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Australia fights drunken 'one-punch' attacks

Recent deaths from assaults on often-unsuspecting victims stirs debate over education and more severe jail sentences.

Last updated: 09 Feb 2014 06:27
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Almost 80 percent of 'coward’s punch' cases involve young men under the influence of alcohol or drugs [AP]

Sydney, Australia - Random violence on the streets of Australia is in the spotlight after recent deaths in "one punch" assaults, leading to growing calls for tougher laws to tackle the problem.

Also known as the "king hit" and "coward's punch", these mainly alcohol-fuelled assaults are characterised by an attacker's single blow to the head of an often-unsuspecting victim, causing often unsuspecting victims to fall to the ground unconscious.

Newly married James Bowen - an avid recreational football player - was punched unexpectedly in the head by a stranger in December 2012, knocking him unconscious. He crashed into a parking meter before hitting the ground, splitting the back of his head open and rupturing blood vessels in his brain.

It took Bowen several months to fully recover from his wounds. Even today, he said, he still suffers from debilitating migraines that sometimes last several days. He can never play football again.

It's the hit like the coward's punch that you don't see coming that does the greatest damage because you can't brace yourself for it. 

- James Bowen, one-punch victim

"It's the hit like the coward's punch that you don't see coming that does the greatest damage because you can't brace yourself for it. Since it happened, I haven't gone out much, maybe twice in the last year. I feel more cautious now. I used to be a believer that if you don't look for trouble, you won't find it. But that doesn't seem to be the case," Bowen told Al Jazeera.

Another recent victim wasn't so lucky. On New Year's Eve, 18-year-old Daniel Christie was one-punched and died in the hospital two-weeks later.

Another victim's mother, Kate, said she prefers to remain anonymous as her son's court case is coming up soon. Kate's 22-year-old son also died in the hospital shortly after he was assaulted in 2012.

"One of the reasons why we want to start this awareness campaign is so people change their attitude and the government change the laws across the board," Kate said.

According to a 2013 study from Monash University in Melbourne, there were 90 cases involving fatal one-punch assaults between January 2000 and December 2012. This number, however, doesn't reflect cases still under investigation, or those where the victim survived the attack and is suffering some form of permanent disability.

Booze culture

The study said almost 80 percent of coward's punch cases involved young men under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and are often completely unprovoked attacks.

Jennifer Pilgrim, a co-author of the Monash study, told Al Jazeera that, while drinking has always been inherent to Australia's culture, it is also associated with assault, domestic violence, and motor-vehicle accidents.

"While many young people engage in fewer episodes of drinking overall, they are more likely to binge drink, consuming higher risk levels each time. More young people are drinking specifically to become intoxicated and, therefore, are more likely to experience alcohol-related injuries and harms," Pilgrim said.

Gino Vumbaca, executive director of the Australian National Council on Drugs, told Al Jazeera the increase in alcohol consumption crosses age groups and genders.

"What we are seeing is that the alcohol industry particularly targets younger people and women with the 'alcopop' markets, which are quite sweet and high in alcohol content," Vumbaca said. "Some of the retail industries need to have a look at how they're contributing to this problem."

Pilgrim agreed that alcohol marketing was playing a role. "It's highly advertised in settings where young people are likely to be exposed to it, such as social media and at sporting events."

Sentencing debate

Cases of one-punch assaults have come to public attention in Australia mainly because of the outcry over the leniency of recent punishments meted out by courts, pushing state governments to respond.

New South Wales has started imposing a mandatory minimum eight-year jail sentence for one-punch attacks. The law also included new state-wide 10pm closing times for all liquor stores. Police have been given powers to conduct drug-and-alcohol testing on people suspected of carrying out violent assaults.

In November 2012, parliament passed a new law in the Northern Territory to address one-punch assaults, which gives a maximum penalty of 16 years imprisonment.

In Victoria, the opposition Labor Party is promising to change legislation to a maximum 20 year jail sentence for such assaults - if it wins a state election in November.

City of Manningham Councillor Michelle Kleinert is one of the campaigners petitioning the government to impose harsher penalties. She is also a family friend of a victim.

"If somebody dies from the result of a senseless act of one punch, isn't life worth more than a couple of years in jail? The judges need to live in the real world. I feel they are out of touch with what's going on in society," Kleinert told Al Jazeera.

We need to get to the kids as early as possible to change the way they think. Change in legislation is one thing, but educating people is the most important part.

- Paul Stanley, victim's father

Victims' relatives, such as Kate, are also pushing for more severe punishment. "I know that no amount of sentence is going to get my son back, but at least it gives a bit of justice to know that someone will be spending 20 years in jail," she said.

Educating children

Not everyone supports Kate's view. Vumbaca said mandatory sentencing created problems and only addressed the issue after the assault had already happened.

"I don't think it gives the respect necessary to the judiciary to have the discretion to review the evidence of the case. The other issue is whether the people who are intoxicated actually regard what the implications may be if they get in a fight when they are already intoxicated in the first place. It is better to address these things before they happen," he said.

Paul Stanley is the father of 15-year-old Matthew, who was killed after being assaulted at a party. He said education is more important that legislation.

"We are looking to change the culture that's been around for a long time. We are trying to clean up the streets," he said.

"I'm talking more and more to primary school kids because the headmasters are acknowledging the fact that we need to get to the kids as early as possible to change the way they think. Change in legislation is one thing, but educating people is the most important part."

Bowen also decided to get involved with the awareness campaign "Stop. One Punch Can Kill", after a family friend died of a similar attack just several days after Bowen’s own assault..

Hugh Van Cuylenburg is another campaigner from "Step Back. Think", an organisation created after the one-punch assault of James Macready-Bryan, which left him with permanent brain damage.

Van Cuylenburg said Australia's youth were being influenced by attitudes prevalent on social media that push them to seek out excitement and make bad decisions: "We need a national approach to help us to get the message across that one punch can kill."

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Al Jazeera
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