Aisha Dow January 25, 2014
Andrew Kaye holds a model of a skull in his hand and explains what happens to a swelling brain after a one-punch attack.
”It’s far worse than death. It’s like a death every day for the rest of their lives. It’s the worst thing you can imagine, but it’s so bad most people can’t imagine it … unless they’ve seen it.”
The young men wheeled in before the neurosurgeon at the Royal Melbourne Hospital have often suffered two blows to the head.
The first is from the punch itself, the second they received when their head smashed against the hard ground. ”That second blow is often more devastating,” Professor Kaye explains.
”If the skull is damaged it’s not going to expand enough. What sometimes happens is the pressure goes up so high the brain will ooze out of a skull, the brain will ooze out of the nose, the brain will ooze out of the ear.
”Frequently young men will either die and that’s the best of it for them … Or they’re lying in bed with no function at all, not able to communicate, with no function of their bowel or bladder, not being able to eat, being fed by tubes.”
Since 2000 at least 90 Australians have died after a single punch to the head. A larger unknown number of young men have been left permanently and catastrophically brain damaged or, as Kaye describes it, left in a ”permanent living hell”.
Every high-profile tragedy is followed by a flurry of headlines and a chorus of outrage, but experts and victims’ families lament that the message has still not got through – that one punch can kill.
”It’s such an important message, but it’s not hitting home,” Step Back Think chief executive Hugh van Cuylenburg said. ”I think the main reason is that we learn violent behaviour at a young age and it’s hard to unlearn.”
This month Sydney lost teenager Daniel Christie on the streets of Kings Cross, just metres from the spot another 18-year-old, Thomas Kelly, was also fatally struck in 2012.
Just a year ago, Victorians were appalled at the death of David Cassai, allegedly punched dead on the streets of Rye.
At 1am on New Year’s Eve 2012, his mother Caterina Politi was woken to the unfamiliar sound of the upstairs phone ringing. Hours later three doctors at The Alfred hospital told her there was nothing they could do for her 22-year-old son.
Machines kept David’s body warm and his heart beating for another 28 hours so his organs could be harvested. During those surreal hours, David’s sister Luisa talked to her brother as his body lay in the hospital. But a doctor interrupted her. ”He can’t hear you,” he said.
The case against David’s accused attacker, who is contesting the charges against him, is still before the courts. But David’s death is a key motivation behind a new Victorian campaign lobbying the state government to introduce minimum sentences for one-punch perpetrators.
”STOP. One Punch Can Kill” organisers met Victorian Attorney-General Robert Clark and Minister for Crime Prevention Edward O’Donohue earlier this month. Their petition has received more than 5000 signatures so far.
Politi said she believed a 10-year minimum would be an appropriate sentence for one-punch killers. ”Not all guns kill, not all knives kill, not all punches kill, but when they do they should be treated the same,” she said.
This week NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell announced eight-year mandatory minimum sentences for intoxicated perpetrators convicted under one-punch laws, as part of a large anti-violence package.
O’Farrell also pledged 1.30am lockouts in city hot spots, a 10pm closing time for all bottle shops and a new media campaign targeting binge drinking.
The Victorian government has promised to look at the NSW example while trying to strengthen and improve sentencing laws.
However, experts warn harsher jail terms do not go to the root of the problem – why young men punch others in the first place.
Kerry Carrington has been studying masculinity, violence and alcohol for 25 years. She said alcohol disinhibits young men but was not the cause of their violence.
”Young men who commit these acts of totally irrational, unprovoked violence know no other way to express their masculinity when they feel contested.”
She said many movies, video games and martial arts sports glorified violence.
”The link between online and screen violence and actual violence is contentious but it does normalise violence and possibly desensitises us to it,” she said.
A researcher at the Queensland University of Technology, Professor Carrington believes government money would be best spent on educational programs teaching young people to handle conflict.
”It’s like toddlers that chuck tantrums. They don’t use their voice, but as soon as they use their voice they don’t chuck tantrums,” she says.
In Melbourne, the Step Back Think program travels to about 50 schools each year teaching students to stay away from potential violent ”hot spots” and to make decisions on behalf of intoxicated friends. They also show graphic portrayals of the effect of one-punch assaults in a video that includes the gory brain oozing description by Kaye.
Van Cuylenburg says young men in particular struggled with expressing their emotions.
”Someone spills a drink on someone or someone talks to someone’s girlfriend or someone looks different, and that creates a perceived grievance,” he says. ”The second thought is the real problem and that’s ‘my grievance justifies violence … and that’s the big challenge with Step Back Think, is how do you stop the second thought?”
But just a fraction of Victorian students are benefiting.
”There’s areas of the curriculum that discuss staying safe, responsible partying, but there’s nothing that addresses street violence,” Van Cuylenburg says.
An Education Department spokesman said the curriculum included ”social and emotional wellbeing”. It also partnered with Monash University to create an online resource with information about drugs, sexuality and respectful relationships.
”At a local level, schools choose to run programs that best suit the needs of their community – the Department of Justice’s Step Back Think program is one example of this,” the spokesman says.
The Department of Justice, which contributes $200,000 each year to Step Back Think, says the program saves it money by preventing community violence and has ”great potential for expansion”.
Spokesman Simon Troeth says it is much easier to educate young people rather than re-educate them once ”it’s already embedded in their minds that violence is cool”.
Step Back Think was first created in 2006 in honour of James Macready-Bryan, a young man who was left unable to talk or walk after a one-punch assault in the CBD on his 20th birthday.
Seven years on, James remains a permanent reminder of why Step Back Think’s work is so important. The former Monash University law student has spent a quarter of his life in a wheelchair, unable to do much more than lift his head.
Five times every day James gets a ”completely balanced” liquid meal pumped into his stomach through a tube. He has learnt to smile again but his vocal communication is mostly limited to moans of frustration and pain. He ”hmmps” with displeasure when his mum wipes the drool off his chin. Meanwhile, outside his Alphington care home, his school friends are landing professional jobs and getting married.
His mother Robyn Brewin believes it is possible to change a culture of street violence, but the best inroads will be made through education, not harsh penalties.
”We reduced the road toll dramatically. We’re stopping young people smoking … I think with community awareness you can change that attitude about fighting,” she says. ”I don’t think sentencing is the answer, but it is a way of the community saying ‘this has to stop’.”
A few suburbs over, David Cassai’s mother Caterina Politi has recently received her first delivery of ”STOP. One Punch Can Kill” wristbands. She hopes if there is one thing she can achieve out of David’s death, it’s that no one else has to die. ”I want attitudes to change and there to be no more deaths, that would be justice,” she says. ”I want the CCTV cameras in the city to be there photographing the butterflies.”