The Person He Was
Dean Russell Spruce wasn’t your average type of guy – he was someone very special. He cared so much about people and life itself – living every day to the fullest. He had so much to live for – being engaged and planning a wedding for 9 September 1995, as well as building his own home. It took months of looking and planning to come up with a dream home that in future years would cater for children and also elderly parents who would need to be looked after. Dean had thought of it all – that’s the sort of person he was.
Around 1:30 am, Sunday 29, January 1995 after celebrating birthdays with friends we crossed Wharf Rd towards the railway line in a group of six. The next few minutes turned from laughter to chaos. Out of nowhere, it seemed, came bright headlights and then we heard the roar of its engine. We were caught in the middle of the road. As we dashed across the road to try and get clear Dean was clipped by this “monster” car.
Time stood still as Dean was thrown through the air like a rag doll for 20 metres before landing in a heap on the road. The driver of the car tried to escape but crashed into the railway fence and people were rushing everywhere. There were paramedics on the scene that tended to Dean while waiting for the ambulance to arrive. We were lead to believe that Dean was OK. People were saying that he was sitting up.
We called Dean’s parents Reg and Gloria and we arranged to meet them at the hospital. We followed the ambulance to hospital and soon after learnt that things were not so good for Dean. He had suffered massive head injuries and there was a lot of pressure on his brain, together with internal injuries.
He was rushed into surgery and all we could do was hope and pray and wait for the next several hours. We at least got to see him and talk to him after surgery, before he was rushed back into surgery because of internal bleeding. The cause – a ruptured spleen which was removed. Dean slowly deteriorated throughout the afternoon and didn’t regain consciousness. He was on life support until around 9pm when a decision was made to turn the machine off and he was pronounced dead – some 19 hours after the “accident”.
His funeral was held on 2nd February at Adamstown Uniting Church where some 300 – 400 people crammed into the church and also listened outside. It was a very fitting send off for “some-one” as special as Dean.
Dean’s major organs were donated to people in need – helped save three lives with his heart, lungs and kidneys. Dean had thought of it all – that’s the sort of person he was.
The driver who hit Dean was a young 23 year old man – who was three times over the legal limit and had heroin in his system. He had driven down from Singleton in this inebriated state. When he was released from the James Fletcher Hospital a few days after the accident he was charged by the police, and appeared in court one month after the accident. And thereon started the farce.
In 1995 we witnessed 8 adjourned court cases. We were victims of crime but no-one had a hole in which to peg us into. We received no support, no counselling and were further victimised by the Court System. During these Court hearings the offender showed no emotion whatsoever, which did not help us deal with our grief.
In September 1995, Michael, Kylie, Tina, and I found VOCAL. VOCAL assisted us in all aspects of learning about the court system, counselling and provided many answers that the Police and DPP would not provide. We joined VOCAL in November 1995 to support VOCAL so they could continue to provide the much needed guidance to other Victims of Crime. We intend to be a part of VOCAL for the very long term or as they say “for as long as it takes”.
In 1996 The Victims Compensation Act was legislated. Even if this Act had been in force at the time of Dean’s death we would still not have benefited from it. Because the crime was a “vehicle incident” and victims are supposed to be covered by third party rather than Victims Compensation. So there is still no hole of support in which to peg victims like us. Third party insurance only covers dependants. Dean’s fiancée, Tina, did not receive counselling to recover from witnessing the horrific death of the man she loved, her future.
With the help of VOCAL we have got on with our lives, but there will always be a missing link which will never be replaced.
I always thought that the criminal justice system was just that – a “just” system. The bad are punished and the good vindicated and protected. This view was changed dramatically from the night of January 29th 1995 when Dean Spruce was run down (while his fiancée and friends watched) by the defendant who was speeding, unlicensed, drunk and high on heroin.
In the following 12 months I discovered that there was nothing ‘just’ about the justice system. In December 1994 the legislation relating to culpable driving causing death was changed, increasing the penalty from 5 years to 10 years and 14 years for aggravated dangerous driving causing death. The penalty of 10 years, “allowed” a defendant to have a level of 0.05 to 0.015 in their system while the penalty of 14 years “allowed” a defendant to have a level of 0.15 and over – alcohol is considered to be an aggravated cause.
Dean’s case was the first to be carried out under these new laws and, displaying blind faith, we believed that the defendant would be facing at least 14 years gaol. As we were to learn the justice system does not “work” that way. A maximum term does not necessarily mean that the defendant will receive this sentence automatically.
Every action of the defendant must be discussed and considered. What about the victim in the case, the friend who is dead and cannot speak for himself and who has no right to any representation in court? Or the people left behind, who have to hound for answers and explanations of the court system, when they are grieving for their loved one? This is not even considered.
In some circumstances, the community may feel inclined to extend a degree of sympathy for a person convicted of the crime of culpable driving causing death.
A person who demonstrates deep and genuine remorse, and who seeks whatever means are possible to make restitution may earn a degree of consideration and a measure of legal leniency. Although in this case, the root of the problem, alcohol and drugs, was self-inflicted and this accident could have been avoided.
We were grateful for the sentence compared to other decisions being made at the time (11 year old Carlos Vallejos was killed on a pedestrian crossing by an unlicensed, speeding driver, who received a one year gaol term – how inadequate). It is a sad reflection on society and the judicial system that we readily accept these sentences. We considered ourselves lucky in our brush with the legal system. But luck should not be a part of the judicial system.
In memory of Dean Spruce and the newly gained knowledge of the inadequacies of the judicial system we were motivated to join VOCAL. We hope that our united voices can force the much-needed changes to the legal system because there is still such a long way to go.
During the course of 11 months and about 8 or 9 court hearings, the frustration of not knowing what was going on, wasted time off work and trying to decipher the legal jargon did not help the friends of Dean deal with the grief caused by his death. Apart from having to swallow the bitter pill of discovering that there was no support for family and friends, the realisation that Dean’s death was not an important issue of the court case caused anger and feelings of revenge.
It was also during this 11-month period that we had seen the perpetrator driving, still unlicensed and even though we reported it, nothing could be done. For that period of time I became obsessed. I followed him around, wanting to hurt him. It seemed the system was set up to protect only him, with no thought to support the survivors.
A blood sample taken from the perpetrator at 4:00am on the day of the collision returned a blood alcohol concentration of not less than 0.120 grams in 100 millilitres of blood. The sample was also analysed for drugs and was found to have present temazepam 0.52 milligrams per litre and morphine 0.18 per litre. The report from the clinical forensic officer stated that based on the information given, the perpetrator, at the time of the collision would have been within a range, the lower limit being not less than 0.150 and the upper limit being 0.183.
The maximum penalty for high range was 14 years. The lawyer defending the perpetrator (in court he was always referred to as the defendant, but that was a pill I refused to swallow) argued that it could easily have been 0.149. It was eventually plea-bargained down to mid to high range, which carried a maximum penalty of ten years. Even with this maximum penalty the DPP informed us that the perpetrator might only get 12 months gaol. Maximum penalties only mean that judges can’t give them more than the maximum and can sentence any term less. I could not see the sense of maximum penalty scales.
It was with a great sense of relief that he received four years gaol with a further two for rehabilitation. Relief too, that it was at least over, for a time. At the time of writing, Tina received communication from Victims Register notifying her of the perpetrator’s pending release and his conditions of parole.
For Dean’s friends and family it will never be over. Dean’s life has gone and along with it so many other hearts who live and relive his death every day.