26 Sep 2018

Toe stealer walks free after avoiding conviction

7:22 pm on 26 September 2018

A judge has slammed the police for the charges they laid against a man who took two toes from a human body display in Auckland, saying he was "toe-tally" overcharged.

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Joshua Williams in the Wellington District Court Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Joshua Williams, 28, appeared for sentence in the Wellington District Court on one charge of stealing the toes and another of interfering with a human body.

However, asking those present to excuse the pun, Judge Bill Hastings said Mr Williams had been "toe-tally" overcharged.

Mr Williams attended the Body World exhibition in Auckland in May, featuring what had once been human corpses, plastinated and set into various poses.

At a display of an acrobatic couple with the woman being lifted, which was not behind any kind of barrier, he reached out to touch the female body's toes.

He told the police they flicked back and he pocketed the index and middle toes and left.

Mr Williams later posted a picture to Instagram of him holding the toe with a caption saying he had attended the exhibition and "I stole a toe from an uncovered display. LOL".

His lawyer Amelia Jeffares told the court while her client faced serious charges, she wished to distinguish his offending from other more offensive cases.

"The bodies were donated voluntarily and in full knowledge of the kind of procedure that was going to occur. They were handled extensively and whilst that doesn't excuse Mr Williams' actions at all, it might minimise the type of offence inherent in his actions."

Ms Jeffares said her client was happy to do community work and wished to make full reparation for the damage he caused to the exhibition, even though that would take him some time because he had no job.

However in the end that was not necessary as Judge Bill Hastings said the charges of stealing the toes and interfering with a dead body could not both be proceeded with.

He cited a previous case in which the Supreme Court had ruled a dead body did not constitute property.

"If the toes are human, there is no property right in them and nothing to steal. If they are not, and the bodies are not human because of the plastination process leaving little if anything human about these things which are displayed, then you really haven't improperly interfered with a dead body.

"Indeed it could certainly be argued that the improper interference took place well before they arrived in New Zealand when they were turned into plastic objects and continued when they arrived here when they were shifted about and put on display for a paying audience.

"What you did pales in comparison."

The judge asked police prosecutor Sergeant Mike Stonyer to decide which charge he wanted to proceed with and he elected to go with the interfering with a dead body charge, meaning the theft charge was dismissed.

Judge Hastings said he was concerned about how a conviction for interfering with a dead human body would look on Mr Williams' record.

"It conjures up an image of a cloth-hatted grave robber with a shovel digging up graves in a cemetery at night.

"What you actually did was pluck two toes from a plastinated body already posed and intended to be the object of visitors' attention.

"The stigma that would attract to a conviction of this nature would be out of all proportion ot the gravity of what you actually did."

He discharged Mr Williams without conviction on that charge, telling the police Mr Williams should have been charged with intentional damage.

The toes have since been returned to the police and refastened to the exhibition body.