Heavy hands

For Melbourne man Anthony Dunning, it began as a day at the footy. It ended with his death after a scuffle at Crown Casino.

On the first sunday evening of July 2011, 40-year-old Anthony Dunning was pinned to the floor of Melbourne's Crown Casino by security staff. He had been at the footy that afternoon with two friends and, six hours after Collingwood beat Hawthorn, Matthew Lawson, a 26-year-old security guard, decided that Dunning was drunk and asked him to leave the casino.

Anthony Dunning died in the intensive-care unit of the Alfred Hospital four days later. Police were not notified until Dunning's two friends, who had been with him at the casino on the night, made a report the following morning.

Olivia Ferguson and Matthew Anderson had been escorted separately from the casino and ejected on opposite sides of the premises. Ferguson had lost her glasses as she was taken out of the casino and, unable to see properly, described blurry landmarks over the phone until her partner, Anderson, was able to find her. The pair couldn't locate Dunning and had no idea what had happened to their friend. The 20 or so calls they made to his mobile that night went unanswered.

Courtroom 13 of the Melbourne Magistrates' Court is, I gather, a good bit more crowded today than the court staff is used to. It's a Monday morning in June 2012, the first week of the school holidays, and the public gallery is packed with students who are here for work experience. I arrive early, but by 9.55am all of the press gallery seats are filled, and latecomers are forced to stand in the aisles, glowering over the work-experience kids.

I work as a legal secretary around the corner from the Magistrates' Court and have wrangled three weeks' unpaid leave from my long-suffering employers. Over the next three weeks at this committal hearing, the Director of Public Prosecutions will present a summary of the evidence against the Crown Casino Bouncers, as they will become known, and a brief parade of witnesses will make up a sort of mini-trial before Magistrate Peter Reardon decides whether there's enough evidence to proceed to a full hearing. As is usual in committal hearings, the defendants do not present their own evidence but merely challenge the evidence of the Crown Prosecution.

The bouncers are Matthew Lawson, the 26-year-old security officer who has been charged with manslaughter, and his colleagues, 23-year-old Benjamin Vigo from Hoppers Crossing and 39-year-old Cameron Sanderson from Northcote, who face charges of common law assault over the same incident, and 25-year-old Nicholas Levchenko from Highett and 29-year-old Jacques Fucile from Essendon, who face charges of recklessly causing injury with regard to another, related assault. In the intervening months since the committal mention back in January, a sixth bouncer has been charged with assault: 34-year-old Quoc Tran, who was acting as supervisor that July evening, now joins his five colleagues in court.

Each of the defendants has his own counsel, and Ian Hill QC, who is representing Lawson, has a junior counsel to assist him. Lawson had been bald at the committal mention, but now straight dark hair flows down beyond his nape. He looks more gentle with hair, and I wonder if he's grown it out with a future jury in mind.

Silver-haired Andrew Tinney is the Crown prosecutor, a slim, dapper man in his 50s. In the formal, clipped language of a public prosecutor, Tinney outlines the evidence that the prosecution will be relying on. Central to his case will be what he calls "the objective evidence of the CCTV footage". A brief adjournment is called while the video is set up.

Stupidly, I'd expected the CCTV footage to be in grainy black and white, but the casino's security system is state of the art, the footage in full colour. Because Lawson had followed protocol and notified surveillance that he was about to escort Dunning from the casino, the cameras swoop and zoom as unseen staff way above the casino floor follow the action. I wonder briefly whether this expensive system, designed to protect the casino's interests, will work in favour of its employees or not.

The first camera angle shows Dunning, heavier-set than I thought he'd be, standing outside the Velvet Bar entrance. He wavers slightly on his feet. I can't tell if it's because of his sheer size or because he's perhaps had too much to drink. He coughs into his hand and pulls a mobile phone out of his pocket. He goes to press a button but fumbles and his fingers slide off the phone.

Olivia Ferguson and Matthew Anderson are standing in front of a roulette table. When Dunning passes them, in the company of Lawson and a loose formation of security staff, he comes to a stop. The three friends talk to each other, to the bouncers. Hands are waved, the bouncers point in different directions, and Ferguson keeps placing herself between Dunning and Lawson. Eventually, Dunning heads off.

Suddenly, Ferguson is knocked to the floor. On the first viewing I don't see the slap that we're told she aimed at Quoc Tran, prompting the bouncer to throw her to the ground. People in the row behind me gasp. It's almost comical, the way she's tossed to the carpet. The jerky movement and the flip of her long blonde hair give her the appearance of a marionette whose puppeteer has suddenly let go of her strings. Tran crouches over her for a minute before she's brought to her feet. She sways uncertainly between two bouncers who each have hold of one of her arms. The camera shows us that Anderson, too, is on the ground.

The footage switches to an alternate angle, and I only see the slap this time because I'm looking for it. There's a small flash of action, then Ferguson is tossed to the ground by Tran. Once on the carpet, she doesn't move.

Having taken a step towards his partner, Anderson is then pinned to the floor by Fucile and Levchenko. Narrating the silent footage, Tinney tells us that this is the point at which Anderson says one of the bouncers yelled, "This c...'s bleeding on me!" Another bouncer, unidentifiable by Anderson, reportedly said, "Your wife's a slut and she's on the f...ing ground as well." After some time, Anderson kicks his right leg up behind him.

As the same few minutes in time are played for us again and again, from multiple camera angles, the incident unfolds piece by piece. Each new angle shows something that remained unseen in the splice of footage that preceded it. In a new angle, Dunning continues to walk on, unaware that his two friends are being pinned to the floor just five metres away. "He's got no idea," murmurs someone in the row behind me.

Now, Tinney tells us, Quoc Tran gave the order to "put him to the ground". Lawson, acting alone, almost tackles Dunning to the floor, before he is quickly joined by another two bouncers, who help restrain him.

The next camera shows that Anderson is lifted to his feet by Fucile, Levchenko and a third bouncer. He sways. We see him guided past Dunning, who, for the first time, we can see is pinned to the floor. Anderson tries to stop, but is pulled towards the exit by security staff.

The final angle shows Lawson straddling Dunning. The young bouncer climbs onto Dunning's back. Benjamin Vigo tries to get Dunning's arm out from underneath him, tugging uselessly, and I suspect that Dunning is already unconscious; his only movement is being caused by the pulling and pushing of the bouncers. Lawson is still on top.

The camera moves to an aerial view, and we can see that Dunning's black suit jacket is gathered halfway up his back. His enormous lower back is clothed in a white shirt. Another man comes into view and takes a close look at Dunning's face. He's peering underneath, while Cameron Sanderson is holding Dunning's left arm. Somebody starts tapping Dunning on the shoulder.

Dunning's hands are brought behind his back. Another man approaches, holding the plastic cable ties that had been requested over the radio. They aren't needed in the end. Dunning is rolled onto his side. Seven men are crouched over him, almost filling the camera frame, and we can barely see the fallen giant. A minute ticks by.

The camera zooms in again. Somebody is rubbing Dunning's chest. We get a glimpse of his face. It is blue.

Dr Noel Woodford, a specialist in forensic medicine, carried out the autopsy on Anthony Dunning. Woodford has patches of grey hair at his temples and a calm, considered manner. He draws his file out of his bag to refer to, and confirms he conducted the post-mortem on July 8, 2011. He reads to the court the notes he made during a phone conversation with a detective prior to conducting the autopsy. "Big guy, thrown on stomach, big gut, choker, unconscious 80 seconds, never regained consciousness."

Anthony Dunning had a body-mass index of 46 and was, the doctor tells us, morbidly obese. In 2010, he'd attended the Monash Medical Clinic complaining of swollen legs and shortness of breath, which can be signs of cardiac problems. He had an enlarged heart, weighing 694 grams.

Ian Hill, for Lawson, asks Woodford whether this is what he would call a "gross" enlargement of the heart.

"In terms of his weight, his heart is enlarged, but not as much as we might expect. If 'gross' means 'significant', I'm prepared to accept that it was gross," he says, so deftly safeguarding his opinion from the defence barrister's line of questioning that I realise he must have given evidence dozens of time before.

"If this man had been found dead in the street, and all you knew was from the autopsy, the cardiac enlargement could have been a sufficient cause for death?" suggests Hill.

"Well, the point of view that you describe is not how pathologists look at these things," says Woodford. "If there were no other circumstances, such as his airways being restricted, the involvement of another person, heightened stress, then I would be happy to prescribe cardiac enlargement as his cause of death."

Hill continues to lay his traps for the doctor, who elegantly steps around them. "One of the likely contributory factors to the death was the cardiac enlargement. You can't rule that out as being the only contributory factor in his death, can you?" Hill suggests.

"That's not what happened. That's looking at it in isolation. That's as if to say, 'He's going along quite nicely, and then his heart arrested.' " The doctor and the barrister continue this dance for some time.

What they can agree on is that some pressure was applied to Anthony Dunning's neck, but the precise location of this pressure and the level of force are disputed between them.

The questions keep coming, then circle back to what Hill seems to want Woodford to agree with him on: that it was merely a coincidence that Dunning was being held by a security guard at the time his heart failed of its own volition.

"Would you agree," tries Hill, "that you can't exclude the hypothesis that at the time of the man's death he was already experiencing a stress-related cardiac arrest at the time he was taken to the ground?"

"I wonder why it happened just then?" muses Woodford. "Presumably he's had other sources of stress in his life."

Finally, Hill asks him about the pathologists' meeting where Woodford showed the CCTV footage of the events to an audience of medical experts. Hill wants to know if the meetings are a regular occurrence.

"Yes," says Woodford. "I can tell you what an irregular occurrence is, though, and that's having CCTV footage of what happened. It's not like England, where there are cameras in the streets."

During re-examination, Tinney, the Crown prosecutor, asks Woodford about the relevance of the CCTV footage. "The CCTV footage was at odds with a version of events that was given to me," says Woodford, "that Dunning had some sort of arrest and was helped to the ground. That's not what the footage shows."

When Matthew Anderson steps into the witness box, the court is packed. The audience has dwindled for the past few days, but everyone is back to see Anthony Dunning's best friend give his account of the night.

Anderson is in his early 40s and has great big groomed eyebrows that frame his soft face. Tinney quickly steps through the injuries that he sustained that night at the casino: ligament damage to his left arm, a broken nose, two months at the physio and six weeks off work. He asks Anderson how he would describe the language that was used, by either side. "Anthony was swearing, but they were kind of antagonising towards him," he says.

Tinney asks how they were antagonising him, and Anderson says that they were swearing back. Hill takes over and asks, "So, antagonising means swearing, does it?" Anderson smiles loosely. He can see how this is going to go.

Anderson later learnt that Dunning's blood-alcohol level, as taken at the Alfred Hospital, was 0.19 and "wasn't really surprised" by the figure. He and Ferguson had been getting something to eat in the casino food court when Dunning was first approached by security. Anderson says that later, once he'd met up with his friend, Dunning did swear at security.

"He said, 'F... off', didn't he?" asks Hill. "Was that in an aggressive manner?"

"I'm not sure."

"What do you think he meant by it?"

"I think he meant f... off." Anderson elevates his voice just slightly at the end of the sentence, making it clear that he'd like Hill to do the same.

Anderson tried to convince Dunning to leave. "I thought it was a no-win situation there," he says. He grabbed Dunning by the jacket, but Dunning still wouldn't leave. Anderson didn't hear Ferguson slap Tran; he only saw her swing her arm. He didn't see Dunning again. The unspoken end to that sentence, "alive", hangs heavily in the air.

Katherina Darmanin is a short, rounded retiree. In a soft, trembling voice she gives her account of the night. She tells the court that, as Dunning lay prone on the ground, she saw a security guard holding his left arm and tapping his shoulder, asking if he was all right, and tapping his face. She moved closer, she says, and looked through a small gap between the privacy screens that had been erected moments earlier by casino staff.

Tinney, on re-examination of the witness, tells her that he's going to play her 000 call. Cautious of the effect the call may have on the court, Hill says the defence is prepared to admit the call is, in fact, the one she made to emergency services. This may be the case, says Tinney, but Darmanin has been accused of exaggerating by various barristers, so he'd like to play the call.

Darmanin sounds frantic in the recording, and my note-taking can barely keep up with her. "The bouncers have jumped on a man and he can't even breathe."

"I can't talk, they're watching me."

"They're choking him."

"I don't know if he's breathing. I can't stay, I have to go."

She keeps repeating that they need to get the police, and the operator tells her police have been notified. Darmanin again says she has to go and hangs up.

Listening to the recording, she has become tearful. Gently, Tinney says, "This may sound like a silly question, but what was your purpose in making the call?"

"I just thought there needed to be somebody there. The public couldn't go and interfere - help - because naturally they wouldn't let anyone help, so I thought they needed somebody there to break it up. To help."

On Thursday morning the court is packed. The committal was scheduled to finish tomorrow, but word has got around that it'll likely finish today, and everyone wants to be here for the end. Olivia Ferguson is seated between Dunning's parents. The journalists who came and went throughout the proceedings are all here now, confident that they'll get a story but unsure as to when they'll get it.

The hush is broken when Magistrate Reardon gives his chamber door a customary double-knock and sweeps behind the bench one last time. He summarises both sides' arguments before speaking his own opinion. "There's no doubt Dunning was affected by alcohol," says Reardon, "but, cutting to the chase, Tran does become involved fairly early in the proceedings ... In my view, it seems when Dunning met up with Ferguson and Anderson he was not aggressive. It seems to me Ferguson was assisting the staff in getting him to leave the casino. The three of them look unthreatening to security staff. They're not there to create disorder."

Ferguson's attempt to calm Dunning down, Reardon says, "is not assisted by the aggressive attitude of Crown casino". Reardon pauses for effect. "Tran then employs such unlawful violence ... The way she was thrown to the ground was quite breath-taking." The bouncer's actions, Reardon says, were completely out of proportion. "These were sober men," he says, a hint of disbelief creeping into his voice. "It was an extraordinary act of violence."

The role of a committal magistrate is to weigh the evidence presented by the prosecution and decide if it's a sufficient basis for putting the accused on trial before a jury. It's an administrative role, lacking the gravitas of a trial judge, but now Reardon takes the unusual step of sharing his personal judgment. Throughout the committal he has spoken tersely and without any great delicacy, but now he injects into his words a steely edge of disgust.

"The incredible thing, of course," Reardon says, "is that this was all filmed by CCTV footage and they all knew it, yet still displayed such violence."

The magistrate goes back to the evidence of Shane Peat, a supervisor on duty that night, who told the court the casino only notifies the police in the event of a death. "It's quite an amazing attitude," says Reardon, before announcing there is sufficient evidence to place all six defendants on trial. I look over at Dunning's mother, and it's the first time I see her smile.

In November 2012, Matthew Lawson, Benjamin Vigo and Cameron Sanderson were acquitted by a Supreme Court jury. In April 2013, Quoc Tran, Jacques Fucile and Nicholas Levchenko were found guilty of the assault of Matthew Anderson and Olivia Ferguson, and fined. Crown Casino reached a private settlement with Anderson and Ferguson earlier this year after the couple sued for damages.

Edited extract from Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law by Michaela McGuire, published by MUP this week.

This story Heavy hands first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.