How teen driver could walk free in 10 years
The teen driver accused of killing pregnant Kate Leadbetter and her partner Matty Field in a horror crash at Alexandra Hills could end up serving less than 10 years in prison if found guilty of their murders.
The shock revelation comes as a leading lawyer says the teen's defence will be in a race against time to ensure the case is finalised in the courts before he turns 19 when he would become eligible to be sentenced as an adult which carries much harsher penalties.
Under Queensland legislation an adult convicted of a double murder is automatically sentenced to life in prison with a minimum parole period of 30 years.
But because the driver of the allegedly stolen car that slammed into the young couple this week was still months shy of turning 18, he could walk away with his freedom well before his 28th birthday if convicted of the alleged murders.
Leading criminal lawyer and immediate past president of the Queensland Law Society Bill Potts said the teen's case would also be a precedent-setting test of new legislation that allows someone to be charged with murder if they have showed a reckless indifference to human life.
The law was changed in 2019 to allow harsher penalties for parents who abuse or neglect their children and while a number of these murder charges have since been laid against Queensland parents, none of those matters have been finalised in court and no one has been charged with the offence in relation to a driving incident such as this.
"Since the government brought the reckless indifference element into play there have not been any charges of murder in this type of circumstance," he said.
"So this will make law, it will be a precedent."
Mr Potts said under the current juvenile justice legislation, the teen faced up to just 10 years imprisonment if convicted of murder.
But prosecutors could also argue for an "extraordinarily rare" loophole that allows a judge to impose a life sentence on a juvenile offender if their crime is considered "particularly heinous".
"He faces a sentence of up to 10 years if convicted or if the court finds that the offending is heinous then he can receive a jail sentence of up to life imprisonment but they do not define what heinous is," Mr Potts said.
The leading criminal lawyer said it was likely the prosecution could make a number of arguments to attempt to demonstrate heinousness in this case including allegations the teen was driving a stolen vehicle, that the nature of the offending was persistent, that he was grossly affected by drugs and that he left the scene without offering assistance.
Mr Potts said it was so rare that he was not aware of any cases in Queensland of a child being sentenced to life in prison.
Last year a 17-year-old convicted of the shooting murder of Dr Luping Zeng was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment but with parole release after he has served only six years behind bars.
Mr Potts said the Alexandra Hills accused teen's legal team would also be racing against time to progress the case through the courts before he turns 19.
"If he gets to the age of 19 then he can be dealt with and sentenced as an adult," he said.
"So there's a vested interest for whoever is acting for him to move it along pretty quickly."
Queensland Homicide Victims' Support Group Chief Executive Officer Brett Thompson said the legislation surrounding juvenile sentencing was particularly tough for the families of victims.
Mr Thompson said the organisation regularly fought to have victim families given information and allowed in to witness court proceedings involving juveniles which are ordinarily held behind closed doors to protect the identity of the offender.
"We've got a lot of families we support where juvenile (offenders) are involved," Mr Thompson said.
"It's devastating enough to lose someone but then to learn about the justice system and how a lot of victims feel it is inadequate, it's just salt to the wound."
Mr Thompson said the sentencing regimen for juveniles was vastly different to the adult system.
"Ultimately every time we have a homicide we're faced with the wide variety of emotions around the fact that the perpetrators will be let out at some point in time whether that's at end of their custodial period or whether its parole," he said.
"Regardless, the people who are impacted by these acts as they say they receive a life sentence and that's something you can't change.
"Our concern primarily is then how as an organisation do we support these people through something that no one should go through."
The teen has been remanded in custody and his case will be mentioned again on March 24.
Originally published as How teen driver could walk free in 10 years