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Expert Blog

The Role of Expert Witnesses in The Sydney Siege Inquest

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In December 2014, the city of Sydney was sent into lockdown after a lone gunman, Man Haron Monis, took ten customers and eight employees hostage at the Lindt Café in the heart of the Sydney CBD. The siege lasted for 16 hours and resulted in the death of two hostages and the gunman himself. Following the siege, criticism was rife over issues such as why the gunman had been granted bail despite being previously accused of serious offences, why police did not take action earlier and why the defence force was not utilised to take control of the situation.

Due to the tragic loss of life and strong community disapproval of several aspects of the siege, an inquest into the circumstances leading up to and following the siege was ordered. The inquest began in May 2015 and is expected to conclude later this year or in early 2017. In this blog post, ExpertsDirect considers the role of various expert witnesses who have been called upon to provide expert testimony at the inquest.

Bail experts

At the outset of the inquest, four legal practitioners with expertise in the area of bail law were engaged to form an expert witness panel. The panel was then tasked with preparing a report containing their views on the appropriateness of actions taken by those responsible for processing Monis’ bail application in relation to allegations of accessory before and after the fact of his wife’s murder. The bail experts also gave evidence concurrently at the inquest.

The experts concluded that it was “at least possible” that bail would have been refused to Monis and that a detention application should have been made by the DPP when they had the opportunity to do so. The experts agreed that the case for refusal of bail included the fact that Monis had committed three counts of sexual assault while on bail for other offences and was already on bail for offences committed in other states. However, the police officers and prosecutors responsible for arguing in favour of bail refusal were not aware of these facts. This bail hearing occurring just 2 months prior to the Sydney siege.

For more information on concurrent evidence by expert witnesses see our blog NSW District Court – Joint Conferences for Expert Witnesses.

Australian Terrorism Experts

In August 2015 and the early stages of the inquest, three domestic experts gave expert testimony on the issue of whether Monis was a terrorist or his behaviour was a result of mental illness. Professor Greg Barton, an expert in Islamic extremism and counter-terrorism, testified that in his opinion the taking of hostages was an act of terrorism. Professor Barton noted, however, that Monis did not conform to the usual mould of lone-wolf terrorists as he was not “consistent in articulating a manifest or position”.

Professor Rodger Shanahan, a national security expert, echoed the view that the motivation behind the siege was more closely related to mental health issues than terrorist motives. Professor Shanahan cited the criminal charges faced by Monis alongside his schizophrenia as key catalysts for the siege.

Professor Clarke Jones from the Australian National University also supported this theory, suggesting that Monis’ actions were a result of his need to belong and his recent rejection from the Rebels bikie gang.

US Terrorism Expert

US terrorism expert, Bruce Hoffman, recently provided testimony on his views regarding the terrorism classification of the incident. Contrary to the statements of Australian terrorism experts, Hoffman described the events of December 2014 as “textbook” terrorism. In his view the following factors pointed to a conclusion of terrorism:

  • the siege was motivated by political issues and not personal grievances;
  • Monis, by his own admission, had stated that the siege was being carried out on behalf of ISIS;
  • Monis had requested to speak with Prime Minister Tony Abbott; and
  • Monis had forced hostages to film the siege and post the videos to social media.

The conflicting information provided by these experts highlights a broader issue with the use of expert testimony. The fact that expert witnesses opining on the same issue could come to completely different conclusions presents difficulties for those responsible for making conclusive findings on the issues at hand (being State Coroner, Magistrate Michael Barnes).

Ballistic experts

Walter Murphy, a police forensic ballistics expert, used the sawn-off shut gun that Monis used in the siege to demonstrate the speed with which the firearm could be loaded and discharged. He also provided evidence of the impact that sawing off approximately half the length of the shot gun had on the weapon. Murphy noted that, while the shortening of the gun made it easier to conceal, it also reduced the accuracy of the gun.

Defence Force Experts

In May 2016, Jeremy Gormly SC, counsel assisting the inquiry, urged Defence Force witnesses to make themselves available to provide expert testimony at the inquest. Gormly encouraged witness to comment on the adequacy of actions taken by the NSW Police Force and whether requests should have been made for Defence Force assistance. Counsel for the family of Katrina Dawson, one of the siege victims, echoed this sentiment, suggesting that Defence Force personnel may need to be compelled to give evidence.

Given that this testimony goes to the core of one of the key issues for consideration at the inquest, namely how the siege should have been handled to avoid loss of life, it seems likely that such experts will be required to give evidence in order to make an informed judgement on this issue.

Expert Negotiators  

The inquest engaged Dr Andrew Brown and Chief Superintendent Kerrin Smith, international expert witnesses in hostage negotiations. These experts were highly critical of the approach taken by NSW negotiators, noting that no progress was made during the entire siege and that negotiation attempts yielded no indication of a change in Monis’ behaviour. The experts criticised the fact that negotiators chose to attempt to contact Monis through the hostages rather than making direct contact, and suggested that negotiators should have amended their approach when breakthroughs were not occurring. For example, the experts contended that the NSW negotiators should have utilised a person who had a personal relationship with Monis.

Conclusion

As can be seen from the above discussion, the use of expert witnesses at the Sydney Siege Inquest, raises a number of prominent issues currently live in the expert witness arena. Such issues include the use of concurrent expert witness, conflicting expert opinions on the same topic and the use of international experts. As the inquest continues, it is beyond doubt that experts will continue to play a critical role in determining the cause of the siege and methods of preventing a similar situation in the future.