The Downing Centre Escape: A Lawyer’s Eyewitness Account
On Wednesday afternoon, 30 September, a man left his shoes behind in his dash for freedom.
Mr Ali Chahine, 33, was facing the court for breaching his bail. He was originally charged with drug supply and receiving stolen goods. The bail application was being heard in courtroom 3.1, which is a Sydney District Courtroom located on level 3 of the Downing Centre court complex.
In the same courtroom, one of our lawyers, Avinash Singh from Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, was present for another case and witnessed the action.
Avinash noticed that the client looked agitated, and the decision to refuse him bail didn’t go down too well.
Evidently Mr Chahine decided that, rather than be taken back into custody, he would roll the dice and attempt to leg it out of the courtroom.
While courtroom 3.1 is often very busy, it was fairly empty by Wednesday afternoon. Apart from his mother, lawyer, the DPP solicitor, Avinash and our client, only the Judge and court officers were present when Mr Chahine made a run for it.
Mr Chahine jumped over the wall of the dock and headed towards the door – he was in such a hurry that he left his blue thongs behind. At first, the DPP solicitor jumped back, before realising that she was not his target when he headed towards the exit.
Avinash says “He made it to the door before the Corrective Service Officers got to him – a large man and a small woman.
They had a firm grip on him but he must have escaped outside the courtroom.”
He remembers hearing “a scuffle outside” – it was later reported that two officers were badly injured during the encounter.
According to newspapers, Mr Chahine assaulted the pair before managing to flee the courthouse through a fire exit.
He is reported to have gotten onto a bus on Castlereagh Street, headed towards Newtown. Mr Chahine was last seen on Wednesday afternoon, disembarking from a bus at Central Station. The hunt continues.
Detective Inspector Stewart Leggatt believes that Chahine probably caught a train, and is currently in the Bankstown/Greenacre area.
Meanwhile, back in the courtroom, Avinash noted that the Presiding Judge did not say anything, but left the bench, probably intending to come back on when Mr Chahine was caught.
In the meantime, Mr Chahine’s Legal Aid lawyer was at a loss of what to do. Avinash recalls that she asked “Do I have to stay here?”, before leaving the courtroom a short time later.
When it became clear Mr Chahine was not returning, the Judge returned to the bench to deal with his final matter for the day, Avinash’s. His Honour said that this was the first time he had witnessed a defendant escape from the courtroom.
After the drama subsided, Avinash went on to successfully appeal his client’s case.
The Blame Game
The NSW Corrective Services Minister, David Elliott, originally tried to pin the blame for Chahine’s escape on the Judge, pointing out that the defendant was not wearing handcuffs, and was not in the dock.
But the fact is that defendants in court are rarely handcuffed, and Mr Chahine was, in fact, in the dock before he leapt out.
Moreover, the decision about whether to handcuff a defendant is for Corrective Services to make, not the Judge.
Penalties for Escaping
Interestingly, Mr Chahine was not the only man who chose last Wednesday to make his escape. On the same day, James Wiles, aged 25, escaped from Goulburn prison. He is also still on the run.
Escaping from lawful custody – whether it be a prison, police station, courthouse or elsewhere – is an offence under section 310D of the NSW Crimes Act 1900, which comes with a maximum penalty of ten years imprisonment.
So, if the escapees are eventually caught – as most are – they may ultimately regret their decision.