10 years for hitch-hiker death

THE MAN found guilty of killing hitch-hiker Stephen John Ward has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for manslaughter, while his accomplice will spend at least the next two years in jail.

After a Supreme Court trial spanning two weeks, both men were on Thursday found not guilty of charges relating to murder, in the 2008 death of Mr Ward.

The court heard John Patrick Peterson and his best friend, Seamus Matthew Smith, picked up Mr Ward outside the Matilda Service Station at Curra, on August 4, 2008.

All the men had been drinking, and they decided to go back to Smith's house at Glenwood, where Peterson and Smith shared drinks and a roast dinner with the itinerant man.

They then smoked marijuana together, before deciding to take 62-year-old Mr Ward back to the truck stop so he could continue his hitch-hiking.

But here the evening turned sour, when a heavily-intoxicated Peterson flew into a rage, after Mr Ward allegedly made a homosexual pass at him.

Peterson told the court he feared for his safety and "freaked out" after the advance, because he had been raped while living on the streets at the age of 12 or 13.

"I've had people like that treat me real bad, do bad things to me," he told police during a recorded interview.
"I just snapped and started hitting him, quite a few times."

The partially mummified and badly decomposed body of Mr Ward was found in the forest by trail-bike rider Darren Cruse on September 21, 2008 about seven kilometres from Smith's house.

A jury of six women and six men found Peterson not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter - a charge he admitted. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment.

The jury also found Smith was not guilty of accessory to murder, but guilty of accessory to manslaughter.

Smith, who helped Peterson move Mr Ward following the brutal attack and also cleaned the ute afterwards, pleaded guilty to accessory to manslaughter and was sentenced to two years in prison for that offence.

He was also sentenced to four years in prison for an unrelated armed robbery, with the sentences to run concurrently.
He will be eligible for parole after two years.

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