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Coo-ee: Coroners’ Juries

By Simon Ruppert

The role of coroner is the second oldest judicial office in British law.

It was established in 1194 and only the role of "reeve", or chief magistrate of a district, predates it.

These days, Victoria appoints a state coroner and other coroners.

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Each operates a special inquisitorial court where rules of evidence do not apply and where the coroner determines the issues to be investigated.

All other Victorian courts operate in an adversarial context, in which rules of evidence apply and where the parties determine the issues that are to be contested.

In earlier times, coroners or deputy coroners were appointed for each Victorian district.

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They, too, operated an inquisitorial court to ascertain a cause of death or fire.

If they wished, they could appoint a jury of citizens to assist them in their deliberations at an inquest.

Now, as in the past, inquests are solemn, sombre affairs.

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However, not all jury members appreciated their gravity of their duties.

In 1876, Harry Harkins, a juryman at an inquest began to heckle and jeer Benalla’s deputy coroner.

When the deputy coroner ordered him to silence, the juryman’s jeering became obscene abuse.

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The deputy coroner ordered Harkins into the cells for 48 hours.

The inquest was adjourned for a similar period.

Alcohol might have been involved.

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In 1881, Edward Cunningham drowned in the Murray River.

Although a strong swimmer, every time Cunningham approached within 15 metres of the Victorian side of the river, Constable Holahan standing on the NSW side called to those on the Victorian side - "Stop him, boys; he is a murderer".

The bystanders closed in to block Cunningham’s exit.

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Two witnesses called out in turn to the policeman - "Are you sure?” The constable replied first - "Yes, boys; don’t let him go.”

Then the constable called: "No-one but a murderer would take to the river like this."

Cunningham was attempting to escape from the constable who had been making his life miserable.

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At length, Cunningham got into difficulties in the current after being in the water some 15 minutes.

Exhausted, he sank below the water.

The constable called out to the 15 or so bystanders on the Victorian side, "He’s drowning, boys; jump in and save him".

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“I can’t swim.” No bystander would risk his life in the fast-flowing river to save a murderer.

At the inquest at Beechworth, Holahan conceded that Cunningham had not committed a crime. He just thought he might have.

A larceny had occurred earlier in Albury. Cunningham was nearby at the time.

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Despite numerous witnesses’ evidence to the contrary, Holahan denied saying that Cunningham was a murderer.

The coroner censured Holahan strongly for his actions. The coroner said the verdict was tantamount to manslaughter by Holahan.

Although most of the jury signed their names to the verdict of the coroner, two rebelled.

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They utterly refused to sign their names to such a verdict.

The coroner found that no verdict had been arrived at and discharged the jury.