'You may step out of the dock': Tears and hugs as driver walks free

The Sydney Morning Herald 1 month ago

After 306 days behind bars, it was a few simple words which delivered Jack Aston his freedom.

"You may step out of the dock," Justice Phillip Priest quietly told him as he appeared before a packed Supreme Court on Monday.

Jack Aston leaves the Supreme Court with his daughter Meg, wife Wendy and son Ben.

And with that, the 56-year-old took two steps to his right and walked straight into the arms of his wife and children.

There were few dry eyes in the ornate court room on Monday morning as loud, whooping cheers and applause erupted from the public gallery, filled with the beaming faces of Aston's supporters.

The Ballarat man was jailed last year for five years and three months for injuring a number of passengers when the coach he was driving crashed into Melbourne's notorious Montague Street bridge in February, 2016.

He was ordered to serve 2½ years before being eligible for parole, sparking widespread debate about the sentence's severity.

But last week, the appeals court overturned his convictions after finding there had been a miscarriage of justice.

Just before midday on Monday, this finding saw him walk out into the sunshine on Lonsdale Street holding his wife and daughter's hands, surrounded by loved ones.

"I’d like to say sorry to all my passengers," he told those gathered on the footpath, thanking his legal team and "all of the people of Victoria who have gotten us four through the last 306 days".

"Freedom's a good thing," he said.

Jack Aston after he walked free from court.

He called on the Premier to do something to fix the low-lying Montague bridge, before he told the media scrum it was time for him to head home for the first time in just under a year.

"If it’s alright with all you guys, I’d really just like to go home now," he said before the family walked across the street, into their car, and began the drive back to Ballarat.

Aston's wife Wendy said she didn't know what they were going to have for dinner.

But in their hope that Aston would be coming home, they had laid his towel on the rack in the bathroom in preparation, ready for him to start adjusting back into a normal routine.

An injured man after the crash.

"It will be nice to just go home... see the dogs, sit down, talk. Hug, hug, hug," Ms Aston told radio station 3AW.

"I've tried not to lose hope. We just had to keep fighting for him. He's worth fighting for."

His brother Jay Aston said Monday's hearing marked the end of a difficult 10 months for the family.

As they left the court, supporters, family and friends said to each other: "We've done it. We've done it, he's out."

In the small courtyard at the centre of the Supreme Court, Aston hugged each and every supporter who had made the trip to be by his side.

"I actually think he's in a little bit of shock, I think he was a bit taken aback," his brother told Nine News. "But I think it's going to sink in and he will be much happier when he gets home."

"We are going to let him settle back in at home first, reunite with family, then after that we are going to have a reunite and get together and just be there for him.

"It's a marvellous day."

Ballarat bus driver Jack Aston arrives at the Melbourne Supreme Court on Monday before he was freed.

Aston was resentenced to a period of imprisonment equivalent to the time that he had already served – 305 days – and a two-year community corrections order.

Last week, Court of Appeal Justices Phillip Priest, Stephen Kaye and David Beach quashed the original convictions and replaced them with six convictions for dangerous driving causing serious injury.

A County Court jury last year found him guilty of six counts of negligently causing serious injury, relating to the six of 14 passengers who suffered injuries including spine and neck fractures and scalp wounds.

However, the Court of Appeal ruled that the prosecutor at Aston's trial failed to put to the judge or jury the alternative charges of dangerous driving causing serious injury, which carry a lesser penalty.

The crash scene at the Montague Street bridge in February 2016.

Six of Aston's 14 passengers suffered a range of injuries including spinal fractures, glass particles in the face, scalp injuries and a broken neck, in the South Melbourne crash.

None of the victims chose to submit impact statements during the trial process and two even expressed the opinion that the first sentence imposed was too high.

Aston himself suffered a broken neck and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.

Petitions and rallies were organised by his family to try and fight against what they said was an unfair original sentence.

If you or anyone you know needs support, you can contact 131 114, or 1300 224 636.

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