A man who stabbed his ex-boyfriend six times killing him during an argument has been found not guilty of both murder and manslaughter by an Australian jury at Brisbane Supreme Court after they accepted his argument of self-defense.
39-year-old Thomas Lysgaard, originally from Norway, killed Aaron Stewart on 4 April 2015. The pair had been in a relationship which had ended towards the end of 2014 although Lysgaard was still living within Stewart’s home at the time of the murder. The defense claimed Aaron Stewart threatened Lysgaard during the argument becoming very angry and attacking him. Lysgaard said he was “drunk and scared” grabbing an 8cm long kitchen knife in self-defense fearing he said, that “if he got the knife before me…he would have killed me.”
Lysgaard had consumed large volumes of alcohol on that night and had a blood alcohol level of 0.2. Aaron Stewart received six stab wounds, four to his chest which pierced his heart and lungs. The prosecution said the evidence in this case ‘screamed intention’ and that Thomas Lysgaard had attacked his ex-partner with force which had “nothing to do with his own preservation, it was anger, frustration.”
The not guilty verdict delivered on 13 October 2017 has shocked and horrified Aaron Stewart’s family who was forced to watch the man who killed their son walk free from court. “I didn’t even think this was plausible, I thought he might get manslaughter but not off.” Aaron Stewart’s father, Paul Stewart told the media outside court after the verdict.
Under Australian law, if a defendant uses the self-defense argument within a trial, it is down to the prosecution to disprove this was the case and not the defense to prove that it was.
The basis of self-defense law is not to punish individuals who have harmed or even killed another through circumstances where they were defending themselves from an ‘unjustified attack’. No one other than Thomas Lysgaard and Aaron Stewart before his death knows what happened inside that house and for Lysgaard on trial; he has been able to introduce reasonable doubt to the jury that his actions were taken out of self-defense and not straight-forward violence stemming from anger.
Self-defense law in murder cases is a thorny issue and one which has caused a great deal of debate. When should a person not be held criminally responsible when their actions have resulted in the death of another human being?
The Australian New Daily reported on a New South Wales murder case where, in March 2016, 33-year-old Benjamin Batterham inflicted injuries leading to the death of his friend 34-year-old Ricky Slater-Dickson during a fight which ensued after Slater-Dickson broke into Batterham’s home in the early hours of the morning. Batterham tackled Slater-Dickson to the ground keeping him in a headlock until police arrived, however, Slater-Dickson died the next morning as a result. In this case, the invasion of property equal to criminal trespass meant that if the courts view Batterham’s actions as reasonable force in response, he may also receive an acquittal at trial. A home invasion is a circumstance which commonly invokes such a defense with the fear of what that person is doing there and what they intend to do being put forward as reasons for violence in order to protect the homeowner’s own life.
During Benjamin Batterham’s bail hearing in May 2016, the prosecution claimed his actions could not be considered self-defense as he chased Slater-Dickson for more than 400 yards and once on the ground and in a choke-hold, repeatedly punched him in the head. An off-duty police officer was at the scene and ‘repeatedly instructed’ Batterham to stop punching the victim and release the headlock which was ignored. Batterham is currently awaiting trial on charges of murder and it is uncertain what the outcome should be with people on both sides having opinions. The key issue, in this case, is whether or not the actions by Batterham could be classed as reasonable and proportionate within those circumstances.
In the US, the FBI collects data on what they call ‘justifiable homicides’, where a serving police officer or private citizen is responsible for ‘wilful killings that must be reported as justifiable or excusable’. Their data for 2016 shows a total of 331 justifiable homicides by private citizens, 83% of which were carried out using firearms. Taking a look across cases which have been ruled as justifiable homicides they range from home invasions and domestic violence to armed robberies and kidnappings. It appears that each case needs to be considered individually, weighing the specific circumstances against the fatal outcome.
For the family of Aaron Stewart, two years after his death, they do not feel justice has been received or that the man who killed their son should be out walking the streets free from conviction. “The evidence didn’t even lead down that path,” Aaron’s father said of the self-defense argument. “They had broken up. Aaron wanted him out and that was all twisted in the court room,” he continued. “How the jury didn’t see that, it’s just the evidence.”