ACT News

Canberra man admitted he fatally stabbed former housemate but still beat a murder charge

The savage stabbing death of Nicholas Sofer-Schreiber at the hands of his former housemate Christopher David Navin stunned Canberra.

The capital expected answers when Navin faced a month-long trial in the ACT Supreme Court over the Boxing Day 2013 slaying.

Christopher Navin.
Christopher Navin. 

But the verdict – an acquittal for murder and guilty for manslaughter – left many asking how a man could admit to stabbing another 73 times, in a frenzied attack that last "tens-of-minutes", and included two knives, and still beat a murder charge.

Navin claimed he had assassinated Mr Sofer-Schreiber in a pre-emptive attack as he possessed a psychotic belief that the avid punk rock fan had hired a hitman to kill members of his family.

Navin admitted killing Nicholas Sofer-Schreiber, who was well known in the Canberra punk music community.
Navin admitted killing Nicholas Sofer-Schreiber, who was well known in the Canberra punk music community. Photo: Facebook

Legal experts say those suffering from mental illness could function normally in society, only to then commit horrendous crimes based on a warped logic.

Navin's defence barrister, Stuart Littlemore, QC,  argued his client was not guilty by way of mental impairment as he had been suffering from a severe psychosis at the time.

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Since his arrest and incarceration, Navin has been diagnosed and is receiving treatment behind bars for schizophrenia.

He had been hospitalised with psychotic depression in 2011 and been on medication to treat his illness before Mr Sofer-Schreiber's death.

A police diver holds one of the knives recovered from the dam.
A police diver holds one of the knives recovered from the dam. Photo: ACT Policing

Supreme Court juries are usually given the option of returning verdicts of either guilty or not guilty.

But the jury in the Navin trial was given three options: not guilty of murder by way of mental impairment, guilty of manslaughter due to diminished responsibility, or guilty of murder.

Divers in the dam recovering the knife.
Divers in the dam recovering the knife. 

Jurors deliberated for two days before finding Navin guilty of manslaughter.

News of the verdict was met with outrage from sections of the community.

A diver holds a knife found in the dam.
A diver holds a knife found in the dam. Photo: afp15786

The anger spilled onto social media, with Navin's defence lawyers, Ben Aulich and Associates, forced to delete a number of posts.

The Canberra Times facebook page also attracted a number of heated comments from a number of outraged readers.

"Manslaughter is chump change considering it was pre-meditated murder," one reader posted.

Another wrote: "I am appalled. The PIG deserves LIFE."

Others questioned Navin's right to rely on the defence of mental impairment.

One poster said: "It seems the 'mental illness story' is a semi lifeline ... Killing someone is murder, end of story!!"

While another posted: "Well, sadly this opens the door to anyone who bears a grudge. Friggin joke."

But legal academics say the public held the wrong belief that manslaughter was not a serious offence.

Navin will now face the prospect of a maximum 20 years' behind bars when he is sentenced in the new year.

Queensland University of Technology senior lecturer criminal law Dr Nigel Stobbs said, in high profile cases, there was always a tension between what the general public thinks should happen and what the jury and the mental health experts decide.

"It doesn't look good. The guy admits he went round there to kill him and he's stabbed him that many times," Dr Stobbs said.

"It looks like a fellow who's in control, but that's not enough to establish criminal liability, you have to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that he wasn't deprived of the relevant capacity."

Adelaide University criminal law lecturer David Caruso said the only difference between manslaughter and murder was that murder required the intention to kill someone.

"What the person convicted of manslaughter has not done, due to diminished responsibility, is acted with an evil intention, that evil intention is what the law looks for in ascribing the highest level of criminal culpability," Mr Caruso said.

"Diminished responsibility is really just terminology to say the person wasn't functioning with their full mental faculties at the time.

"By no means is it a free pass and manslaughter convictions often result in quite significant punishments."

During the trial, which spanned November and December, the court heard the pair had flatted together in 2012 and 2013.

But Navin moved out mid-year and Mr Sofer-Schreiber sued him for $60 to repair a damaged wall.

The Crown alleged Navin seethed with resentment at the eviction and he became increasingly socially isolated, which the prosecution claimed he blamed on Mr Sofer-Schreiber who he believed had worked to cut him off from their mutual friends.

Later in the year, Navin unsuccessfully tried to re-establish contact with the deceased, including once calling him several times in one day.

Navin told psychiatrists, after his arrest, that he had reduced and then stopped his medication about two months before.

At the time he had believed he had been watched by "observers", had heard voices, and thought his mind could be read.

Navin told psychiatrists that he had attempted to rekindle the friendship with Mr Sofer-Schreiber after receiving orders from the observers.

But Mr Sofer-Schreiber did not return Navin's contact.

Christmas Eve drinks forced the pair together and friends heard them make plans to meet for a Christmas Day lunch.

Navin texted Mr Sofer-Schreiber on Christmas Day but did not receive a response.

A chance encounter meant Navin saw Mr Sofer-Schreiber in a checkout line at a Canberra shopping centre on Boxing Day, but the pair did not speak or interact.

Later that night, the prosecution alleged Navin murdered Mr Sofer-Schrieber in revenge for social exclusion and rejection of his friendship.

But Navin says he did not resolve to kill Mr Sofer-Schreiber until he received a number of messages from the observers later that evening.

One of the messages included seeing a piece of wire that looked like a noose.

Navin knifed Mr Sofer-Schreiber almost immediately after entering the Lyneham home.

He first stabbed Mr Sofer-Schreiber with a paring knife until it snapped, then took a blade from the kitchen to inflict the fatal wounds.

The forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy estimated Mr Sofer-Schreiber had been alive for more than 10 minutes after he suffered the first stab wound.

He bled to death when both carotid arteries were severed.

Navin then took a camp chair and tent from Mr Sofer-Schreiber's home, and travelled north to a family property near Grafton, where he disposed of evidence.

This included burning the two knives, which he later threw into a dam.

Police divers located the knives during a search of dams on the property, and photos of them were tendered during the trial.

Navin returned to Canberra in time to attend Mr Sofer-Schreiber's funeral, where friends reported he exhibited odd behaviour, including making inappropriate comments or pausing while speakng to stare into space.

Crown prosecutor Margaret Jones, in her closing, argued there had been limited subjective evidence to support Navin's explanation of psychosis before his arrest.

Navin did not report the delusions to mental health workers and instead waited until after he was first locked up in February 2014

During the trial, jurors heard audio of bugs at Navin's Watson home and phone intercepts of him seeking employment, speaking to friends, and seeking information on the progress of the police investigation.

Ms Jones said the police surveillance revealed no evidence of psychosis.

But the experts say those entitled to defences of mental impairment and diminished responsibility could be functioning normally in life, but then commit horrendous crimes based on a distorted belief.

"The illnesses aren't linear, they don't suffer the disorder continuously, the illness ebbs and flows," Mr Caruso said.

"They may be able to live in the community relatively long periods, they can have these episodes, particularly with mental disturbances such as schizophrenia."

Dr Stobbs said it was a "tricky area" for the community to accept, but the law had been written to accommodate.

"These sorts of things happen more than people might think," Dr Stobbs said.

"It's quite common with schizophrenic patients who won't take or miss their medications and who are otherwise completely lucid, but have just one belief that they cannot shake.

"If it's significant enough, it can drive them to commit all sorts of acts."