Queer History New Zealand
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender
New Zealand History
Death in Hagley Park
Charles Arthur Allen Aberhart died in Hagley Park, Christchurch, on January 23, 1964. A drapery store manager of Blenheim, he was staying with a friend in Sumner for a few days. On the evening of Thursday the 23rd, he drove alone to the Armagh Street entrance where he visited the lavatory by Little Victoria Lake.
A few months earlier, he had been convicted of indecent assault on a male, but because the offence had happened two years earlier and the man had consented to the "assault", he was sentenced to only three months imprisonment. (The same day a man who had assaulted his wife so badly she needed hospital treatment was fined twelve pounds ten shillings.)
That evening, six youths - Zane Leslie McDonald, 15; Anthony Dennis O'Connor, 15; Frank Leicester Reynolds, 16; Raymond Clive Neither, 16 or 17; Brian Francis Johns, 17; and Roger Malcom Williams, 17 - decided to go to Hagley Park "to belt up a queer", using Reynolds, who looked the youngest, as bait.
Aberhart was the second or third man Reynolds and O'Connor approached in the lavatory. He talked to them about "sucking off" and asked if Reynolds had ever "had it up the bottom". (A detective would later refer to "these disgusting phrases" rather than quote them.) They took him to the others, who demanded his name and began to gang up on him.
He called out to William Overfield, out walking his dogs, "Call the police, I'm being molested!" But Overfield thought Aberhart could look after himself, and told them all to go home. Aberhart tried to mollify them by offering to shout them a cup of coffee, but they dragged him back into the park.
John Cruthers, cycling through the park later, found Aberhart's body half way between the gates and the lavatory block, just south of the cycle track. He happened to know the six and had seen Williams's car there earlier. They were arrested the next day, and pleaded not guilty to separate charges of manslaughter in the Supreme Court on May 5.
Five of the accused made statements to the police. Four said Ray Neither had punched Aberhart, three said Zane McDonald had, but each statement could be used only against the person who had made it.
A detective testified that Neither had said he had knocked Aberhart down, "and he did not get up again. He struck me as a queer. Someone else hit him when he was on his knees, and then I hit him again. You don't know your own strength until you come against a joker who doesn't hit back." But Neither did not make a written statement.
Aberhart had bruised arms and a broken nose, consistent with being held while he was punched, and a minor fracture of the base of the skull. The bony plates above his eye sockets were much thinner than usual - paper thin. The brain haemorrhage he died of might not have been so severe if they had been thicker.
The trial lasted five days. None of the six defence counsel called any evidence, but each spoke to exonerate his own client. Gerald Lascelles, for Neither, said: "It is quite impossible to put the brand of manslaughter on any individual. Of none of the accused can it be said that he actually committed the offence."
But Mr Justice McArthur said: "It is not necessary for the Crown to prove that each or all the accused struck the blows that killed Mr Aberhart. Those who did so were parties to the offence, and the remainder could also be parties."
So far as is recorded, the only acknowledgement that homophobia might colour the verdict was a single line each from the crown prosecutor and the judge.
The prosecutor said: "Whatever the unfortunate man's shortcomings were, he did not seek out his assailants: they sought him." (If he had sought them out, presumably he would he have deserved all he got.)
The judge said: "The man who died might have had homosexual tendencies, but he had a right to live." (As though queers deserved to be beaten up, in moderation.)
After deliberating seven hours, the all-male jury found all six not guilty of manslaughter.
Gerald Lascelles doesn't think homophobia was the reason, but that the jury thought a conviction would be too heavy for the youths to carry for the rest of their lives.
The Christchurch Press immediately responded with a short and restrained second leader:
"It is hard to understand how the jury decided that none of the six youths was guilty. We can only hope that they were not influenced by the reputed character of the dead man."
Only Monty Holcroft in the Listener took the bull of homophobia by the horns:
"At the centre of the case...was the assumption that the dead man was a homosexual.... The six youths who went in search of "queers" were not moved by moral indignation: they were looking for excitement, and believed their victim to be fair game.... The Hagley verdict...leaves...a suspicion that...an alleged homosexuality has been felt to be an offence which mitigates a crime. And the crime itself came out of an unhealthy concern with sexual deviation."
Letters to both papers agreed, and the president of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Arthur O'Halloran, wrote: "Perhaps in the not distant future our archaic legislation relating to homosexuality will be brought into line with the recommendations of the Wolfenden committee."
The "not distant future" was to stretch out 22 years, fortunately going far beyond Wolfenden's very limited recommendations. Today, 34 years after Charles Aberhart's lonely death, there are still quarters where there would be more sympathy for Johns, McDonald, Neither, O'Connor, Reynolds and Williams than there would be for him. And the homophobia that drove them still simmers.
Based on newspaper reports, an article in Pink Triangle by Phil Parkinson, and a brief interview with Gerald Lascelles. Written by Hugh Young.
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