News: Sir Keith Aickin’s death, 35 years ago

At 1.25pm on Friday 4th June 1982, Gwyn Reiseger was driving on Coolart Road in Somerville on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. Ahead of her, she could see a small green Volkswagen waiting at a stop sign to cross the road. As she slowed down and indicated that she was turning left at the intersection, the driver of the green car slowly drove across Coolart Road. Unfortunately, he didn’t look the other way until too late. Seeing a silver Datsun speeding towards him at 90km/h, he stopped in the middle of the intersection. Reiseger heard a screech of brakes and then saw the Volkswagen spin off the road. Both cars were wrecked. She later told the coroner:

Both drivers were having a conversation when I got there. I told someone to go and ring an ambulance. The driver was still seated in the vehicle and I had a quick look at him and he seemed to be alright. He had a cut on his left calf which was the only injury I observed.

The Datsun driver, navy diver Russell Crawford, was uninjured. After the ambulance left, he asked a tow truck operator who the Volkswagen driver was. He was told that it was Keith Aickin.

Two weeks later, and thirty-five years ago yesterday, the High Court’s Sir Keith Aickin died at Melbourne’s Prince Henry’s Hospital. An autopsy reported that he had six broken ribs on his left side, wounds from skin grafts on his leg, and a massive embolism in his pulmonary artery. The latter is what killed him, possibly caused by a blood clot after the surgery on his leg. He was cremated the next week and an inquest was held in Dromona that September, with Officer Crawford flown back from his base at HMAS Penguin in Balmoral, Sydney at the state’s expense. In a brief note to the coroner, Aickin’s wife, Elizabeth, said that she would not attend. The only other witness was Constable Ross Lumsden, the attending police officer, who supplied a diagram of the accident site and described the 10m of skid marks behind Crawford’s car. The coroner, John Bolster, immediately found that Aickin’s death was due to a:

pulmonary embolus following chest injuries received on the 4th day of June, 1982 when the motor car he was driving in a westerly direction along Eramosa Road Somerville and at the intersection of Coolart Road accidentally struck a motor car driven by Russell Mark CRAWFORD in a northerly direction along Coolart Road, Somerville.

Bolster did not assign blame, but the evidence makes it clear that the fault was the judge’s. A note in the coroner’s file reveals one loose end: Aickin’s car insurer wrote to Bolster seeking the judge’s ‘blood test report’, noting that it was ‘omitted from the deposition.’ A handwritten comment on the letter (probably by Robin Jenkins, the coroner’s assistant) reads ‘rung re no B/A’.

Twenty-five years later, on the Queen’s Birthday in 2007, Lieutenant Commander Russell Crawford was awarded a Conspicuous Service Cross. The citation read:

Lieutenant Commander Crawford displayed outstanding commitment and leadership throughout his deployment as a United Nations Military Observer with the United Nations Mission in Sudan. He played a vital role in the development of the Peace Agreement within Southern Sudan and displayed exceptional personal qualities in volunteering to work within a hazardous and environmentally demanding operational area. His efforts are of the highest order and in keeping with the finest traditions of the Royal Australian Navy.

Retiring in 2014, the Lieutenant Commander told the Mosman Daily of his 45 years of service:

I’ve seen the introduction of females at sea, the training has vastly improved and the diving equipment is much better now. It has changed from all male to be more open and for the better. I’ve been very lucky and privileged to serve the country.

The highlight of his career, he said, was meeting his wife in Hawaii. Unsurprisingly, he did not mention his wholly blameless role in the history of Australia’s High Court.

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About Jeremy Gans

Jeremy Gans is a Professor in Melbourne Law School, where he researches and teaches across all aspects of the criminal justice system. He holds higher degrees in both law and criminology. In 2007, he was appointed as the Human Rights Adviser to the Victorian Parliament's Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee.

4 thoughts on “News: Sir Keith Aickin’s death, 35 years ago

  1. The main source for this post is the coronial file on Sir Keith Aickin, held at the Public Records Office of Victoria in North Melbourne. My research is actually part of a book I’m planning on the Emily Perry case, where Aickin J’s death arguably played a significant role.

  2. Coolart Road, where the accident occurred, was a notoriously dangerous road, with multiple intersections that had no stop sign (it was give way to the right, I think, in the absence of a sign) and no roundabouts, and cars travelling at 100 or so.

    • According to the three witnesses at the inquest, there was a stop sign facing the judge, who was on Eromana Rd east of Coolart and waiting to cross west. And Aickin J stopped, but – the witnesses said – didn’t give way to his left/south (to the Datsun, driving north.). You are right about the speed. The officer’s car was indeed said to be travelling at 90-100km/h. There was no comment that that was outside the speed limit, and the naval officer freely admitted the speed.

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