11 May, 2010

All for a mango... Part I

David Laxale's family came to Australia from Mauritius, but he was born here - the youngest of seven children, with five brothers and a sister. "He was the only one born in Australia out of the seven of us... We doted on him because he was our kid brother" said his brother Jean-Pierre, "we thought this was the great land of opportunity and freedom". 29-year-old David had been living at his mother's house in Berala for a few months in 1997, as he was having some difficulties in his marriage to his wife Suzie. She was pregnant with their second child, and they had a three-year-old son.

Choi Ka Tang was born in Cambodia, the youngest of eight children. He moved to Australia when he was six years old with his mother, who spoke no English. His father stayed behind in Cambodia. He attended Uniting Church camps from when he was 12 years old, and was generally considered to be a good boy. However, his mother, who spoke no English, found living in Australia without her husband stressful, and by the time Tang was 18 years old, they were estranged.

On the evening of Sunday 23 February 1997, Tang and three young friends, Luke (a Greek boy), Andrew and Jason (Lebanese boys), met in a park in Berala. Luke and Andrew had been at Jason's house earlier in the evening, and they met Tang at the park. While they were there, Jason said that Tang showed the boys his new mobile phone, and also a long knife he was carrying. The boys began walking to Andrew's house. On the way, Jason said Andrew gave him a long thin knife, known as a 'butterfly' knife.

As they went past David Laxale's mother's house, Tang spotted a mango tree. He jumped over the fence and started throwing mangoes over to the boys. This was not the first time Mrs Laxale's mangoes had been stolen, and David, who was resting in a room at the back of the house, heard the noise and ran out to see what was going on. He yelled out, and even though he was dressed only in his underwear, he chased the boys into the street, and managed to grab Andrew by the shirt. Andrew hit him back, and Jason and Luke went to help.

Jason saw Tang behind David, wrestling. David managed to grab a hold of Tang and punched him once in the head. Tang responded by punching him back, at which point David fell to the ground. All of them kicked David a few times to the head and body. David tried to get up but fell back down again. Jason said he and Luke ran off first, and Andrew and Tang joined them eventually.

Jason said he saw Tang with a knife in his hand, and blood on his shirt. One of the boys said "did you stab him?" and Jason heard Tang say "yeah, three times". Jason saw Tang wash the blood off himself, then threw his shirt into a wheelie bin. Jason also had blood on his clothing, and Tang told him to take his shirt off and throw it in the bin as well. Jason told police the butterfly knife remained in his pocket the entire time.

David Laxale was stabbed seven times - twice in the chest, three times in the back, and twice in his left arm. He staggered back to the front door of his home and managed to call out to his mother before collapsing on the front door-step. He managed to tell her he had been stabbed, by "a Lebanese" before lapsing into unconsciousness. His mother did her best to help her dying son while the ambulance was on its way, and he was rushed to Westmead hospital. Unfortunately he never regained consciousness, dying the following morning from massive blood loss, as well as blunt force injuries to his head and chest. The post mortem showed that it was possible two knives had been used.

His widow Suzie lamented "my husband was a good, hardworking man. If they had asked, David would have given them four bags of mangoes each."

When questioned by police, Tang initially gave them a false name and date of birth, and gave rather vague, non-committal answers. He admitted meeting his friends, and wandering around looking for fruit. He said they ate a mango from one tree, just taking bites, then moved on to Mrs Laxale's house. He agreed he was the one who jumped over the fence and started throwing mangoes back to the others, but would only say "no comment" about what happened after that.

Several questions were put to him by police, but all he would say was that he had seen blood on David Laxale when he was about one to three metres away, but denied ever producing a knife, or seeing anyone else with one. He said all three boys had blood on them, and he told Jason to throw away his shirt because it was covered in blood. Tang said he threw his own shirt away because it was torn, and denied washing anything at the tap. Later, he admitted he did wash his face and have a drink. He denied owning or carrying a mobile phone, and repeated that he had never seen a knife that night.

Andrew was also interviewed by police, and said that he did not have a knife, and didn't specifically remember seeing anyone else with a knife, but said he thought "one of them was holding a knife" and believed it was Tang. He saw something glinting in the light and saw Tang bending over Laxale, and "he might have stabbed him in that place". He said Tang was "going crazy" and that he had seen blood on his pants when they were at the tap. He told police that the next morning Tang came to his house and said he heard David Laxale had died. Andrew claimed Tang said to him "if anyone says anything, they are going to get it". While he was there, Andrew said Tang borrowed a punching bag from him.

However, Tang said he never went to Andrew's place on the morning of Monday 24th. Although he was found to be in possession of the punching bag, he said he collected it from Andrew one month earlier, when he saw Andrew with some other friends, Manu and Lee. Tang said he had gone back to Manu's house after the stabbing, and stayed there the night. He said he was doing some unpaid work for Manu's father the next day, and that Manu's mother had made him breakfast. He said he stayed at Manu's until his arrest:
"...when we woke up the next morning, Manu's mum made breakfast for us to go to work, and then before we left I overheard them saying that someone got killed picking fruits, picking mangoes, and then I realised that, yeah, I was involved in that."

All four boys were charged with David Laxale's murder and committed for trial. However Andrew, Jason and Luke negotiated with the prosecutor to give evidence against Tang, and in return were only charged with assault occasioning actual bodily harm. They received good behaviour bonds.

Tang went to trial alone, and was vigorously cross-examined. He was grilled about his repeated "no comment" during his police interview, particularly when questioned about his involvement in the attack on Laxale, whether he'd pulled out a knife, and told the other's he'd stabbed Laxale three times. He claimed he didn't understand the police's questions, and that he was not sure at the time what he had really done. He said his answers of "no comment" were meant to be a denial that he had been in possession of a knife, and a denial that he had stabbed Laxale. He also had no explanation for why he had immediately vacated his flat and tried to break his lease, which was seen as "consciousness of guilt".

Tang was also asked about his movements on Monday 24th, the morning after the stabbing:
"Q: On that Monday, did you drive during... did you drive you sister's hatchback?
A: No, I was in the truck all day.
Q: And who is able to confirm this? Joe - that is Manu's father - is one, yes?
A: (nod)
Q: And Joe?
A: Yes.
Q: Sorry, Manu? Yes?
A: Yeah.
Q: You were working with the both of them?
A: Yeah.
Q: On that Monday, you see, I suggest this to you, you were driving your sister's hatchback, and you drove to where Andrew lived. That is what you did, isn't it?
A: No."

Tang was also cross-examined about Andrew's statement to police that Tang had gone to his house the next morning and threatened him, and then collected the punching bag:
"Q: Did you have anyone with you when you went to get that punching bag from Andrew ?
A:Yes.
Q: Who was with you?
A: My two friends, Manu...
Q: And the other? Who is that?
A: Lee."

At the trial, Jason surpised everyone when he gave new evidence, stating that Tang had made a phone call on the night of the 23rd, shortly after the stabbing, to his friend Manu. Jason said he heard Tang say the words "had trouble" and "stabbed someone" as well as saying the name "Manu". The Crown sought an adjournment while police urgently obtained Tang's mobile phone records. They showed that a call had been made on the night after the stabbing to the landline registered to Manu's mother. Tang maintained that he did not recall making such a phone call, but when faced with the phone records, he conceded that he did call Manu, and said he was looking for a lift home.

Jason admitted he had lied to police at first about having a knife, but claimed they never asked him. He also admitted attempting to give the police false information about the other boys. He was cross-examined about his own criminal record, which showed he had been convicted for assault occasioning actual bodily harm several times in the past, even though he was only 16.

Andrew gave reluctant evidence at trial, and the Crown ended up having to cross-examine him as a hostile witness. Eventually, his evidence was similar to Jason's although he did not recall Tang showing them the mobile phone or knife when they were at the park, and he denied giving Jason a butterfly knife, or any other kind of knife. He denied seeing Tang wash blood off himself at the tap. He repeated what he had told police - that Tang came to his house the next morning, told him about Laxale's death and threatened him. He again stated that Tang picked up the punching bag that morning.

Andrew was cross-examined about his earlier statement to police (that he thought Tang was holding a knife that night), and he admitted that he had talked to Luke about it, and it was actually Luke who told him that Tang had stabbed Laxale. Although he had initially said to police "the Chinese bloke did stab him as a matter of fact, cause he told me", he admitted that this was merely an assumption, based on what Luke had told him. He denied making up the story with Jason and Luke.

Luke was also very reluctant to give evidence, and like Andrew, had to be cross-examined as a hostile witness. At first, he denied seeing Tang's phone, but was then reminded of the statement he made to police. He then admitted he had seen the phone, but consistently denied ever seeing a knife. His rather vague description of the fight generally conformed to what the others had described - just punching and kicking, and then running away, although he minimised his own involvement, saying it was mainly Jason and Tang. He remembered being at the tap and someone saying "did you stab him?" and "yeah, three times" but could not say who it was. He was shown his earlier statement where he claimed he heard Tang say "yeah, three times", but at trial he said he could no longer recall, but he didn't think it was Andrew or Jason.

At the trial Luke said "I think I seen a knife" in Tang's hands, and thought he may have heard Tang say "I've got to wash the knife" when he was at the tap, but he didn't see what Tang actually did. He said there was "a bit" of blood on Tang's pants. Luke said he remembered seeing Jason wash blood off his hands and legs, and that Andrew also had some blood on him. However he was once again reminded of his earlier statement, in which he had said he remembered seeing a knife in Tang's hand as they ran away from Laxale. He also told police he saw Tang wash the knife at the tap, and said Tang had "heaps" of blood on his legs, rather than "a bit".

Luke categorically denied that Jason had stabbed Laxale, or had ever admitted to it. It was put to him in cross-examination that his story contained similar "lies" as Jason's version of events, but he replied that was merely a coincidence, and that they had not concocted it together.

The Crown also called evidence from Stephen Roy, a friend of Jason and Luke. He told the court of a conversation he heard between Jason and Luke, in which Jason had said "that dopey Nip shouldn't have stepped in and stabbed him". This was clearly a reference to Tang, being the only Asian in the group.

to be continued...

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