Bridge-swinging death accused was distracted, court told

The man accused of a teenager's manslaughter following a Manawatu bridge-swinging incident was distracted by a woman as he tried to run the activity, the Crown has told a trial today.

First-year veterinary student Catherine Peters, 18, fell about 20 metres on to rocks below the Ballance Bridge while bridge-swinging with the Massey Alpine Club on March 7, 2009. She died of her injuries in hospital hours later.

Crag Adventures director Alistair Ross McWhannell, who had sole responsibility for the activity, has pleaded not guilty and appeared in the High Court at Palmerston North today for the first day of his trial.

The Crown told a jury of seven men and five women that McWhannell had failed to ensure the swing rope was set to the right length and that the rope's end was secured to the bridge.

In his opening address, crown prosecutor Euen McCaughan said Ms Peters had already completed one jump on March 7, and was having a second turn when she fell.

Mr McCaughan said, immediately following Ms Peters' fall, McWhannell told several people he had "f**ked up" and had had a lapse in concentration.

"He said something along the lines of: `It's like when you're in your car and coming out of your driveway and you look left and right. Well this time I only looked left'," Mr McCaughan told the court.

However, in a subsequent police interview, McWhannell's story was different, Mr McCaughan said.

"He then claimed that as far as he knew he had pulled the ropes up and tied them off."

Mr McCaughan said McWhannell had supervised close to 20,000 bridge swings prior to Ms Peters' fall.

His job involved two key aspects - ensuring the rope was pulled up to the correct length after each jump and tying the rope on the bridge each time, Mr McCaughlan said.

"His job was simple but he absolutely had to do it for every jumper," he said.

"If the accused didn't do his job the jumper would almost certainly die."

When Ms Peters went to do her second jump and McWhannell went to help he was additionally distracted by a woman who was unrelated to the university group's activity, Mr McCaughlan said.

McWhannell had met the woman, Julie Hamilton, through the internet and had offered her a bridge-swing in exchange for a coffee.

He was helping her put on a harness when Ms Peters came up for a second turn, Mr McCaughlan said.

The trial is set down for three weeks and is being presided over by Justice Ronald Young.

Ms Peter's family, her mother and father, Helen and Bosco Peters, her brother, Jonathan, as well as several members of her extended family were also in court today.

In a statement, the family said Ms Peters' philosophy was to have fun and help others have fun.

"We should have been celebrating Catherine's 20th birthday party," the family said.

"We miss terribly her bouncing into a room enthusiastic about her latest idiosyncratic discovery, her humour, her insightfulness and wisdom, her friendship and mentoring, her sense of fun.

"We are blessed that we as a family have no regrets on our part."

The family said it was a difficult time for them all and that they did not wish to make any further comment until the trial's conclusion.

- NZPA

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