CONTENT WARNING: This article may distress some readers.
UPDATE, 3 pm: After Thomas Matthews was sentenced, the ACT’s top prosecutor noted how “those impacted will long bare the physical and emotional scars” from the tragic event the driver caused.
“This case demonstrates the dangers our front line workers face on a daily basis,” ACT Director of Public Prosecutions Shane Drumgold SC said.
When responding to concerns raised by the Australian Federal Police Association after the sentencing, he said his office has “a steadfast commitment to act independently, particularly in the face of public pressure”.
“As Ministers of Justice, we must pursue justice between the community, the victims as well as the offender,” Mr Drumgold said.
“In doing so, we must at all times act according to the overarching principles of fairness.
“I am satisfied that this very difficult case was prosecuted in the finest traditions of these obligations.”
2 pm: The driver who crashed his car into three police officers, causing devastating injuries to them, was returned to jail when he was sentenced to reflect the gravity of his actions.
Thomas Matthews swerved his car into the officers on 11 July 2021, sending them flying and pinning one under his car’s wheel.
He spent about one year and four months in custody on remand before being granted bail when he pleaded guilty last November, so had been living in the community when he appeared before the ACT Supreme Court for sentencing on Tuesday (21 March).
In front of a courtroom gallery filled with uniformed police officers, Chief Justice Lucy McCallum ultimately said that to reflect the seriousness of his crime, the impact on his victims, and general deterrence, more time in custody was required.
She convicted the 32-year-old on two counts of causing grievous bodily harm by a negligent act and sentenced him to a total of one year and 11 months’ jail, which means he had to go back into custody for another seven months.
His supporters hugged and sobbed each other in the courtroom as the father-of-one returned to jail.
Chief Justice McCallum said the three police officers had just conducted a routine traffic stop near the National Arboretum on the afternoon of the incident when they were “unexpectedly and violently” hit by Matthews’ car when he swerved off the road into them.
One officer suffered three fractures to her leg, another received a spinal fracture while the third had a large bruise.
Matthews was originally charged with attempted murder and the chief justice said at first his actions had appeared to be a targetted attack born from a religious ideology, as extracts from his notebook appeared to list police as targets to kill. However, this part of the case was dropped.
He had been paranoid since around May 2021, believing ASIO was monitoring his movements. He then hit a police officer in the head with a knife and set fire to his own unit when mental health workers called police over concerns for him.
He was charged over this incident but was found not guilty by mental impairment as he had been acutely psychotic at the time.
He was diagnosed with schizophrenia after the arson incident and was on three different prescribed drugs at the time of the crash.
He’d told an expert that one drug had caused him to have blurry vision, which he regularly experienced in bouts of around five seconds at a time.
Lawyers agreed that he was affected by blurred vision on the day of the incident. He had become scared when he saw police officers so pulled off the road as he didn’t want to get arrested again and unintentionally hit the officers.
Chief Justice McCallum said a mechanical engineer believed Matthews had slowed down before he swerved off the road. He braked before hitting the officers, which suggested he didn’t see the officers at first and acted to avoid hitting them when he did spot them.
But she also said five seconds was a long time to have blurred vision while driving and evidence established he was aware he was experiencing that for some time before he decided to drive that day.
“The degree of negligence was high. The offender simply should not have been driving at that time,” she said.
She said the officers had suffered “devastating” injuries and the officer pinned under the wheel “must have suffered excruciating pain”.
The chief justice did accept Matthews, who had said he was “profoundly sorry” for his actions, was not a danger to the community as long as his medications were properly managed.
After the sentencing, Australian Federal Police Association president Alex Caruana said Matthews had “wrecked three police officers’ lives” and the association’s members were “very disappointed” with the decision.
He said the chief justice “did the best she could with the case that was presented by the DPP”.
“We feel … the sentence handed down was very soft and it is indicative that the ACT needs to go through a full judicial review, including a review of what’s happening at the DPP as to why these cases and why these sentences are so low,” he said.
Matthews will be released from jail in October 2023. He must then serve a 12-month good behaviour order.
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