Stoned teen dad found not guilty of baby's manslaughter

Rawiri Sergeant has been on trial for manslaughter at the High Court in Whangārei. Photo / NZME
Rawiri Sergeant has been on trial for manslaughter at the High Court in Whangārei. Photo / NZME
A teen who was accused of causing the death of his newborn son after a night of smoking cannabis has been found not guilty — a verdict that left many supporters in the public gallery in tears.

A jury of five men and seven women returned a unanimous not guilty verdict at the High Court in Whangārei this afternoon.

It came after powerful closings from both the Crown and Defence which hung on one core element — Rawiri Sergeant’s consumption of cannabis in the hours before his son died.

Sergeant, who was facing a charge of manslaughter, put his hands to his face and sobbed after the verdict was delivered. Others in the public gallery were also emotional.

Emergency services were called to an address in Ruakākā on November 19, 2021 where Sergeant - who was 18 at the time - and partner Jazmyne Thacker were living with their 5-week-old son O’Shea Tuhoe Sergeant.

The Crown alleged Sergeant smoked cannabis five times during the night of November 18 and early hours of November 19 which contributed to his inability to care for O’Shea.

The case hung on an incident that occurred at around 4am, just after Sergeant had smoked a bong of cannabis in his car.

He told police he was burping O’Shea on his knee when the baby’s head jerked backwards and then forwards and as he fell forward, Sergeant’s knee connected with the left side of O’Shea’s head.

The Crown said the baby rolled off his knee but Sergeant managed to catch him by the arm.

The Court heard at around 9am Sergeant prepared a bottle and attempted to feed O’Shea but his son did not latch on to the bottle and Sergeant noticed his limbs were floppy and he was not responding.

First responders who arrived on the scene pronounced O’Shea dead at 9.47am.

Medical experts gave evidence O’Shea had died from a catastrophic injury resulting in subdural haemorrhaging, a subarachnoid haemorrhage, a swollen brain and bleeding in the optic nerves.

In an evidential interview played to the jury, Sergeant was questioned about whether the cannabis had inhibited his performance that night, to which he replied “yes”.

“How stoned or how high do you think you were on a scale of one to five, with five being the highest?” Detective Joshua Lautogo asked.

“Three,” Sergeant responded.

Crown prosecutor Geraldine Kelly painted a picture of irresponsibility in her closing submission and said Sergeant had put his appetite for cannabis before the safety of his son.

“To try and claim this is not a sad case would be a blatant lie. It is sad for Rawiri Sergeant, it is sad for Jazmyne Thacker, it is sad for their families and it is sad for O’Shea,” Kelly said.

Kelly laid out the facts; a 37-day-old infant, pronounced dead due to blunt force trauma to his forehead, while in the care of his father, who the Crown say smoked five cannabis bongs from 7pm on November 18, 2021.

At 4.15am, after Sergeant had smoked a bong, and when O’Shea struck his head on Sergeant’s knee, Kelly said “Rawiri was stoned”.

The Crown said when O’Shea turned red and began making gurgling noises, noises he was still making at 9am, instead of seeking assistance, Sergeant spent 15 minutes searching for the lid to his cannabis grinder.

“Despite knowing the pathologist’s report describing the injury as blunt force trauma, he continued to try to offer different causes to explain the injuries.

“His cannabis consumption was an operative cause of allowing O’Shea to fall forward and knock his head.

“He described being stoned as not conscious or as half-sleeping.

“The Crown is not saying he is a bad person, looking at what the parents set up showed they were being the best parents they could be and were proud parents. However, Rawiri being stoned, failed to protect his baby boy from injury, that is what this case is about,” Kelly said.

Defence lawyer Arthur Fairley challenged the Crown’s narrative emphasising the tragedy of the case while advocating for a careful consideration of the facts.

Central to the defence case was the focus on the timeline of events and the relevance of cannabis consumption arguing that only specific instances, particularly those close in time to the incident, should be considered in assessing Sergeant’s culpability.

“If he’s so stoned, how come he can do everything he was meant to do? If he’s so stoned just before the index incident, how come he can make notes in the baby notebook? If he’s so stoned, how come he’s got sufficient reflexes to stop him hitting the floor?

“There’s no suggestion that he deliberately assaulted his cherished son, that is not their case.

“They are running a case of counsel of perfection. If they took cannabis out, would someone still be here?” Fairley questioned.

Fairley said his client was a good father, devastated by the death of his first child who he had watched the life leave his lungs.

“This is a very narrow issue. The Crown has to prove there has been a major departure from care or a high level of gross negligence. Simple negligence will not suffice,” Fairley said.

The jury spent close to five hours deliberating and when the verdict was returned, many supporters openly wept in Court.

Justice Christine Gordon thanked the jury for their time and commitment to the case and excused them from jury service for five years.