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No jury trial for cult members charged over girl’s death

The murder and manslaughter proceedings against 14 members of a cult involved in the death of an eight-year-old girl will be held without a jury.

Diabetic Elizabeth Struhs died on 7 January last year in Toowoomba, after she was denied insulin by her parents, who were members of the religious group The Saints.

Father Jason Struhs was charged with murder on the basis he caused the girl’s death by not providing insulin and/or medical care and treatment for her, knowing it would probably cause her death. Mother Kerrie Struhs was charged with manslaughter, on the basis she failed to provide insulin and/or medical care and treatment for the youngster.

The Saints leader Brendan Stevens was charged with murder on the basis he counselled either of both of Elizabeth’s parents to stop the girl’s treatment, knowing it would probably cause her death.

The remaining 11 cult members were each charged with manslaughter on the basis that, by their words and actions, they counselled and/or procured and/or aided Elizabeth’s parents to unlawfully kill her.

In a Supreme Court decision published last week, Chief Justice Bowskill found there were special reasons to warrant a no jury order under Section 614(1) of the Criminal Code, including the expected length of the trial, complex logistics, the avoidance of delay and extensive pre-trial media coverage.

“Given the number of defendants and that they wish to be tried together, the court cannot make a no jury order only in relation to one or some of the defendants. The order, if it is to be made, must be in relation to all defendants,” she said.

“Importantly, because the prosecutor has applied for a no jury order, the court may only make the no jury order if each of the accused persons consents to it. And because the accused persons are not represented by a lawyer, the court must be satisfied the accused persons properly understand the nature of the application.”

Chief Justice Bowskill said a key feature of the case was the defendants’ desire to be tried together.

“Realistically, it may be the case that that cannot be done if the mode of trial involves a jury, because it would be too difficult for a jury to properly consider the case against each defendant separately,”  she said.

She said the group had been encouraged to take legal advice and had elected not to, but she was satisfied they understood the nature of the application, and each defendant had consented to a no jury order.

Reasons advanced for the order included that:

  • the trial was estimated to take three months, with numerous police and expert witnesses, police interviews, and a “large volume of medical material and phone records”;
  • the trial would be complex, logistically and legally, including whether evidence admissible against one defendant was admissible against another;
  • all defendants were in custody and had chosen to represent themselves and not apply for bail, with “little prospect of any joint admissions of uncontroversial matters, the availability of which may have shortened the trial”;
  • the case had attracted considerable media attention, which had created an inherent risk of prejudice;
  • there was a prospect of delay if 14 trials were held separately; and
  • there was no factual issue in the case requiring the application of objective community standards.

“Given the defendants’ expressed wish to be tried together, it seems to me that there is no other way to give effect to that preference and ensure a fair trial,” Chief Justice Bowskill said.

“Juries are regularly directed to put aside feelings of sympathy or prejudice and to ignore anything they see, hear or read out of court, focusing only on the evidence. Juries are also, in the experience of trial judges, diligent and disciplined in their approach to their task.

“However, in the unusual circumstances of this case the potential for prejudice as a result of the significant pre-trial publicity and media reporting that has already and will continue to take place, may be difficult to neutralise. A judge alone would be able to put this out of their mind.

“When this is taken together with the expected length of the trial, the legal complexity of the case against 14 defendants and the logistical complexity of 14 self-represented defendants, the argument for a no jury order to be made in the interests of justice is compelling.

“I am satisfied both that there are grounds for making a no jury order and that those grounds are special reasons justifying the making of the order.”

The trial is due to begin on July 8 next year.

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