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Newcastle Boxing Day barbecue killing ‘not murder’


A man who slashed his mate’s throat at a Boxing Day barbecue in Newcastle, killing him, has been found not guilty of murder.

Newcastle Supreme Court Justice Richard Cavanagh said on Thursday the key prosecution witness in the judge-alone trial had not been reliable or credible when giving different versions of what had happened on the night Steven O’Brien was killed.

Shaun Johnson, 38, of Coopernook, had pleaded not guilty to murdering Mr O’Brien, 50, in suburban Mayfield on December 26, 2019, but guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter, claiming self-defence with excessive force.

Mr O’Brien died after having his throat cut in a backhanded-type slashing motion, cutting the jugular vein.

The wound measured 22cm long and 4.4cm wide.

He had been drinking with Johnson and another man, Billy Gee, for several hours before the deadly attack.

Justice Cavanagh said all the evidence pointed to the men having a good time before something was said and Mr O’Brien’s throat was cut.

The judge said it was unclear if the weapon used had been a knife, garden spike or pick.

He outlined how one of Mr Gee’s versions involved Johnson confronting Mr O’Brien over claims he had been sleeping with Johnson’s partner.

Mr Gee said Mr O’Brien told Johnson: “No, I wouldn’t do that mate. I don’t need to. I’ve got my own missus.”

He went on to claim Johnson told Mr O’Brien how his partner, who had only had a baby a month earlier, had gone out the night before and he didn’t know where she went.

Mr O’Brien assured Johnson his partner had not visited him before Johnson stood up and started “stabbing away”, according to Mr Gee.

When interviewed by police after the stabbing, Mr Gee said Johnson had been running through the house armed with a knife.

The conversation was captured on a police officer’s body camera but Mr Gee denied saying it.

The judge said Mr Gee also claimed to have ignored a request from Johnson’s partner’s former boyfriend when they were both in jail to bash Johnson.

“I have considerable reservations about Mr Gee’s evidence,” the judge said.

“It is littered with inconsistencies. I am unable to determine which version should be accepted.”

Justice Cavanagh said Johnson had also lied at times to police after his arrest, initially denying he had cut Mr O’Brien’s throat, but this did not mean he had to reject all of his evidence.

The judge said Johnson told police, “He attacked me”, but it was unclear if he was talking about Mr O’Brien or Mr Gee.

Mr O’Brien’s mother told the trial how her son stumbled towards her clutching his neck.

Bev O’Brien said her son had been laughing, and drinking beer and home-made schnapps with the other two men when she went to bed in a motorhome parked outside his house.

Mrs O’Brien said her second husband, Gordon, joined her at about 10.30pm when she heard yelling and decided to go out to see what was happening.

They had been visiting her son and his family over the Christmas period.

She said as her son staggered towards her, all she could see was blood.

“He said, ‘He’s cut my throat Mum’,” an emotional Mrs O’Brien told the court.

Her husband was giving Steven CPR as she talked to an ambulance officer on the phone before Johnson came over and said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry”.

She had never met Johnson before that night.

Johnson will be sentenced at a later date.

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