A man accused of manslaughter after a Warwick pensioner three times his age collapsed and died during a confrontation with him has had the charge against him thrown out.
Steven Jones, aged 25, who is from Warwick but of no fixed address, had been charged with the manslaughter of 75-year-old William Heathcote in November 2014.
The pensioner died after collapsing with heart failure following a confrontation with Jones, who had banged on the window of his home in Pickard Street, Warwick.
But at Warwick Crown Court, Judge Richard Griffith-Jones accepted a submission by Andrew Fisher QC, defending, that there was no case for Jones to answer.
The court heard that anti-social youngsters had been knocking on the door or windows of the house and then running off into the nearby park, chased by Mr Heathcote’s son or grandson.
But when Jones banged on the window on November 17, it was the pensioner who came out holding a broom which he swung at Jones, who dodged out of the way and laughed before re-joining his younger companions.
And as Mr Heathcote was going back inside, he collapsed and died as a result of arrhythmia leading to heart failure.
Mr Fisher submitted that there was insufficient evidence on which Jones could be convicted of manslaughter, given the circumstances of the case.
Benjamin Amina QC, prosecuting, argued that although Jones had not physically touched Mr Heathcote, he was responsible for his death by committing a public order offence.
But referring to the ‘test’ to be applied in manslaughter cases, the judge posed the question: “If you don’t know poor Mr Heathcote has a serious heart condition, why should a reasonable and sober person realise there is at least a risk of some harm?”
Making his ruling, Judge Griffith-Jones said: “The facts of those terrible circumstances at the end of which Mr Heathcote died will be of concern to members of the public, and will be a cause of grief and acute concern to those who loved him.
“I am conscious of the gravity of what happened when I come to consider whether or not a charge of manslaughter is one which should be dismissed or should go forward to trial.
“The circumstances are that Mr Heathcote, and indeed his son and grandson, had been the subject of irritating and nuisance knocking by people who feel it’s funny to cause discombobulation to people minding their own business in their own homes.
“Jones is someone who, even if it can’t be proved he had taken part in earlier episodes, knew of them, so what happened on the night of the 14th of November was not an isolated incident.”
But the judge said the ‘high water mark’ of the case was the statement of a 13-year-old boy who was present.
The boy said: “Steve started to walk towards the house and knocked on the big window. We stayed by the gate to the park. We all laughed that he was doing it, but then it got more serious as the old man came out.
“The old man had a broom in his hands. He was holding it in both hands. He started shouting at Steve to go away and started swinging it at Steve, who was just laughing at him.
“Steve was knocking the broom out of the way, but I didn’t see him hit or push him.
“The man was getting really vexed. I saw him hit Steve on the shoulder, and he just laughed and ran back over to us.
“It wasn’t funny any more. The man was really upset. As I looked over I thought the man going back in when I saw him stop and just fall to the ground.”
And Judge Griffith-Jones observed: “The defendant does go over to him and is obviously alarmed, and he stops at the scene. Medics are called, but sadly Mr Heathcote has died.
“He suffered from a degree of cardiac disease, and stress can bring on arrhythmia and therefore heart failure.
“It is the view of the pathologist that Mr Heathcote had enough heart disease to have a potentially fatal arrhythmia at any time, but if he had not been involved in the confrontation he would not have had that fatal attack.
“But in order to prove manslaughter the prosecution must prove the killing is the result of the accused’s unlawful act, and the act must be one all sober and reasonable people must realise would subject the victim to some harm.
“I have considered the prosecution submission on whether the public order act is an ongoing process which includes the laughing by Steven Jones when Mr Heathcote is trying to hit him.
“I have come to the conclusion that such an argument is not sustainable. It does not seem to be something that makes Steven Jones guilty that Mr Heathcote did come out and that he had a broom and tried to hit Jones with it.
“Many of us may have wished to act in the same way to this irritating creature Jones, but it does not make it a public order offence that he remains at the scene and tries to get away from the intended blows with the broom.
“The unlawful act is the knocking at the window. Given what happened afterwards, when Mr Heathcote came out and swung the broom on a number of occasions, it is quite impossible to say that causation from the unlawful act caused the death.
“What sadly caused his death was his serious heart condition, something the prosecution do not suggest Mr Jones had any knowledge of.
“In those circumstances I have come to the conclusion that I allow the application that the manslaughter charge should be dismissed.”
Jones faces further charges of witness intimidation and doing acts intended to pervert the course of justice – but those charges will not be put to him until the prosecution have had time to consider challenging the judge’s ruling.
Four teenagers were also in court accused of perverting the course of justice by giving false accounts to the police to conceal the fact that Jones had banged on the window.
Michelle Barron (19) of Radford Road, Leamington, pleaded guilty, and her case was adjourned for a pre-sentence report.
Frankie McDonagh (18) of Cherry Street, Warwick; Stephan Reilly (18) of Willes Road, Leamington; and Paige Tomlinson (18) of Mercia Way, Warwick, denied the charge and will stand trial in October.
All four were granted bail, but Jones was remanded in custody.