The tragic death of a local businessman, Tausinga Taumoefolau (46), in December 2019 was caused by the drunken driving of a criminal psychiatric patient who was released because the Vaiola Hospital Psychiatric Ward was overloaded, the Nuku'alofa Supreme Court was told.
“This case is an extremely tragic illustration and reminder of the effects on individuals and the community at large when this aspect of public health is not adequately resourced,” Lord Chief Justice M. H. Whitten QC observed yesterday, 23 October, in sentencing the offender.
Lemoto Lemeki Manu (34) was sentenced to five years and six months imprisonment for causing the death of Tausinga Taumoefolau, while driving under the influence of alcohol on Vuna Road, Nuku'alofa.
“This is a most tragic case,” said the Chief Justice.
The offender, Manu, had been detained at the hospital mental health facility for a previous conviction for grievous bodily harm. In that case, an extremely violent assault by the offender that occurred in a police holding cell in May 2017 had left a victim in a vegetative state. Manu was supposed to be transferred from the hospital to the mental facility at the prison when the doctors supervising his care determined in consultation with the Commissioner of Prisons.
However, Manu was released from the care of Vaiola Hospital just before Christmas last year.
“There is no information before the court explaining the basis for the decision to release the Defendant,” said the Chief Justice.
The fatal accident occurred on December 28, 2019 on Vuna Road.
In the pre-sentence report, the defendant told the probation officer that although he did not have a full recollection of what occurred on the day in question, he did remember being discharged from the psychiatric ward at the hospital.
On December 28, 2019, he returned to the psychiatric ward and collected three other mental patients without the permission of their doctor in charge. Around 3:00pm on this day, he and his mental health companions began driving around while drinking Tongan alcohol brew known as "hopi".
By around 9:00pm, it was raining heavily. The defendant was driving their vehicle west on Vuna Road.
According to the front seat passenger, the vehicle was speeding and swerving across the road. When they reached Prince Kalaniuvalu's residence, the passenger could see a small white car parked ahead on the left side of the road. In it, unbeknown to the occupants of the speeding vehicle, the victim, Tausinga Taumoefolau, was buying tomatoes from a nearby vegetable stall.
As he held money out his car window for the seller, the defendant's vehicle swerved over the sidewalk and collided with the rear of the victim's vehicle. According to eyewitnesses, the defendant's vehicle was estimated to have been travelling at between 80 and 100 km/h.
As a consequence of the impact, the victim's vehicle was propelled into the concrete fence of the Chinese Embassy, he said.
The defendant then drove off.
By-standers attended to the victim and carried him out of his vehicle. He was not responding. He was observed to have suffered head injuries signified by bleeding from various wounds. The victim was then rushed to the hospital but was declared dead on arrival.
The cause of death was determined to be a C spine fracture 2° severe whiplash and a head injury with internal bleeding.
Left the scene
According to the summary of facts, the police found the defendant's vehicle facing north of Yellow Pier. They tried to speak to him, but he was too drunk.
Therefore, the passive test could not be conducted at the scene. The defendant was arrested and taken to Central Police Station where a breath alcohol screening test showed a result exceeding 250 migrograms of alcohol per litre of breath.
The police continued with the evidential breath test which produced a result of 1,210 migrograms of alcohol per litre of breath and later, 940. The defendant was then remanded in police custody.
In January 2020 Manu was interviewed by the Police and admitted to the offending.
On 31 July 2020 the defendant was arraigned and pleaded guilty to one count of causing death while under the influence of alcohol. The matter was adjourned for sentencing.
History of mental illness
A presentence report provided insight into the defendant's long history of mental illness. On 25 September 2020, Dr Puloka provided a report of his further examination of the Defendant. He catalogued a long history of various physical and psychiatric ailments from a cyanotic episode when the defendant was only two days old, to mild mental retardation, to mental and behavioural disorders associated with substance abuse and, most recently, a diagnosis of bipolar affective disorder. He had been receiving treatment.
A Mental Status Examination was conducted which revealed that the Defendant was in almost full remission from his previous psychiatric diagnoses.
The Crown's submissions on sentence contained an account of the victim's brother's conversation with Dr Puloka.
The Chief Justice said, in an endeavour to understand how the incident occurred, the brother of the deceased approached Dr Puloka and asked why the defendant was out of the psychiatric ward at the hospital, on the day in question. Dr Puloka told him that the defendant was in his custody but that around December every year, the psychiatric ward is inundated with more patients than it can accommodate. That requires the hospital to release some of the inpatients, whom the medical staff assessed as representing a low risk. In 2019, and notwithstanding he was serving a sentence for grievous bodily harm, the inpatients released included the defendant.
The Chief Justice said there was no evidence that the defendant's mental disorders caused or contributed to him driving in the manner he did that fateful day.
“In fact, there is no evidence to be found within any of the reports by Dr Puloka that the defendant was suffering any of the psychological or psychiatric symptoms he had displayed prior to and since then which might explain the driving.
“On the other hand, it is abundantly clear that the reckless driving which resulted in the collision was due, at least to a significant extent, to the defendant consuming alcohol over a long period and while driving the car.”
The judge pointed to extremely serious funding challenges facing Tonga health services.
“While it might be superficially attractive to suggest that had the defendant not been released from the hospital, this tragedy would not have occurred, it is in my view more useful to consider the underlying cause for his release. Government funding for the mental health sector in Tonga is an ongoing challenge. This case is an extremely tragic illustration and reminder of the effects on individuals and the community at large when this aspect of public health is not adequately resourced.”
The judge found aggravating features were that:
- the offending occurred while the defendant was serving a sentence of a very serious grievous bodily harm;
- the defendant left the scene of the collision and did not seek to render assistance to the victim;
- the duration of driving while drinking alcohol over some six hours;
- it demonstrated an element of willfulness that was repugnant and showed disregard for the law and for the safety of others;
- the lack of any demonstrated remorse towards the family of the victim.
After considering mitigation and suspension discussions, the judge also sought to give “weight to public denunciation and outrage and the need to stop or control conduct which detrimentally affects all members of the community.” He also had regard to the consequences of the sentence on the defendant and to the wider community.
He did not consider it appropriate to suspend any part of the sentence to be imposed.
“In my view the overall result is an appropriate response to the Defendant's recidivism [tendency to reoffend], his contumelious [arrogantly insolent] disregard of the law and his demonstrated danger to the community and himself,” said the Chief Justice.
Manu was convicted of causing death while driving under the influence of alcohol and sentenced to 5 years and six months imprisonment, backdated to the date of his arrest for the offence.
He must be kept under the supervision of mental health physicians at Vaiola Hospital until such time as they may consider the defendant fit to be transferred to the mental facility a Hu'atolitoli Prison.
The defendant was disqualified from driving for three years.