This blog has previously reported on the curious and sad case of the death of Melbourne woman, Phoebe Handsjuk.
Coroner Peter White found that Phoebe to have been in a “sleepwalking state” from alcohol and the sleeping pill Stilnox (Zolpidem) when she plunged down an apartment building garbage chute. However a story this week from the Age investigative team of Baker and McKenzie (aren’t they a multi-national law firm ?) claims that the coroner had ignored his assisting counsel’s advice to make an open finding and not exclude the possibility of third-party involvement. Phoebe’s family is apparently considering applying to the Supreme Court for a review of Coroner White’s finding. In December, Coroner White found Ms Handsjuk, 24, was in a sleepwalking state due to her consumption of alcohol and Stilnox when she climbed unassisted into the 12th floor garbage chute of St Kilda Road’s Balencea apartment building and fell feet first to the ground floor.
Victoria Police photographs of Ms Handsjuk and Mr Hampel’s apartment on the night of her death. Photo: Victoria Police
Coroner White found Phoebe’s death to be an accident and ruled out any third party involvement and complied with a request from the lawyer representing Ms Handsjuk’s then boyfriend, Antony Hampel, to make a positive finding exonerating his client from any involvement in her death. As pointed out in my original blog, the coroners ruling seemed questionable and his assisting counsel’s view makes more sense to me. The dexterity and agility that would have been required by Ms Handsjuk to die in the manner proposed by the Coroner beggars belief. No evidence was taken from an expert in sleep disorders such as sleepwalking. Its hard to imagine the forensic expert’s utilised byt he Coroner have expertise in sleepwalking research otherwise they would have emphasised this to the coroner in their “hot tub” evidence (don’t ask that’s what they call it in the transcript). It seems clear that some looking at the case are still unsure of external involvement though no specific accusations have been made against MrHampel.
Moreover the Age article describes multiple concerns raised by the counsel assisting that should have led to an “open finding”. Mr Hampel’s family includes two senior members of Victoria’s judiciary and questions have been raised about the possibility evidence-tampering. Like the counsel assisting, our sleep medicine medico-legal group at the Woolcock Institute have serious reservations about the Coroner’s finding. Perhaps it’s time that the Victorian Government looked at this and not left it to the relatives of Phoebe Handsjuk to seek judicial clarity at great cost to themselves.
Professor Ron Grunstein is a Sleep Disorder Specialist based in Sydney, who consults at the Woolcock Clinic and Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and undertakes research at the Woolcock Institute, University of Sydney.