11 February, 2010

Are opals really bad luck?

Lauri Oinonen was a 62-year-old opal miner from Lightning Ridge. He was good friends with a woman named Donna Wood, and had a good relationship with Donna's grandson Deakin, who also lived in town. But some of his opal had gone missing recently, and he was becoming suspicious that Deakin might have been involved. On Tuesday, Deakin popped in to see Donna, and said he'd heard Pop (Lauri) might be looking for him.

Donna said to him "Well Deakin, you said you went and pinched that opal", and Deakin replied "Yeah, we did."
"You stole that opal, didn't you Deakin"
"Yeah, that's why I thought that Pop was looking for me"

Deakin had been drinking and playing chess with Lauri the day before, but the issue had not come up.

Later that night Donna saw Lauri at her sister Yvonne's place, where he was 'on the turps' (literally - drinking methylated spirits) as well as drinking beer. He'd been drinking all day at another friend's place (Ada Morgan) but said "I must have been fairly drunk at Ada's, because, like, after that I can't remember at all." Later Lauri was chatting to Yvonne's daughter Lisa, who told him about Deakin stealing the opal. She said "Deakin must have pinched the opal from you." He replied "No, he wouldn't do that." She said "Yes, I think so, because he had plenty of money." She said she had seen him with $1,600.

Lauri had no memory of going home, but assumes he took Eddie Morgan home first "because when I got home myself, there was a didgeridoo in the car. I think that must belong to him." When he got home he checked his opal stash, which he kept in a Strepsils tin, and found that there was quite a large stone missing. "Then I realised it must be true what Lisa Bolton has told me, and I find it hard to believe at first, but I have to believe it." He drank more methylated spirits and ruminated on these things "but I don't remember exactly what time I went to sleep." He woke up about five the next morning and made his morning "metho drink", which was a cup of boiling water, coffee, 2 spoons of sugar, and metho. He added more and more metho to the cup, then made himself another one. After that he had run out of coffee, so he made one with lemon concentrate and a lot of sugar.

He decided to go to Deakin and confront him about the opal. "I thought if I take the rifle with me and then ask, he will take me seriously. I didn't want to hurt him, but I wanted him to confess that he took the opal. He said it did not cross his mind that he might hurt him:
"Q: And when did you think about taking the rifle?
A: Just before I went there.
Q: After you had started drinking?
A: Yes
Q: Why did you load the gun?
A: Well, what good is it to take an empty gun? I would have taken a walking stick instead. If I had taken a walking stick with me, it would have been as effective as an empty gun."
It never occurred to him not to load it.
"Q: Didn't you think that taking the gun there loaded and cocked that Deakin might get hurt?
A: To me its safe unless you pull the trigger. What, I can't see what can happen unless somebody pulls the trigger.
Q: Did you put the safety on?
A: No I didn't.
Q: Did you think about putting the safety on?
A: Didn't think about it.
Q: How did you feel physically when you left that morning?
A: I was feeling much better than I was feeling when I woke up."
He put the gun on the backseat of the car.

He drove to Colin Nagy's house on Potch St, where Deakin was staying over with Colin's sister Jenny. Colin was woken at about 6:30am by Laurie telling hm to go wake Deakin up. Lauri said he "went to the door. Only the screen door was closed, the wooden door was open. And I knocked on the screen door and said 'Anyone home?' I did that twice. And then there was no answer. I walked in the lounge room and from there I seen the end of the corridor bedroom door was open and I said 'Colin' a couple of times. Then he turned around and I said 'Where is Deakin?' He said 'Deakin's sleeping in the next room there.' I said 'Can you wake him up and tell him I want to see him outside?' Then he got up and I walked out." Colin went into his sister's room and woke Deakin.

Deakin didn't take long to get up. He came out the front gate close to the car. Laurie said "I opened the back door and took the rifle and went to the front close to him and I pointed the rifle from my hip and said 'You done a dirty trick to me. You stole opal from me.' He said 'No, I never.' I was pretty angry. I did not think about harming him." Deakin moved over near the fence "so that the car was between us" and they were both moving backwards and forwards, on either side of the car. "Then he stooped down and I couldn't see him for a while and I was looking this way and that way, I didn't know which way he was going, and then I seen him over at the car, no, I was actually level with the bonnet part of the car when I seen him running, disappearing behind the corner."

"When I saw him next I just hit - lifted the rifle and put it on my shoulder and pointed to him, to his direction" and the rifle went off.
"Q: Do you know how it went off?
A: No, but I was kind of surprised when it went off.
Q: You told the police that you pulled the trigger.
A: I must have pulled the trigger because otherwise it wouldn't go off."
Lauri said that was what was in his mind when he was talking to the police:
"Q: Did you actually know when you spoke to police that you pulled the trigger?
A: No, but I knew my finger was inside the trigger guard all the time.
Q: Do you know now whether you pulled the trigger?
A: No, I still don't know.
He was asked how his hands were and he replied "oh I was shaking because I got pretty upset when he said 'no, I didn't do it."

After that "I chucked the rifle on the backseat and took off ... I was too scared to go around the back because Colin and Deakin would have been in the house and I didn't think they would have taken it very lightly that I fired a shot."

Colin Nagy was on the toilet when he heard the gunshot. He hopped off and raced outside to see Lauri putting something in the back of his stationwagon and speeding off. He saw Deakin lying on the lawn about 10m from the house, and ran over. Deakin was still breathing. Jenny also came running out, and both tried to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for about five minutes, but he just died in their arms. They rolled him over and saw the gunshot wound in his back.

The post-mortem revealed Deakin would have been 2-3m away from the muzzle of the gun when it discharged. Ballistics experts for both the Crown and Defence tested the weapon and found if the rifle was not cocked, there was no way it could discharge. Similarly, it would not fire if the safety catch was on. It was an old weapon, made in the 1930's and quite a bit of force was required to activate the trigger. It did not fire when the trigger was wriggled around back and forth or side to side, and not when slammed into the shoulder. However it did misfire accidentally on one occasion when it was dropped from a height, and once when it was belted with a hammer.

When Lauri was asked "do you know what happened when the rifle discharged?" he said "no, that is unclear to me."
"Q: Have you any idea how the rifle actually discharged?
A: In my opinion I must have pulled the trigger otherwise it wouldn't discharge.
Q: You don't remember doing that?
A: No.
Q: Did you ever mean to pull the trigger?
A: No
Q: Had your rifle ever accidentally gone off before this time?
A: No.
He was asked about his state of intoxication at the time of the shooting and he said "I was definitely drunk." He said that he knows he is responsible for the death of Deakin.

Donna Wood remembers Lauri coming over early on the Wednesday morning, pretty upset. She knew he'd been drinking a lot of metho in the last six weeks or so, pretty much day and night. The first thing she remembers him saying was "I fired a shot at Deakin. Can you go up there and check him out and see what happened?" Donna's husband Reg told him not to tell lies, or something to that effect, and Lauri said "Its not bullshit, it really happened, go and check him."

Donna said "We jumped into the car, myself, my husband, and we drove up there to where it happened" They left Lauri on their veranda and took his stationwagon. They saw the gun on the back seat. It didn't take long for them to establish what had happened at Potch St. Donna left Lauri's stationwagon there, and got a lift back home. She told Lauri "You killed Deakin. He's dead." Lauri started to cry. Someone got him a beer, and shortly after, the police arrived. Lauri kept saying "Oh I'm sorry, I didn't mean to do it. It wasn't supposed to happen. I'm very sorry... Deakin was like me own grandson." Lauri later said in evidence that he still feels very upset about Deakin's death, and that they had been good friends for five or six years.

Lauri was put on trial for murder. He pleaded not guilty. He agreed he deliberately loaded the cartridge in the rifle, cocked it, and left the safety off, but said he only meant to scare Deakin, and never meant to pull the trigger or hurt Deakin. He called many witnesses to testify to his good character and non-violent nature. Donna Wood gave evidence that in all the time she had known him she'd never seen him violent, and described him as a very honest person. Her husband Reg had known Lauri for 10-15 years and said "he seemed a fairly honest person to me since I had known him."

Reverend Poklea also gave evidence that he had known Lauri since the 60's in Mount Isa, and often asked him to mind their house when he was away. He knew he had difficulty with drinking. When asked if he was a violent man, he said "No, I have never seen him angry. I have never seen him show any - he was always helpful."

The Crown case was that when Deakin managed to break away from the argument and run around the side of the house with his back to Lauri, Lauri lost his chance to confront Deakin any further, at which point he chose to raise the rifle to his shoulder and point it at Deakin. In the Crown's view this couldn't be just "to scare him", as Deakin obviously couldn't see Lauri. The Crown told the jury that Lauri intended to fire the weapon, and reminded them that he had deliberately left the safety catch off. And further, you wouldn't fire a weapon at someone's back unless you meant to hurt them.

Medical experts estimated that Lauri's blood alcohol would have been about 0.4 to 0.45 at the time of the shooting, which is normally the "embalming" level (i.e. you're dead). Since it was clearly self-induced, the jury could not take it into account when deciding whether he accidentally fired the weapon, but they could take it into account when deciding whether he meant to hurt Deakin. (Aah, the technicalities of the law.. basically his drunkenness only matters for what he's thinking, but not what he's doing. Go figure.)

Lauri gave evidence that his drinking problem started before he was 19 years old, but only started drinking methylated spirits a couple of years back, initially to cure his hangovers in the morning. He only started to get drunk on it that year. "Not only metho, but I used, when I was in town, I used to beer or some whisky sometimes and some brandy, but I did not bring any alcohol to my home and later in the evening I would drink metho." He agreed he was drinking it constantly in the weeks leading up to the shooting.

Colin Nagy told the jury he'd known Lauri for a few years, and knew he was an alcoholic, but said he could handle it - even after a lot of drinks he was the same as everyone else, and had often seen him drive a car quite well in that state. Donna Wood also knew he'd been on a metho-drinking binge for a few weeks, and had been drinking various types of alcohol almost constantly. She was quite used to seeing him drunk. She agreed he was drunk on the Wednesday morning at her house, and still later at the police station. She gave the following evidence:
Q: He still appeared drunk to you?
A: He appeared drunk to me.
Q: And distraught?
A: Yes, even more so, all the time.

Donna Wood's husband Reg agreed that Lauri seemed pretty drunk when he arrived on Wednesday morning. However the arresting police officers did not observe him to be drunk, saying that Lauri walked steadily, had no difficulty getting up into the Landcruiser, and understood all the questions and responses. Senior Constable Bowra thought he appeared normal at the station, and was rolling his own cigarettes with ease but said "he may be a little hung over, a little tired."

Nevertheless Constable Thomas stated "When I first saw him there was no sign of intoxication whatsoever, but later at the station, he appeared to be withdrawing from some of the effects of intoxication, in that sometimes he would have the shakes. He was very lethargic in the dock. He appeared to me to be having the DT's." During his official interview when asked about what happened, he replied "I'd rather not talk about that because I'm still half-cut." Later in the morning he began vomiting at the police station, and was treated by paramedics for dehydration, and given anti-nausea treatment. He vomited again later in the afternoon and was then transferred to Walgett Hospital.

Dr Moynihan, an expert in this area, said that for an ordinary person to consume that amount (and type) of alcohol, they would hardly be able to move. "But a person who was used to drinking high levels of alcohol would tolerate that type of drinking without too much trouble and given the drinking history of this gentleman, although his blood concentration I feel to be quite high, he would be intoxicated, but he would be able to tolerate it." He said such a person would know what they were doing. "For example, if you tell someone off which you normally wouldn't do perhaps the alcohol gives you what might be false courage to do things, or Dutch courage. It takes those inhibitions off. So you know what you are doing but its just that you are no longer restrained because the alcohol takes the brakes off." The Dr also noted that vomiting can be a reflex action from emotional trauma or an acute anxious state.

In cross-examination Lauri agreed that apart from actually pulling the trigger he remembered almost every single detail of what happened on the morning of the shooting, and apart from firing the rifle, he knew exactly what he was doing, and that his intoxication did not affect his ability to know what he was doing. He said that when Deakin started running, he was running very fast. He said he lifted the rifle up and pointed it at Deakin's back. He was looking along the barrel and could see it was aimed at Deakin's back. He denied that he deliberately shot Deakin to stop him from running. He said it all happened it a second. "I knew most of the things I was doing but I was drunk and if I had been sober I wouldn't go to see Deakin with the rifle and probably not at all.

The jury returned a verdict of not guilty of murder, but guilty of manslaughter, on the basis that Lauri did not intend to kill or inflict grievous bodily harm, but had committed an "unlawful and dangerous act" i.e, threatening Deakin with a loaded gun. He was sentenced to 11 years prison, with a non-parole period of eight years.

Lauri appealed his sentence, arguing that he should have been treated as if he meant Deakin no harm at all, given all the evidence of his good character, and that the Judge was wrong to state that it was one of the most serious cases of manslaughter. However the Appeal Court agreed with his Honour's assessment, given that Lauri sought Deakin out, primed for a fight, with a loaded weapon which he had deliberately left unsafe.

Lauri also felt that not enough consideration had been given to his personal circumstances, such as his age (62 years) with an almost clean criminal history, in addition to his offer to plead guilty to manslaughter before the trial began. The Appeal Court agreed with this point, and felt that he had demonstrated remorse. Accordingly, they reduced his sentence to nine years with a non-parole period of six years.

Lauri was released on November 5, 2002.

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