Stephen Eruwera Dudley died on June 6, 2013 after he was punched repeatedly by two teenage brothers at a West Auckland rugby field. The boys were charged with manslaughter but the charge was later reduced to common assault. Both were discharged without conviction in court. Earlier this year a coroner ruled that the brothers' actions were "the most significant factor" in Stephen's death - yet the police have refused to reinstate the manslaughter charge. Today, Stephen's parents speak exclusively to the Weekend Herald about their heartache, and being "failed" by the justice system.

The last photograph of Stephen Dudley was taken less than 24 hours before he died.

It shows the 15-year-old kissing his girlfriend - his first - on the cheek.

He's smiling. She's smiling. His parents smile every time they look at that last snapshot, an image they have never and will never share publicly.

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Cops can't charge teens with Stephen Dudley's death

And then they cry, remembering that by the same time the next night their son was gone forever.

"Just to have him taken away ... that's too much to bear," his mother Mona told the Weekend Herald.

"You kiss your children goodbye in the morning, make sure they've got their lunch, uniform, whatever's scheduled for that day .... you give them a kiss, tell them you love them, be safe .... Your kids should come home safe, and that's it.

"They should be able to come home."

Stephen went to school on June 6, 2013 and then on to rugby practice.

Mona and her husband Brent expected him home around dinner time.

But he never arrived - and would never come home again.

Brent and Mona Dudley, whose son Stephen died after being assaulted at rugby training in 2013. Photo / Michael Craig
Brent and Mona Dudley, whose son Stephen died after being assaulted at rugby training in 2013. Photo / Michael Craig

After rugby practice Stephen was assaulted by two brothers who attended his school.

The boy's names and that of the school are permanently suppressed.

During the assault Stephen - who did not put up any fight in his own defence - suffered cardiac arrhythmia.

Despite frantic attempts to revive him, he was pronounced dead on arrival at Auckland City Hospital.

Police initially charged the brothers 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 common assault.

They were discharged without conviction and granted permanent name suppression.

Last year Coroner Gordon Matenga held an inquest into Stephen's death and ruled in May - after hearing copious amounts of medical and expert evidence - that while the teen had an underlying heart condition, his death was the direct result of "stress associated with physical assault".

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

The family: credible evidence to support a charge of manslaughter

While a coroner can make rulings around a death, they cannot determine civil, criminal or disciplinary liability.

So, following release of the inquest findings the Dudleys, through their lawyer Nikki Pender, wrote to the Solicitor-General seeking a review of the case with the aim of laying a manslaughter charge.

"The coroner's findings indicate that there was, and has always been, credible evidence to support a charge of manslaughter and a reasonable prospect of conviction," Pender said.

"The Crown's decision not to pursue the manslaughter charges, at least as against (the older brother), was therefore misguided.

"And the decision only to pursue minor assault charges is unfathomable.

"The Dudley family request that, in light of the earlier evidence and the evidence which has since been produced during the inquest into Stephen's death, you review the prosecution process with a view to reinstating a charge (or charges) of manslaughter.

"They also ask that you review the decision not to substitute more serious charges."

Pender said the Crown had "unequivocal evidence" of a violent assault that led to Stephen's death.

"Stephen's underlying heart condition probably meant that a charge of murder could not be supported," she wrote.

"Therefore, consistent with the law outlined above and the approach taken in similar cases, the offence which most accurately reflects the evidence in this case, is that of manslaughter."

Pender said the available expert evidence supported a manslaughter charge, particularly against the older brother.

"This decision not to pursue a manslaughter charge against (him) is difficult enough to understand on the basis of the expert evidence that was available at the time; but, in light of the examination of that evidence during the inquest hearing, that decision is now insupportable," she said.

And, in reducing the charge from manslaughter to common assault, Pender said the Crown "failed to reflect the gravity of the offending".

She said if not manslaughter, charges of wounding with intent, injuring with intent to cause grievous bodily harm or aggravated wounding or injury would have been more appropriate.

The Crown: no further action

The Crown responded to the Dudley family's request in late August.

Until now they have been too distraught to speak about it.

"We do not intend to suggest to the police that they file manslaughter charges or take any further action on this matter," Crown Law team manager Mark Lillico wrote.

"The decision to proceed with assault charges rather than manslaughter charges was properly made."

Lillico said the evidence against the brother was not sufficient for there to be an "objectively reasonable prospect of a conviction for manslaughter".

He said the Crown would not be able to exclude the reasonable possibility that the verbal argument before the assault, which was not an unlawful act, caused Stephen's death.

"Aside from evidential sufficiency, the public interest is not in favour of bringing (the older brother) before the Court now on a charge of manslaughter," he said.

"While the fact that (the older brother's) actions - assuming that the assault was in fact the cause of death - have led to the tragic death of Stephen Dudley, it is now four years since that event.

"(The older brother) was only 17 years of age at the time of his offending, and (he) has already been sentenced for offending arising from the same facts.

Stephen Dudley died after being assaulted at rugby practice in June 2013. Photo / Supplied
Stephen Dudley died after being assaulted at rugby practice in June 2013. Photo / Supplied

"We would be a prosecuting (him) for a crime he committed a long time ago and for which he has already gone through the criminal justice process.

Lillico said people facing criminal prosecution "should be able to rely on decisions taken by prosecutors".

"And this is not one of those rare cases where a reassessment of the original decision shows that it was manifestly wrong and should not be allowed to stand," he said.

He said the Crown appreciated the decision not to reprosecute would be "a difficult outcome" for the Dudley family.

"But (we) are confident that the conduct of the Crown in this case was proper, independent and fair."

A victim with no voice

For Brent and Mona Dudley, nothing about their son's death was proper or fair.

From the moment the initial manslaughter charges were withdrawn they have felt, in their words, dismissed, pushed aside, unheard.

"This was a brutal attack that ended our son's life ... they downplayed, from the get-go, the seriousness of the assault itself," Brent said.

"We had legitimate hopes that they would reopen the case and look at it, it was another kick when they pretty much dismissed it."

The Dudley's have two main issues with the treatment of their son's case.

Firstly, that the manslaughter charge was dropped to one of common assault - a far lesser charge that they do not feel reflected the fatality of the attack.

And secondly that if a coroner could make a ruling on the evidence presented at the inquest - why the Crown will not put it before a jury and let them decide.

"To have level-headed people sit and hear the evidence, and if they came to the same conclusion then that would be easier for us to accept," Brent said.

"We would have loved for it to go to a jury, and it would have been a hell of a lot easier for us to accept and move on, even it they came to the conclusion that these boys were innocent of those charges."

Mona, who still tears up at any mention of her boy, said the decision to reduce the charge to common assault was "morally wrong".

For her, the evidence of manslaughter was "black and white" and it should have been tested in court and left to a jury to decide - not reduced to a charge that trivialised her boy's death.

"I would have known at least my son's voice was heard - and he never got that chance," she said.

"Not only did he have his life taken, but his voice was taken away.

"That's just so wrong… We're really gutted, absolutely gutted."

The bereft parents, who moved to the Far North after Stephen died, also take umbrage at the Crown's comment that prosecuting the brothers was "not in the public interest".

"I would have thought justice is in the public interest?" Brent said.

"I don't know what planet they're on, but it certainly isn't the same one that I'm on.

"Surely justice is in the public interest? What's the alternative? That people can just get off willy-nilly with all these heinous crimes? Is that in the public interest?"

"Those words just prove to me that they're protecting offenders," said Mona.

"I don't know how they sleep at night, to be completely honest.

"We weren't given justice, Stephen was not given that."

A grieving family "failed" by the Crown

The couple say they feel "failed' by the Crown and have no faith in the justice system anymore.

They say they felt Stephen was "swept under the rug" and no one cared about him as long as the court side of things could be tied up neatly and quickly.

"I don't think they ever were interested, that's how we feel," Brent explained.

"We feel that people just want us to shut up and go away, and stop creating waves.

"We don't feel like anyone actually went out and batted for us, we don't believe anyone was really fighting for our cause

"It's like 'you're just going to have to grin and bear it and get on with your lives as best as you can… that's the decision that was made - deal with it'.

"You know what? We're not ready to deal with it."

Brent and Mona Dudley at their home in the Far North, where they moved after Stephen died. Photo / Michael Craig
Brent and Mona Dudley at their home in the Far North, where they moved after Stephen died. Photo / Michael Craig

Mona added: "Yeah, like 'sorry about what happened to you, but it's not that important'

"Well yes, it's important to us, Stephen was our life.

"We've just been failed - failed again and again … And to just be absolutely dismissed and disrespected ... I don't want to see anybody go through that, no family should have to go through that.

"And for us to just be put aside, most importantly, for Stephen to be put aside .... it's made me feel no faith in the New Zealand justice system now."

Victim advocate Ruth Money has been supporting Brent and Mona and their four children through the case.

For her, it's been heartbreaking to see such good people put through such hell.

"Their only hope throughout this entire process has been justice for Stephen," she said.

"A court of law should have heard all the evidence and a jury make its decision.

"Apart from a very fair, respectful and balanced Coronial process, Stephen has absolutely been dismissed and disrespected at every point since that sad day in June 2013," Money said.

"The offenders were favoured, and Stephen and the Dudley family's needs for a respectful evidence-based process was completely disregarded."

Private Volunteer Survivor Advocate Ruth Money attends the inquest for Stephen Dudley with his parents at the Auckland District Court. Photo / Greg Bowker
Private Volunteer Survivor Advocate Ruth Money attends the inquest for Stephen Dudley with his parents at the Auckland District Court. Photo / Greg Bowker

Money said the Crown's stance on the prosecution was "arrogant" and "disrespectful".

"It is completely inconsistent with Crown's stated justice sector outcomes of 'holding offenders to account' and 'creating a justice system that is trusted'," she said.

"All of the evidence was heard in the Coroner's Court and the Crown is choosing to ignore the robust findings from an inquisitorial process.

"This decision is not founded in evidence, but rather arrogance."

She said the Crown's statement that a manslaughter prosecution was "not in the public interest" was "abhorrent".

"Firstly, the evidence is overwhelming as per the coroner's findings, and secondly how can holding a trial via an open and transparent justice process not be in the public interest?" she posed.

"All of society - that's offenders and victims - rely on the justice system to hear all of the evidence and a jury of your peers decides the guilt or otherwise.

"For the Crown to state that this process is not in the public interest is an absolutely ridiculous comment for them to make."

"There will never be closure"

More than four years after Stephen died his parents, and four siblings, are still struggling.

He was the lynch pin in the family, the one the kids all looked up to, the one they could all rely on.

He was funny, cheeky - in a good way, courteous and respectful.

He had a bright future ahead of him.

"There will never be closure in my eyes because there will always be that one person that is missing from his family," Mona said.

"Though our son's in our hearts and in our minds and I see him every day in his dad and his brothers and sisters, he's not here with us."

"There's a bit of us that died with Stephen on that night," said Brent.

"You never get over it, you just learn to live with it and manage it… we cope day by day.

"There's never, ever, ever an hour that we don't think of Stephen in some way."

Tributes left for Stephen Dudley after he died in 2013. The name of his school is suppressed. Photo / Doug Sherring
Tributes left for Stephen Dudley after he died in 2013. The name of his school is suppressed. Photo / Doug Sherring

Stephen's death affects them all in different ways.

Mona works in a local supermarket and the sadness hits her when she sees a teenage boy helping his nana do her groceries.

Brent can't watch rugby anymore - that was Stephen's big love and the pair watched countless hours of it together.

Now Brent can't bring himself to watch the sport without his boy.

"It would have been just so good for everybody to still have him here … He would've just been invaluable.

"His siblings … it would have been beneficial for them to have Stephen as their big brother.

"His guidance and his advice, even his outlook on life was just special.

"We only have fond memories of Stephen, there aren't any bad ones," he said.

So what next for the Dudley family - a family who were catapulted from their normal, humbles lives in West Auckland on to front pages, television screens and into the minds and thoughts of New Zealand.

"As far as Stephen's case is concerned, that's pretty much done and dusted," said Brent.

"I think as a family unit we're just going to carry on. We've got some pretty awesome goals that we want to achieve and we're steadily moving towards those.

"A lot of the goals are things that Stephen would have loved.

"There's not a lot more we can do.

"We hope that if Stephen was still with us, that he would be proud," said Mona.