21 July, 2010

Protecting the pot plants

Although Tony Simpson and his wife had separated, they remained on good terms. Simpson had moved in with his mother nearby in Karuah, but was often a visitor to his former home, and saw his kids off to school on a daily basis.

Another reason for his regular visits was to tend to his marijuana plantation in the backyard of his former marital home. His plants were protected with chicken wire, corrugated iron, barbed wire and a home-made electric fence (Simpson was an electrician by trade). To do this, he secured coaxial cable to his back fence with nails, and removed its protective covering at 6cm intervals. This was powered by an extension cord that ran from the house to a shed nearby. Joined to the cord was a cable that ran from the shed to the chicken wire, then to the fence. This cable was also not fully insulated, with two breaks at the joins, about 1cm wide, exposing the wire. This set-up had been in place for around three years, and was switched on and off from inside the house.

Michael Priest knew of Simpson’s backyard plantation, and travelled to Karuah on the night of April 12 1998 with a group of friends, in order to steal Simpson’s plants. Priest went to Simpson’s backyard alone. When he had not returned after some time, his friends left. However they returned the next day, believing Priest had been captured and held by Simpson.

In actual fact, Priest had accidentally come into contact with some of the exposed wiring when trying to get to Simpson’s plants, had been electrocuted and died instantly. Tony Simpson had found Priest the next morning, standing upright with his face on the chicken wire roof. Apparently, in attempting to get at the plants, Priest had inadvertently pulled the chicken wire roof down so that it came into contact with the exposed cable. Simpson panicked, and wrapped Priest’s body in a quilt, dumping it in bushland near Swan Bay. He returned home and dismantled his set-up.

Later that morning, Priest’s friends had returned to find him, and decided to vigorously question Simpson about Priest’s whereabouts. Unfortunately they went to the wrong home, and the occupants immediately called the police. When Simpson saw the police at his neighbour’s house, he decided to approach them and ask to be interviewed. He then admitted his actions, showed the police his plants and the wiring set-up, and took them to the body.

Despite the fact that Priest was killed in the course of trying to steal from Simpson, this was not relevant to the charges against Simpson. Similarly, the fact that Simpson’s plants were illegal was also not relevant to the charges, although he was separately charged with drug offences.

Simpson pleaded guilty to manslaughter on the basis of criminal negligence. He had not intended to kill or seriously harm Priest, but had failed to take reasonable care in that he exposed a person to a high risk of serious harm or death.

At his sentence hearing, evidence was called from an electrical expert about Simpson’s home-made system:
“Q: What do you way about that particular portion of the apparatus, the wiring, the exposed area running across the top of the fence?
A: Potentially very, very dangerous.
Q: Why is that?
A: Well, it is open to a fatality, just by exposing that attached cable, and earthing out with the knees or feet, it can be very fatal.
Q: And that earthing, it would be caused, I suppose, by a person not only going in, but trying to get over the fence?
A: Yes
Q: But trying to get out that way too?
A: Yes, certainly.
Q: In relation to the situation of the wire meshing roofing..
A: Yes?
Q: .. the three- or two-side wire mesh fences and the wire mesh fence at the front, with this cable, for want of a better description, running through, with the two exposed joins, as I understand Simpson’s description, at midpoint a 30mm gap between the height of the wire fencing and the height of the roofing…
A: Yes?
Q: What do you say about that, the danger that it represents?
A: Well, it’s the same as the wire on the back fence - it is open up to a fatality.
Judge: What did you say?
A: It is very, very dangerous and open up to a fatality.
: And if one was standing on the earth and just accidentally put one’s hand around that exposed area of wiring, what would be the effect?
A: Well, it would be a fatality.
Q: Just in relation to, and only going to, the potentiality of the danger in the overall situation, the wood across the top of the back fence, would that provide a degree of insulation between the metal fence and the exposed wires?
A: Depending on the weather, whether it had been raining or not, but yes, quite a degree of insulation, yes.
Q: But once the wood was moist?
A: Moist, a different matter.
Q: Is that because moisture itself is a conductor?
A: That’s right, yes.”

Simpson was also cross-examined about this:
“Q: See, no matter how short a time one received a shock for, a result is dependent on the person’s physical health, isn’t it?
A: Yes.
Q: And your training tells you, you have been warned that can happen very quickly from an electric shock, haven’t you?
A: Yes.”

Simpson argued that the evidence showed that the part Priest had electrocuted himself upon was not deliberately uninsulated, however the Judge was not entirely convinced. Nevertheless, whether the exposure was intentional or not, Simpson as a qualified electrician should have recognised the danger. He had tied the uninsulated wires together himself. In his defence, Simpson claimed that he could not afford a piece of conduit to cover it, however this was rejected by the Judge. The part in question cost only around $11, and Simpson had had three years to fix it.

Simpson also argued that it was not intended that the wire roof would be pulled down so that it contacted the exposed wires, however the Judge also rejected this, saying that Simpson should have been aware of this possibility, given that he was trying to protect his plants from intruders.

Simpson was questioned about this:
“Q: With the power on, and with the wire connecting the house to the back fence, would the wire roof of the enclosure have been live?
A: No.
Q: That was because of the gap between the wire roof and the naked joins.
A: That is correct.
Q: And were those naked joins positioned within the enclosure itself, and not in the ordinary course in contact with the wire perimeter fence?
A: That is correct.
Q: Now if the power were on, and the roof wire were depressed against the naked wire join, that would render the roof live, would it not?
A: That’s right.
Q: Or alternatively, if somebody had inadvertently, by movement of some part of their body caused the naked wire to lift against the roof, that would also render the roof live, yes?
A: That is correct.”

He was then cross examined:
“Q: What this man sees to have done, on your reconstruction, and I am not criticising you for it, is indeed come into contact with the wires in some process of trying to lean in and get at those plants, would you agree with that?
A: That is possible, yes.
Q: Done the very thing that I suggest to you could happen to someone who had to manipulate the roofing and the front fence to get at the plants, correct?
A: Yes, it is possible.
Q: You have, with due respect, drawn a diagram of somebody who is actually leaning in towards where the plants are, much as I am now?
A: Yes.
Q: With his arms extended forward as one would anticipate someone trying to pull plants out?
A: Yes.
Q: And at the same time come into contact wit the ground?
A: Yes.
Q: And we unfortunately know the result, don’t we?
A: Yes.”

The Judge found that this was a very serious case of criminal negligence, however Simpson was co-operative with police, and clearly remorseful about what had happened to Priest. He had a history of drug offences dating back to the 70’s, and pleaded guilt to cultivating five marijuana plants.

Tony Simpson was sentenced to nine years in prison, with a non-parole period of six years. He appealed his sentence, but was unsuccessful.

He was released in July 2005.


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  3. Hi. I'm not sure if you'll see this, but I'm Michael Priest's niece. I'm interested to know how you got this information. Contact me on kyrahpriest@hotmail.com