A dramatic turn of events has unfolded in the terror case against a Wollongong man, as a crucial piece of evidence has been struck down by a judge, causing the case to crumble like a house of cards. Simon Fleming, a 41-year-old facing trial in the NSW Supreme Court, was unexpectedly acquitted of committing a terrorist act on Tuesday, leaving the courtroom in a state of bewilderment.
Supported by his defense team, comprised of lawyer Aaron Kernaghan and barrister Leah Rowan, Mr. Fleming consistently asserted that his actions were a product of his severe mental illness. Armed with a rifle, a replica gun, and a fake bomb, he had unleashed a hail of bullets into the air and held two individuals hostage on Windang’s main street in November 2021.
After days of intense legal arguments between Mr. Fleming’s legal team and the Crown prosecution, Justice Helen Wilson delivered a pivotal ruling, deeming evidence from an expert witness inadmissible. This ruling prompted the Crown prosecution to concede that the evidence presented was insufficient to sustain the charge of committing a terrorist act. Consequently, Justice Wilson directed the jury to deliver an acquittal on this grave charge, leading to a swift declaration of a not-guilty verdict by the jury foreman.
As the jury was discharged, the remaining 11 charges, including firing a firearm in a manner likely to cause harm, taking/detaining a person to gain an advantage, unauthorized possession of a weapon, and possessing a prohibited firearm, will now be examined within the framework of mental health grounds. While the acts themselves have been established, Mr. Fleming has been deemed not criminally responsible due to mental health reasons, introducing a complex twist to the case.
Previously, the prosecution alleged that Mr. Fleming’s actions were motivated by right-wing ideology, pointing to the discovery of a manifesto titled “The Fuse” on a USB drive following his arrest, which occurred after an armed standoff with the police. While the events themselves were not heavily disputed, Mr. Fleming’s legal team consistently emphasized his impaired mental state at the time, arguing that it significantly affected his understanding of the unfolding events.
During the trial, it was revealed that Mr. Fleming had been diagnosed with schizophrenia by two medical professionals, leaving little room for doubt regarding the severity of his psychiatric condition. Justice Wilson acknowledged this, stating, “There is no dispute that Mr. Fleming was seriously psychiatrically ill on that day,” as she provided guidance to the jury.
In light of the acquittal, Justice Wilson ordered that Mr. Fleming be transferred to a mental health facility at Long Bay jail, recognizing the need for appropriate care and supervision given his condition.
The court proceedings shed light on the sequence of events that occurred on the morning of November 28, 2021. Mr. Fleming, dressed in black, left his residence in Windang, armed with a rifle and a gel blaster, along with a fake bomb. He discharged multiple bullets into the air, including one that pierced a Colorbond roof approximately 2.8 kilometers away, and fired at a passing vehicle. Subsequently, he took two individuals hostage at a dive shop before ultimately releasing them and surrendering to the police after a tense hour-long standoff. Fortunately, no one suffered harm during the incident.
Prior to the events, Mr. Fleming had previously consulted a psychiatrist and had been prescribed antipsychotic medication. In a police interview, he revealed that he had consumed his remaining pills two days prior and was experiencing opioid withdrawals on the morning of the incident. His recollection of the events was fragmented, stating that he could only remember “flashes” between leaving his home at 9 am and being arrested approximately 90 minutes later.
He vehemently denied any intention to harm anyone and disputed the claim that he had proclaimed himself a terrorist to the hostages. In his police interview, played for the jury during the trial, he clarified, “I didn’t say ‘I’m a terrorist’ because I think they’re more organized than I am. I’m just some dkhead who’s grabbed a gun.”
Mr. Fleming revealed that he had been planning the event for several years and intended to place a sign reading “Australia for a Republic” alongside the fake bomb. However, as he walked out of his residence that day, he admitted that he had forgotten the sign, as he recounted to the police.
Another peculiar detail emerged during the trial: Mr. Fleming claimed that he had been “told by God” to lead the charge for Australia to become a republic after seeing a face in the clouds on New Year’s Eve in 2018. This revelation added another layer of complexity to the case, intertwining matters of mental health, ideology, and personal beliefs.
Following the unexpected acquittal, Mr. Kernaghan, Mr. Fleming’s defense lawyer, expressed his intention to seek compensation for his client’s legal costs. He expressed disappointment with the prosecution’s decision to pursue the terrorism charge, asserting that Mr. Fleming had long been living in the community with a serious mental health condition. Mr. Kernaghan emphasized the gravity of accusing someone of terrorism, stating, “It’s one of the top charges you can be accused of,” and highlighting the need for iron-clad evidence rather than relying on the opinion of an expert who cited a footnote from a New York Times podcast as part of her resources. The defense lawyer’s comments underscored the challenges faced by the prosecution in establishing a solid case against Mr. Fleming.
The matter will return to court in the following week to address the remaining charges on the grounds of mental health. While the acquittal on the terrorism charge has brought an unexpected twist to the proceedings, the case continues to navigate the complex intersection of legal responsibility, mental illness, and the delicate balance between maintaining public safety and ensuring appropriate care for individuals facing mental health challenges.
As the courtroom buzzed with the implications of this turn of events, the legal teams and authorities involved braced themselves for the next phase of the proceedings, which would further explore the intricacies of Mr. Fleming’s mental state and its impact on his actions. The outcome of this trial will undoubtedly shape discussions surrounding mental health, the criminal justice system, and the delicate task of determining accountability in cases where severe psychiatric conditions are at play.