A NSW police officer who shot dead a mentally ill young man in an Armidale laneway and then refused to testify at his inquest must now give evidence, after losing an appeal.
Earlier this year, Senior Constable Andrew Rich refused to enter the witness box at the Sydney inquest into the death of 24-year-old Elijah Holcombe.
Senior Constable Rich shot Mr Holcombe dead in the Armidale CBD on June 2, 2009, after Mr Holcombe allegedly threatened him with a bread knife.
Mr Holcombe, who suffered from paranoid delusions and was afraid of police, had not committed any crime and had checked himself out of hospital earlier that morning.
The inquest has heard Senior Constable Rich chased after Mr Holcombe and fired his weapon within seconds of ordering Mr Holcombe to put the knife down.
Senior Constable Rich’s assertion that he shot Mr Holcombe in self-defence was bolstered by a decision by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) last year not to charge him over the shooting.
When an inquest into Mr Holcombe’s death resumed before NSW state coroner Mary Jerram in March this year, however, Senior Constable Rich refused to give evidence.
He cited several reasons, including that the police commissioner might take action against him, that he might face civil liability over Mr Holcombe’s death or the DPP might use his evidence to pursue a case against him.
Ms Jerram ordered Senior Constable Rich to give evidence, saying the shooting of a mentally ill young man was “sadly not an isolated incident”.
“Questions arise inevitably of whether police are being sufficiently trained in and made aware of the discrete needs of mentally ill persons, and methods of dealing with them,” Ms Jerram said in her judgment last April.
“Was Senior Constable Rich aware that Elijah had not been scheduled under the Mental Health Act and had left the hospital voluntarily?
“Did Senior Constable Rich believe that he had a right ... to detain Elijah and return him to the hospital?
“If not, why did he chase after Elijah?
“These are significant issues which require further exploration.”
Senior Constable Rich appealed against the coroner’s decision in the Supreme Court, which dismissed his case in July.
He then took his case to the Court of Appeal, but in a judgment handed down this week, the three-judge panel found Ms Jerram had properly considered the question of risk from Senior Constable Rich’s potential evidence.
They dismissed the constable’s appeal and the inquest into Mr Holcombe’s death is expected to resume next year.