The sentencing of Richard Pusey — the “nation’s most hated man”
By Sarah Krasnostein in The Monthly
From what was revealed in court, it seems that on the early evening of Wednesday, April 22 last year, the world of Richard Pusey, populated only by Richard Pusey, was a place where every possible form of justice was possessed exclusively by Richard Pusey. In this empty interior realm, moral law was coordinated to his exclusive benefit, legal justice did not exist, remunerative justice had rewarded him because he was good, and vindictive justice had eliminated his enemies.
One month before, on March 21, Pusey’s black Porsche 911 had been captured on camera speeding on the Eastern Freeway through the Melbourne suburb of Kew. He wove between other vehicles that were observing the speed limit. He did not indicate. Soon after, he messaged friends saying he had just driven on the freeway at 300 kilometres per hour.
On April 22, Pusey, 41, was again speeding on the Eastern.
Later, in sentencing Pusey, Judge Trevor Wraight would say that what had transpired next was, to begin with, a routine and unremarkable situation. A car pulled over for speeding. The roadside filling out of paperwork. And then the instant when the scene was transformed into something horrific.
Between 4.48pm and 4.51pm, Pusey’s Porsche was detected travelling at 149 kilometres per hour in a 100-kilometre-per-hour zone by a Victoria Police device fitted to an unmarked police vehicle, a white Hyundai SUV. Leading Senior Constable Lynette Taylor, 60, and Constable Glen Humphris, 32, were in that vehicle, and at 4.51pm, they pulled the black Porsche over to the side of the freeway.
Enquiries of Pusey’s vehicle registration revealed it had been flagged by Victoria Police because they wanted to speak with him about other matters, so a call for assistance was made by the officers. Taylor activated her body-worn camera at 5.06pm while talking with Pusey. He was made to undertake a breath test, and was found to be below the limit. He got out of his car, sat on the freeway’s guardrail, and was made to undergo a preliminary oral fluid test that would later confirm MDMA and cannabis in his system. While Taylor placed the saliva samples into two vials, Pusey — who was not under arrest — walked off to urinate on the bushy verge of the freeway behind the galvanised steel guardrail.
At 5.35pm, Senior Constable Kevin King, 50, and Constable Josh Prestney, 28, arrived in a highway patrol car and parked behind the white SUV. For one minute, all four police officers stood in the emergency lane, between the passenger side of their vehicles and the guardrail, discussing the impoundment of Pusey’s Porsche as the blue and red lights flashed on their respective vehicles. 5.36pm. This is when Mohinder Singh, 47 — whose name, unlike Pusey’s, will not be kept alive in the collective consciousness — swerved his 20-tonne prime mover towing a double-axle trailer into the emergency lane, smashing into the patrol car and hitting all four police officers, the other police vehicle and the Porsche, which was caught under it as it came to rest.
Emerging from the bushes, Pusey entered the view of Taylor’s body camera, still recording as she lay dying on the roof of his car. 5.38 pm. After grabbing his phone and a lunch bag containing ketamine and MDMA from inside his car, he looked directly at her and said, “There you go.” Then he took photos of her.
He filmed a video on his phone, walking slowly around the dead and the dying. He zoomed in on Taylor, moaning as she lay above his windshield, its glass pleated like fabric. He zoomed out on her crushed legs, her arm dangling through the Porsche’s sunroof. Walking backwards, he filmed the front of the truck on top of her, the driver’s side of the truck, the damaged white SUV. “Absolutely amazing,” he said.
Pusey then went to the front of his car, where Humphris could be seen caught between the truck and the Porsche. “Look at that,” he said, “look at that — isn’t it amazing.” His recording captured Dr Andrew Tsoi, a passer-by who had pulled over at the scene, as he tried to treat Prestney and King. Blood on the ground. “I think everyone got cleaned up,” Pusey commented. “There’s four people. Four people, look at that.” He zoomed in on Humphris, his leg crushed between the truck’s bull bar and the Porsche. “Look at that, mate, look at that. Oh, he’s smashed. Look at that. Look at that. Lucky I went and had a piss.”
“I was doing 149 ks an hour apparently,” he continued. Zoomed in on a police device on the ground. “Look at that, oh look there, there’s your little computer.” Went towards the rear of the truck. “Look at that man, you fucking cunts. You cunts. I guess I’ll be getting a fucking Uber home, huh.”
He filmed King lying under the guardrail. “Look at that.” His head injuries. “Look at that.” His leg injuries. “Amazing, absolutely amazing.” He filmed behind the truck, where debris and papers were scattered across the road. Zoomed in on a police bag, saying, “It’s amazing, man.” Filmed the damaged white SUV and said, “That is fucking justice, absolutely amazing. That is fucking amazing.”
5.42pm. A man named Giuseppe Colaci, who, like Tsoi, had pulled over to help, asked Pusey for a hand covering up Taylor with a blanket. “Hey mate,” Colaci called, “come here, come here, come here, hold that up.” Pusey shrugged off the urgent request, and started filming a second video, of Taylor on top of his car and Colaci trying to cover her.
As Pusey moved around the truck, Singh leant against the guardrail, wailing “Oh no, oh no…”
“It’s amazing,” Pusey said, again. “Where’s the ambulance, where is the ambulance, where is the emergency services?” He walked up to Prestney, zoomed in on his head injury, his name tag.
Then over to Humphris, being helped by strangers. Zoomed in on his leg injury. “Please,” a man named Andre DiCioccio said, pushing past to get to Humphris.
“You don’t have to hit me, mate,” Pusey said.
“I’m not hitting you,” DiCioccio said, “but come on, help me. Let’s help these guys, okay?”
“They’re dead,” Pusey replied, zooming out to show those rendering assistance. He then turned his camera to the mangled highway patrol car, which had been flung to the freeway’s median strip and said, “Look at that, that’s fucking beautiful.” Zoomed in. “Bang, bang, bang. They got thrown all the way over there.”
He again filmed the truck, his car. “And lucky I said, ‘Excuse me a moment, I’m just taking a piss.’ Amazing.” Focused again on his car, Taylor on its roof, partially covered by the blanket.
These are the facts — Pusey’s filming, together with his commentary — that related to his charge of committing an act that outrages public decency.
So rare is it to be charged with the common law offence of committing an act that outrages public decency that before the Victorian County Court could get to the issue of Richard Pusey’s guilt, in its hearings on March 31 and April 27 this year, it first had to ascertain whether such an offence existed. Finding that it did, the court then had to confirm whether the facts in Pusey’s case sufficiently justified the charge. This was complicated by the fact that this offence had never been formally charged in Australia.
Since 1899, there have been six reported examples in Australia of analogous offences that elaborate on the concept of outraging public decency. The most recent example in Victoria was in 1963. In those cases, sexual behaviour — “indecency” — was involved. The question about whether Pusey’s actions fit the charge was only resolved by his willingness to plead guilty. His lawyer submitted that the cases used as precedents involved conduct that was different in nature to Pusey’s behaviour on the freeway. Judge Wraight found some merit in that point. There were, he confirmed, reasonable arguments about whether the facts were capable of satisfying the elements of the charge. Given that, the fact that Pusey pleaded guilty at the earliest reasonable opportunity meant that witnesses were spared the trauma of testifying and that the families of the victims did not have to endure years of protracted legal proceedings.
That this is a common law offence is significant for a few reasons. First, it means that Australia inherited it from England, and it has survived in our domestic legal landscape because it was neither converted into nor overridden by the laws we have enshrined in legislation. It is so old and so neglected that its penalty remains “at large”; that is, there is no specified maximum, punishment is entirely within the discretion of the court.
Second, unlike more clearly drawn statutory offences, the elements of common law offences are elaborated on a case-by-case basis. Because this offence has not been used, that hasn’t happened to a satisfactory degree. The court had a rough guide only. The act must be “of such a lewd, obscene or disgusting character that it outrages public decency”. An obscene act is one “which offends against recognised standards of propriety and which is at a higher level of impropriety than indecency”, whereas a disgusting act is one “which fills the onlooker with loathing or extreme distaste or causes annoyance”. It isn’t enough, however, that the act is lewd or obscene or disgusting. It must be of such a character “that it outrages minimum standards of public decency as judged by the jury in contemporary society”. It isn’t necessary that any particular person is outraged; nobody has to have even seen the act. Certain lewdnesses, obscenities and disgusts are considered sufficiently threatening to the common good that it’s enough that they occurred in public where they were capable of being seen.
The fact that the offence of committing an act that outrages public decency falls under common law is significant for one more reason: it is a creature of that same system that has long held there is no legal duty on the ordinary citizen “to go to the aid of another who is in peril or distress not caused by him”. As the British House of Lords put it: “the bystander does not owe the drowning child or the heedless pedestrian a duty to take steps to save him. Something more is required than being a bystander. There must be some additional reason why it is fair and reasonable that one person should be regarded as his brother’s keeper and have legal obligations in that regard.” There are two exceptions to this rule that failure to act may be a moral crime but it is not a legal one. First, certain legal relationships create a duty to rescue: teachers and students, for example. Second, where someone creates a danger, they have a duty of care towards those foreseeably placed at risk.
By giving cause to pull him over on a freeway, did Pusey put the police at risk in a manner that legally obligated him to come to their aid? That question was not before the criminal court. Rather, he had been charged with everything that would stick.
“What must be made clear at the outset,” Wraight told Pusey but, really, addressing the public whom Wraight said had deemed him “probably the most hated man in Australia”, “is that you are not being sentenced for causing or contributing to the death of the four police officers. While that may be a trite statement to those present, given the nature of the publicity as a result of your conduct … there are some reports in the community that suggest you somehow caused the death of the police officers.”
As Pusey wove between the crumpled cars, around the bodies of the police officers and those tending to them, a strange thing happened. The conditions for punitive public rage detached from the wailing Singh and fastened, almost entirely, to Pusey.
The day before he killed Taylor, Humphris, King and Prestney, Mohinder Singh nodded off while driving. He was told by his friend in the passenger seat, with whom he had recently smoked ice (crystal methamphetamine), that he’d kill someone if he didn’t get some sleep. On the day of the accident, Singh had been awake for more than 72 hours, during which time he had drunk alcohol, smoked ice, injected ice, spoken with many people, sold ice to many people, driven for work and personal purposes, and had developed a belief that a witch was following him.
At 1.35am on April 22, 2020, Singh was seen reversing his truck into the wrong bay at the depot by the night supervisor at Connect Logistics, where Singh had been hired in February as a driver to work the nightshift and was still on his probationary period. Singh told the supervisor that he was having trouble at home and was stressed.
After one of his delivery jobs was cancelled, and he’d gone home, he returned to the depot before leaving at 4.50pm to deliver a load to the northern suburb of Thomastown.
Watching Singh move from the third lane of the Eastern Freeway to the second to the first without indicating, a witness said to his mother, “This dude’s going to fucking kill someone.” “No brake lights were observed from that point,” Justice Paul Coghlan would later say when sentencing Singh in the Victorian Supreme Court for four counts of culpable driving causing death. Cameras along the freeway show Singh repeatedly drifting into the emergency lane until he finally crashed into the police officers in Kew.
Singh’s toxicology report concluded that at the time of the collision, methamphetamine had impaired his driving ability to such an extent that he was incapable of properly controlling the vehicle. Analysis of his mobile phone use showed that in the 72 hours before the collision, he had five hours of potential rest. Functionally, this degree of sleep deprivation was similar to a blood alcohol concentration of 0.3 per cent.
Coghlan heard Singh was mentally unwell and actively psychotic at the time of the offending. This was a result of his moderate personality disorder with schizoidal and borderline features and methamphetamine-induced psychotic disorder. There was evidence that he had a history that went back to childhood of seeing things: ghosts, UFOs, old soldiers. That he saw stick figures when driving. His childhood had been difficult; he had been exposed to domestic violence. He had a long history of drug and alcohol abuse. “His schizotypal personality traits would have rendered him more vulnerable to developing psychosis when using methylamphetamine,” wrote forensic psychiatrist, Associate Professor Andrew Carroll.
While these factors were taken into account, ultimately the court found Singh’s decision to drive was a rational calculus, in that it was made against the backdrop of his employment situation and appreciation of the risks of fatigue and intoxication. On April 14 this year, he was sentenced to 22 years in prison, with a non-parole period of 18 and a half years.
Richard Pusey did not take an Uber home from the crash scene. He asked a passing motorist for a lift, and was dropped off in Collingwood. He went to his GP’s office, where he showed the receptionist videos of the collision scene. That evening he sent photos of the scene to three people.
The next morning, Pusey attended the Spencer Street police station and provided a statement. He was arrested at home later that day. In his police interview, Pusey said he was ashamed of the video. It was “not nice”. He had said “horrible things”. The recordings “shouldn’t be seen as… as… as being derogatory and horrible, it’s… it… it… it sounds like, and it is, but that’s how shit comes out of my head. I’m highly offensive.”
“A normal human reaction of a person coming upon a scene like this would likely be to immediately telephone triple-zero, or simply to run to the side of the deceased or seriously injured police officers to offer whatever assistance they could, which was clearly what other motorists were doing as they stopped,” Judge Wraight stated, when sentencing Pusey on April 28. “What you did, however, was film the scene with a running commentary, which on one view may be described simply as bizarre behaviour in the circumstances. It can also be described as extremely insensitive and heartless. Your focus was entirely on yourself…
“The difficult task in this case is how to categorise the seriousness of your conduct. The fact is that as a result of the vast media coverage of this matter that has described your behaviour and comments, with varying degrees of accuracy, the public has demonised you … your conduct has had a wider effect on the public generally. You have been given a number of titles by the media, including ‘The Devil driving a Porsche’ and a ‘Vile fiend’.”
In the allegory of the long spoons, where the inhabitants of a certain realm are given food but utensils too long for feeding themselves, serving others is the difference between eating and starving, heaven and hell. Pusey’s counsel accepted that his client’s conduct was morally repugnant but highlighted that — unlike a 2008 English case that was the closest precedent — it didn’t involve “intentional indignities” towards the officers. Pusey’s violation was that he very enthusiastically did nothing at all.
I cannot say whether the more human reaction is to seek an explanation for Pusey’s behaviour or to not even pause to ask the question. But we did, however, build a legal system that considers context vital to the exercise of judgement, and therefore justice.
Pusey’s younger brother died from lung cancer in 2008. His older brother died by suicide in February 2021. His mother was a nurse, his father was a tiler, and that’s all that was said about them in court. He attended six primary schools. At 10, he worked as a paperboy. He was asked to leave Mount Eliza Secondary College two weeks into Year 10, accused of stealing computers. He was teased about his name, and fought frequently. The Pusey brothers developed a reputation as children to avoid.
He went on to employment as a train station assistant and a tram driver. Then a nurse. After two years of tending to the ill, he obtained a certificate in financial management. He was a finance broker for 16 years. Following a period of imprisonment in 2018, he lost his finance licence and went into property development.
Pusey has been married since 2009. He told his psychiatrist that his wife has “put up with a lot” in relation to his complex and volatile personality characteristics. “Despite some recent conflict that has resulted in an intervention order being imposed,” Wraight stated, “it was submitted that the relationship is ongoing and your wife continues to support you. She attended the plea hearings and I also note that the intervention order allows you to live with your wife upon your release.”
Pusey’s criminal history includes driving offences, injury offences, a stalking offence, contravention of a personal safety intervention order and using a carriage service to menace. In 2018, he was convicted for reckless conduct endangering serious injury.
Dr Adam Deacon, who assessed Pusey for the defence, found he had “prominent features of personality-based psychopathology”. He described Pusey’s personality disorder as moderately severe based on the level of functional impairment he had consistently experienced. “While he has an enduring pattern of interpersonal problems,” Deacon said, “he has a contrasting pattern of being able to function well in some workplace settings and environments he finds less challenging and overwhelming.”
Was his ability to function well in “some settings” simply that the umwelts of financial brokerage and property development gave Pusey something other environments could not? The money for the Porsche, maybe, and the grandiose self-concept that came with it? A feeling that oxidised when confronted with the hard reality of the densely populated world around him: the order to pull over, the powerlessness of obeying?
In his 1963 book, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, the sociologist Erving Goffman wrote that originally “stigma” referred to marks on the body designed to expose something unusual and bad about a person’s moral status. We’ve never stopped trusting surfaces, the way things appear. This is perhaps why “an enormous amount of public antipathy”, in Wraight’s words, was directed towards Pusey, who killed no one, and not Singh, who killed four people. Singh knowingly took an enormous risk with brutal consequences but “instantly repented”, in Justice Coghlan’s words. His remorse was “palpable, sustained and authentic”. Pusey’s conduct was “heartless, cruel and disgraceful”.
If you do not already know that personality disorder is a mental disorder, it is possible to believe that Pusey is simply a bad person. But psychiatric reports — unlike sentencing judgements and much newspaper reporting — are unconcerned with who is good and who is bad. Their concern is with who is well and who is unwell. And because their subject lies within the seamless sphere of the human cranium, they are never simple.
There are many types of personality disorders, but a shared symptom is an enduring pattern of inner experience and behaviour that differs significantly from what is expected. Pusey’s underlying personality vulnerabilities, according to Dr Deacon, manifested in various emotional, cognitive and behavioural problems. A normal human reaction of a person coming upon a scene like this, would likely be to immediately telephone triple-zero, or simply to run to the side of the deceased or seriously injured…
“Mr Pusey’s personality vulnerabilities fit within multiple core trait domains, including dissociality, emotional instability and disinhibition,” Deacon wrote in his report. “He was a complex mixture of core antisocial, borderline, narcissistic and paranoid personality subtypes … His mood problems also include problems with self-regulation…”
Wraight acknowledged that on viewing the carnage that had occurred during his brief absence, Pusey was in some form of shock; that he had conveyed as much in his police interview; and that the witness that had given him a lift from the scene observed him to be “very distressed and shocked”. “While there is no evidence of a formal diagnosis of shock at the time of the incident,” Wraight stated, “I accept that when you observed the scene, realising that you too could have been killed, it would have had a significant impact on you at the time.” There was also no evidence about how the symptoms of shock would have interacted with Pusey’s diagnosis; the question remained unasked.
Seven character references for Pusey were written by family, friends and colleagues. Because of the public vitriol against him, the authors asked not to be publicly identified. “What can generally be said from reading the testimonials,” said Wraight, “is that there is another side to you.” They spoke of the “enormous impact” that the death of his brothers had on him. How he had expressed empathy towards the families of the police officers, and how he had become visibly upset when speaking about their grief.
I watch footage of Pusey filmed in 2016 by the wife of a tradesman with whom Pusey had a dispute. “Film me, film me,” he says, in a way that indicates rage at being the looked at rather than the looker. Then his face is invasively close to her phone and he is screaming at her to get more fucking cancer, that he hopes she “fucking dies”. In this video, Pusey, dressed in black, is gangly in the way of Giacometti’s Walking Man. A shadow. A stick man. So thin it seems that, depending on the angle, he might disappear completely.
Pusey was charged with reckless conduct endangering persons for the way he drove on March 21. He received eight months’ imprisonment for that offence. For the offence of outraging public decency, he received three months imprisonment, two months of which were added to the speeding sentence. A total sentence of 10 months. Pusey was also charged with possession of a drug of dependence — the drugs in his lunch bag — and a condition of his sentence for that offence was that he continue to undergo psychological treatment with Dr Deacon, or another doctor. This was both for Pusey’s benefit and for public safety, and it was necessary because Pusey had been assessed by Corrections Victoria — to Wraight’s astonishment — as unsuitable for a community corrections order, which would have given him access to the requisite mental health treatment as part of his sentence for the other charges. “Dr Deacon’s unchallenged opinion is that you require ongoing psychological treatment in the community with the objective of assisting in your rehabilitation and thereby providing a greater degree of community protection,” Wraight noted. “A straight period of imprisonment followed by immediate release into the community without supports does not provide that option.”
If the court’s condemnation of Pusey’s behaviour sat awkwardly with its imposition of an effective two-month sentence for outraging public decency, that’s because it was in an impossible position. On the one hand, it had to maintain public confidence in the administration of criminal justice when that public was calling for blood. On the other, it had to apply the law, which meant not just balancing countervailing considerations about the offence and offender, but doing so using an archaic scrap of an offence.
Criminal offences are refined through frequent application in courts or legislative policy to balance social needs with the rule of law. They should be specific enough to be applied predictably and abstract enough that they can be tailored to the unique facts of each crime. Pusey’s case demonstrates that the offence of outraging public decency fails on all of those accounts except for one: it speaks to a deep-seated collective value. It indicates that we do not, in fact, consider certain failures to respect human dignity to be “lewd, obscene or disgusting”. We consider them anathema. More fundamentally, it indicates that we do, at least in the circumstances that unfolded on the freeway, consider ourselves our brother’s keeper with positive obligations in that regard. If that is true, we should formulate a modern version of the offence, justifying its parameters and its punishment.
But would doing so address what lies at the heart of the public outrage? Actions alone don’t determine criminality. Any revised public decency offence would still take into consideration the offender’s mental state. And we are more satisfied by the condemnatory narrative of outrage, its cartoon characters of us and them, than the underwhelming reality called legal justice, which cannot resurrect the dead or protect us in the future by forcing dysregulated individuals into a cost-benefit analysis before acting. Perhaps, then, it’s more honest to retain the old offence, whose language mirrors old impulses.
In a certain light, the golden rule — “do unto others”– looks more like a threat, closer to an eye for an eye. Another factor in the sentencing calculus was the fact that Pusey had been punished extra-curially. He received death threats. “Vermin” was painted on his garage door, eggs thrown at his home. It reached into the prison where he was held in protective custody, under observation because of suicidal ideation. It reached his family and friends. Pusey showed no mercy and so no mercy will be shown him by a public who wants to film his arm dangling through the sun roof while he dies, forsaken. That is fucking justice. And among those of us who have met the world open-faced, needing the minimum of human respect, and endured instead the trauma of betrayal, who has craved any less? Which is why we have this legal system, and why that system is condemned to produce results that feel emotionally unsatisfying. As Alfieri pleads at the end of A View from the Bridge, “It is better to settle for half, it must be!”
Because of his time spent on remand, Pusey has already completed his 10-month prison term. He remains in custody on unrelated charges.
Early evening, late April 2020. Two men living with similar illnesses — both untreated, relying instead on illegal drugs — driving down the same road.
The final public hearings for the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System were supposed to start in late April 2020. They were cancelled due to COVID-19 and witness statements were prepared instead. You can view them online. The commissioners heard that Victoria’s mental health system has not kept pace with its population growth. That the dual diagnosis of the co-occurrence of mental illness with drug and/or alcohol addiction is now the expectation rather than the exception. That mental health services must address substance disorders to help ensure recovery from the mental illness and to reduce the likelihood of offending. That the prevalence of alcohol and other drug issues for those with a mental illness is well documented but underreported.
Online, you can also see photos of the freeway crash site. All angles. The mangled cars, the outlines of bodies under white sheets. These photos have been spread across the internet, mostly by major news outlets.
“OUTRAGE TO US ALL”, the Herald Sun front page read after Pusey was sentenced. “Grieving families of four police officers killed in freeway horror appalled at Richard Pusey’s ‘totally inappropriate’ sentence.”
“Our habit, as a culture,” Hilton Als recently observed in another context, “has been to lurch from outrage to outrage, treating each new horror as unique and unprecedented before moving swiftly on to the next.” Here — where women are killed weekly by men and eight Aboriginal people have died in custody since the start of March — we have already held royal commissions into both domestic violence and Aboriginal deaths in custody. Here, our particular habit is to refuse to see patterns if they require real change; we prefer our outrage refreshable, ever new at the top of a feed. Look at that, look at that.
Sarah Krasnostein is a writer, lawyer and researcher with a doctorate in criminal law. She is the author of The Trauma Cleaner and The Believer.
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Originally published at https://www.themonthly.com.au in June, 2021.