matthew had joined the family transport company Heagney Brothers and he and his son became mates, Pat Heagney said, fighting to retain his composure.

After Matthew's death it had been hard to retain an enthusiasm for work, and he still struggled with such feelings.

His son's tools were still at work, where it had been intended he would slowly take over a role in the family business.

The only bright spot was that younger son Ryan was starting an apprenticeship and using Matthew's tools.