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Anna Leask is senior police reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Exclusive: Fatal assault - Stephen Dudley's family want manslaughter prosecution after inquest findings

KEY POINTS

  • Stephen Dudley died after a an assault at rugby practice in 2013
  • Two teens were charged with manslaughter
  • The charge was lessened to assault after an undiagnosed heart condition was revealed
  • Coroner Gordon Matenga said one of the teen's punches directly led to Stephen's death
  • The Dudley family are calling for new charges following the Coroner's findings

The family of a schoolboy who died after a violent assault at rugby training is calling for a manslaughter charge to be laid after the Coroner ruled the actions of another teen was "the most significant factor" in his death.

Stephen Eruwera Dudley died on June 6, 2013 after he was punched repeatedly by two teenage brothers at a West Auckland rugby field.

Stephen Dudley. Photo/File
Stephen Dudley. Photo/File

Stephen, 15, suffered cardiac arrhythmia during the assault and was rushed to Auckland City Hospital.

Despite frantic attempts to revive him, he was pronounced dead on arrival.

The brothers were initially charged with manslaughter.

But after medical examinations revealed an undiagnosed heart condition, the Crown withdrew the charge - saying it could not be determined whether the assault contributed to Stephen's death.

In 2014 the brothers pleaded guilty to assaulting Stephen and were discharged without conviction and granted name permanent suppression.

Last year, just after third anniversary of Stephen's death Coroner Gordon Matenga held an inquest.

Today he released his report, and found that while Stephen may have had an underlying heart condition, his death was the direct result of "stress associated with physical assault".

"[The brothers] assaulted Stephen by punching him several times to his body," Coroner Matenga said.

"Stephen did not retaliate in any way.

"If the [undiagnosed condition] was the underlying cause ... why did it not cause an arrhythmia earlier that day, or during the pre-training argument between [the 16-year-old] and Stephen where there was emotional and psychological stress; or during training with the physical stress that placed on Stephen?

"The assault, consisting of heavy blow to the neck and then a series of punches to the torso, must have been the factor which precipitated the arrhythmia.

Stephen Dudley's parents, Mona and Brent, leaving the High Court at Auckland. Photo/File
Stephen Dudley's parents, Mona and Brent, leaving the High Court at Auckland. Photo/File

Coroner Matenga said the assault preceded Stephen's collapse and was "the most significant factor which lead to the arrhythmia".

Lawyer Nikki Pender, who represents the Dudley family, welcomed the inquest findings.

"Finally, someone independent has looked at all the evidence and given them answers as to what happened the day Stephen died," she said.

"The Dudley family will be asking the Solicitor-General to review this case in light of the Coroner's findings with the aim of laying a manslaughter charge."

Speaking exclusively to the Herald today Brent and Mona Dudley said they were happy with the findings.

"We were not surprised at the conclusion he came to given he had all the evidence to look at," Brent Dudley said.

"Once you look at all the evidence including the witness statements as well as the medical findings ... we have always known that it was that assault that caused our son's death."

Brent Dudley said his son was seen by witnesses laughing and joking as he left rugby practice.

It wasn't until he was "coward punched" that his health fatally deteriorated.

"We are happy that the Coroner saw it the same way that we do."

The couple said they "strongly believe" the older teenager, who delivered the blow to the neck, needed to be held to account.

"We feel, strongly, that he has a case to answer," Brent Dudley said.

"At the time he was a senior student, and older boy, he could have neutralised the situation with minimal effort and everyone would have gone home safely that night."

The couple remain devastated over their son's "brutal" death.

"There is not a single day that goes by that we don't miss him," said Mona Dudley.

"It's been a rollercoaster, but we try and manage all of our hurt and pain."

Brent Dudley said the family had learned to manage their heartache, but they would never get over the death of Stephen.

"We miss everything about him," his mother said.

Stephen Dudley died after being assaulted at rugby training in 2013. Photo/File
Stephen Dudley died after being assaulted at rugby training in 2013. Photo/File

"We would have loved to have seen him grow up to be the beautiful young man he was going to be, with so much to offer.

"We miss the way he was with his siblings, the way he was with us, his cheekiness, his smile, talking to him.

"He had a beautiful way of looking at life, he was that balancer in our family. He saw things in a way that not a lot of people do, he always came up with a positive solution."

It has been almost four years since Stephen died but his parents are not giving up their fight for justice and are prepared to wait as long as it takes.

"The last three-and-a-half years have been a battle for us so we don't think waiting is especially harder than living without our son."

Pender said the reason the Crown withdrew the manslaughter charge had been "debunked".

"Which is why the Dudley family want the Solicitor-General to consider whether a manslaughter charge could now be brought," she said.

"The criminal justice system has let down everyone involved with this case by failing to lay charges which properly reflect the seriousness of the circumstances.

"As a result, Stephen's death has been trivialised."

Coroner Gordon Matenga. Photo/File
Coroner Gordon Matenga. Photo/File

Coroner Matenga made two formal recommendations relating to Stephen's death.

The first was that the school he attended, which cannot be identified for legal reasons, develop a programme for Year 9 students to learn how to perform CPR and use an automated external defibrillator.

He also recommended that the Ministry of Education develop a guideline for all New Zealand schools "with an overview of the various issues that should be considered when purchasing an AED including appropriate training for staff and students.

The Ministry said it would include new guidelines in its health and safety information.

- NZ Herald

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