11 Aug 2022

Space scientist given home detention for campaign to humiliate woman

9:01 pm on 11 August 2022

By Tracy Neal, Open Justice reporter of NZ Herald

An accomplished space scientist is now grounded on home detention for offences described as a determined campaign to break, humiliate and embarrass a woman he knew.

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Space scientist Duncan Steel has been sentenced to home detention for a harmful campaign aimed at humiliating a woman. (File image) Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

Duncan Irving Steel was today sentenced to 12 months' home detention on a charge of burglary and three charges of causing harm by posting digital communications.

All matters were linked to events dating back to early 2019 when he set out to destroy the woman, the Nelson District Court heard today.

The 67-year-old initially denied the charges, which led to a trial during which the woman was subjected to further humiliation and embarrassment.

He eventually pleaded guilty, but was given no discount today for doing so, given what the woman had endured.

The charges were linked to not only the dissemination of harmful material to the victim's family, but how he had broken into her house, and photographed sensitive, personal information he aimed to then use against her.

All details related to the woman and the nature of the personal information he distributed were suppressed.

Steel also hid her passports when he broke into her house, knowing she was due to travel overseas.

Judge David Ruth said he was lucky not to be charged with perverting the course of justice, which would have resulted in a prison sentence.

In October 2019 Steel pressured the victim to reveal allegedly sensitive personal information to her former husband, and began accusing her of having affairs.

He then sought "proof" from her she had met his demand.

In November 2019 the victim received a text message warning of the deadline in which she was to reveal the alleged information to her ex-partner, followed by another email the next day.

Steel sent yet another email, purporting to have come from an untraceable source, and threatened to use his "facility for anonymous email messaging" to tell the woman's employer of an "inappropriate liaison" he believed she had had with a younger person while working elsewhere.

The victim became so concerned about the level of harassment she consulted a lawyer about her options, including seeking a protection order.

Steel then emailed the victim to say he had engaged a lawyer and would be "filing a criminal prosecution" against the woman.

The victim's lawyer told Steel in a letter that his conduct amounted to psychological abuse which would justify a protection order.

Steel then purchased a domain name in a hybrid of the victim's name, from where he emailed her colleagues, alleging "prior serious professional misconduct".

Later in November 2019 Steel broke into the woman's home where he found and photographed sensitive documents on a digital camera he had taken with him.

He came across two passports held by the victim, and knowing she was due to head overseas, he hid them down the back of the desk drawers, which required the victim to spend time and effort getting new passports urgently so she could travel.

Devices seized from Steel's home in January 2020 showed he had started compiling folders of the photographs he had taken at the victim's house.

Steel continued to distribute highly sensitive material to members of the woman's family. In December 2019 he created a Facebook account in the victim's name, to which he posted content purporting to be from the victim.

A colleague of hers discovered the page, which was then removed.

Steel's behaviour was causing the victim significant emotional distress as she became increasingly concerned for her safety and that of her family.

On 7 January, 2020 a police search of Steel's home revealed numerous items of interest. He was arrested and charged a few days later, but declined to comment to police.

Crown prosecutor Sophie O'Donoghue said the evidence the victim was required to give under cross-examination at trial, before Steel eventually pleaded guilty, subjected her to further humiliation to a degree that it continued to have a significant impact on her life.

O'Donoghue said the burglary was made worse by the victim arriving home when Steel was still inside, and had he not been able to escape, she may have ended up face to face with him, at night, in her own home.

Judge Ruth said the taking of privileged information was a "serious burglary".

O'Donoghue said the crown did not accept the argument that a reason for the offending was because of a mental health disorder Steel had been diagnosed with.

His defence lawyer Michael Vesty said Steel engaged with a doctor in early 2020 to get a snapshot of the state of his mental health. Vesty said it was not intended to be used as a mitigating tool, but rather it was an explanation, as opposed to an excuse for the offending.

Vesty said Steel was a renowned and celebrated space scientist and astronomer who had worked for globally significant organisations, and who was "irrational, illogical and unhinged" at the time of the offending.

He said Steel planned to leave New Zealand permanently on completion of his sentence.

Judge Ruth described his behaviour as a "determined campaign to break this woman down".

He said while Steel's affidavit showed insight into the harm he'd caused, and that he had expressed sorrow and regret, he regarded it as "self-serving and manipulative".

He added that Steel's expression of "sincere remorse" was at best a hollow, transparent assertion.

Judge Ruth declined to give credit for Steel's eventual guilty plea. From a starting point of a 33-month sentence, he was given credits for his previous good character and for time already spent on electronic bail, to end up with a 12 month sentence on home detention.

He was also ordered to make a $3000 emotional harm payment, with a warning that if it was not paid by deadline he would have trouble getting back to the UK, where he intended to return.

Judge Ruth also granted a protection order which was sought by police.

* This story originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald.