A POLICE officer who shot dead a mentally ill young man armed with a bread knife will not be charged, the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) has confirmed.
In a statement released yesterday afternoon, the DPP said that after 15 months of consideration it had decided not to commence proceedings against Senior Constable Andrew Rich for murder or manslaughter, following the death of Elijah Holcombe in 2009.
Mr Holcombe, 24, a graduate of Macquarie University, was suffering from a mental health breakdown, characterised by episodes of paranoia and delusions, when Senior Constable Rich and Senior Constable Greg Dufty were asked to find him and take him to Armidale hospital, where nursing staff were concerned about his welfare.
But when the plain-clothes police officers approached Mr Holcombe on June 2, 2009, the student ran away.
Senior Constable Rich pursued him on foot before Mr Holcombe armed himself with a bread knife and ran into a laneway.
Senior Constable Rich asked Mr Holcombe to drop the knife before shooting him once in the chest.
In 2010, a coroner halted an inquest into Mr Holcombe’s death because she believed there was a possibility that criminal charges should be laid.
She referred the file to the DPP, which weighed up whether there was enough evidence to lay charges and whether the case for self-defence would be too strong.
“The Crown had to determine if a charge of murder or manslaughter could be supported on the available evidence, and, if so, whether the Crown could rebut a claim of self-defence or partial self-defence,” a spokeswoman said.
“The director has determined not to commence proceedings against Senior Constable Rich for murder or manslaughter following the fatal shooting of Elijah Holcombe.”
In 2010, the then-NSW state coroner Mary Jerram said: “Having heard the evidence that I have to date, I must say that my view formed more strongly with each passing hour that an indictable offence has been committed.”
The inquest was told that Mr Holcombe, who had suffered from depression for eight years, took his father’s car from their Wee Waa home on June 1 and drove to Armidale.
Mr Holcombe reported the matter to Narrabri police and warned them his son was experiencing paranoid delusions but “would not hurt anybody”.
When Mr Holcombe arrived at Armidale he went to the police station, admitted stealing the car and asked to be taken to Armidale hospital, where he was assessed by a nurse, Carla Rutherford.
In a witness statement, Ms Rutherford said Mr Holcombe appeared paranoid and, despite attempts to keep him at the hospital as a voluntary patient, he was legally allowed to walk out.
When senior constables Rich and Dufty learned Mr Holcombe had discharged himself, they went to the hospital and a nurse asked them to bring him back, because of concerns about his mental health.
The matter will now return to the coroner to make a final finding on Mr Holcombe’s death.
Philip Stewart, the solicitor who represented the family at the inquest, said he hoped the inquest would resume in much less time than it took for the DPP to make a ruling.
“Hopefully the inquest will now resume in a far quicker time than it took for the decision that was announced today – nearly two years since the inquest was terminated and some 16 months in the hands of the DPP,” he said yesterday.
“The inquest is a public forum. The public are entitled to be made fully aware of the evidence that resulted in the coroner terminating the inquest, as well as any further evidence upon its resumption.
“The shooting of mentally ill people in NSW by police is by no means limited to the Elijah Holcombe matter.
“Hopefully the Holcombe inquest and the Salter PIC inquiry will lead to a safer environment for mentally ill people in this state.”