Neighbors told the Newcastle Herald that they woke up to loud bangs and fast footsteps.
Investigators believe that 34-year-old Ricky Slater-Dickson had broken into a home on Saturday morning in New South Wales, Australia, and that things went south when the homeowner and another man tried to detain him.
Authorities have released few details about what happened at the house, in a Newcastle suburb, but media reports say police were called over “a violent struggle” in which Slater-Dickson may have been “tackled and placed in a headlock” or “bashed to death.”
When authorities arrived, Slater-Dickson was unresponsive and was rushed to John Hunter Hospital, where he later died, police said in a statement.
Now, the homeowner, Benjamin Batterham, 33, has been charged with murder — an outcome that has stirred up an emotional debate between Slater-Dickson’s family members, who claim he died an innocent man, and self-defense advocates, who argue lawmakers should provide more clarity so that homeowners know how they can protect themselves.
Similar cases have triggered heated debate in the United States, where legislation varies from state to state on laws that protect people attempting to protect themselves from intruders. Just this month, similar questions were raised after police said a Florida woman fatally shot a 17-year-old burglary suspect as he ran from the home.
The state’s attorney’s office has not yet decided whether charges will be filed against the woman, but as The Washington Post’s Michael E. Miller noted, Florida statutes provide some of the staunchest protections in the country for homeowners who confront intruders.
The murder charge in Australia has angered some people, who are rallying to Batterham’s defense.
Avi Yemini with IDF Training, a Krav Maga school in Melbourne, told the Newcastle Herald that he created an online petition to “protect victims of home invasions over the criminals.”
“What message are we sending otherwise?” he wrote. “Not only are law-abiding citizens put under even more pressure in the event that they are the victim of a home invasion, because they are made fearful to even defend themselves, but criminals are empowered to risk breaking laws, and the boundaries maintained in a civil society, knowing they are protected by laws that should be protecting the innocent.
“Common decency is at risk here people. This great country is going to end up a criminal’s paradise at this rate and nobody will be safe anymore, not even at home.”
Legal expert Sam Macedone told news.com.au that people in Australia can defend themselves when there is reasonable reason to believe they are under threat — but he said it’s a different situation when homeowners go “overboard.”
In that case, he said, it’s no longer self-defense.
“We don’t know the facts of this matter,” he told the news site. “All we know is there is a complex set of circumstances that happened, but none of us know what they were.”
Some reports suggest Slater-Dickson was peering through a child’s bedroom window in the home early Saturday when he was caught, according to news.com.au. Others claim he was inside the house.
Authorities said in a statement that police responded about 3:30 a.m. after reports that three men were fighting; when they arrived, they found a 34-year-old man, later identified in reports as Slater-Dickson, “being detained by two men.”
Police said Slater-Dickson and a 33-year-old later identified as Batterham were taken to the hospital, where Batterham was treated for “facial injuries.”
Batterham was first charged with recklessly inflict grievous bodily harm, according to police. The charge was upgraded to murder after Slater-Dickson died.
Police said the third man was not charged in the death.
Another group created an online petition calling on police to drop the charges against Batterham.
“This law effects us all,” the group wrote. “If you can’t legally protect yourself, your home and most importantly YOUR FAMILY, then what are you supposed to do lay down and die and let unspeakable things happen to your loved ones while you wait for police? THIS LAW NEEDS TO CHANGE THE CRIMINALS ARE NOT THE PEOPLE WILLING TO STAND UP AND FIGHT, release Benjamin now!”
On Monday, Slater-Dickson’s family surrounded the courthouse in Newcastle, disputing accusations that the man had broken into a house — and arguing that he had been invited to a party there, according to the Newcastle Herald.
Inside, the courtroom was quiet as Batterham declined to leave his cell for an appearance, according to the newspaper.
Beryl Dickson, Slater-Dickson’s mother, told the Newcastle Herald that her son was deeply loved and did not deserve to die.
“My son the big gentle giant, he doesn’t hurt no one,” she told the newspaper. “That was my eldest baby. I’ve got to bury him now for a reason I don’t know. I want justice done and I want my baby.”
She said he left behind three daughters.
“They have lost their father,” she said. “Their beautiful father they haven’t seen for years because he was in jail. Just to think them little kids are going to grow up without a dad now.”
According to a Court of Criminal Appeal decision, Mr. Slater was released from jail in December after successfully appealing against a four-year jail term for aggravated break and enter and fraud offences.
He had served more than 20 months before the Court of Criminal Appeal ruled his convictions should be quashed due to errors made by the trial judge.
Mr. Slater had been convicted of a ram raid at Sandgate adult store Nauti & Nice in November, 2012, in which cash and a quantity of synthetic drugs were stolen.
He was acquitted on appeal and released from custody after the Crown conceded a number of errors were made in the trial, including the use of CCTV footage.
Beryl Dickson told the Newcastle Herald that her son had been making improvements since his release.
“Richard was a good boy,” she said. “He might have done his time … everybody knows that. He done his five years in jail [but] that’s his past. That had nothing to do with this case. I just want to know what happened to my baby.”
Batterham is due in court again Tuesday, according to reports.
This story has been updated.