Trans woman strangled to death during sex ‘was fully clothed when paramedics arrived’

·4-min read

An investigation has unearthed worrying evidence in the case of Mhelody Bruno, a trans Filipino woman who was strangled to death by a former Royal Australian Air Force corporal.

Bruno died on 21 September, 2019, in Wagga Wagga, Australia after being choked during sex.

Her killer, Rian Ross Toyer, 33, initially walked free despite pleading guilty to her death due to a sentencing error.

In March 2021, after outrage from activists that Toyer was allowed to escape a prison term, the judge was forced to reopen the case and ultimately sentenced him to 22 months.

Details about the days before her death, which were not before the judge who sentenced her, reveal that Bruno, 25, was fully clothed when paramedics arrived, had made several out-of-character video calls with an unnamed man the night before she died, and that nurses saw bruises and marks on her body before she died in hospital that were not accounted for or mentioned in the coroners report.

One friend, interviewed by police after Bruno’s death, said that he received a video call from Bruno’s phone the night before she was strangled. A man was “extremely angry and yelling” and saying he would “rape Mhelody and give her AIDS”, the friend told police – but this call, and other messages sent from her phone that night, never made it to the courtroom.

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Mhelody Bruno death: A miscarriage of justice ‘may have occurred’

The new information comes from an investigation by ABC News, an Australian media outlet, which also asked a former Supreme Court judge to review the journalists’ findings. He said that in light of the new information, “There is certainly an argument to say that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred here”.

“Unfortunately, we don’t know enough about all the detail, we’re commenting on bits and pieces as it were, but they are all pretty important bits and pieces,” said former Supreme Court Judge Anthony Whealy, who oversaw some of NSW’s most high-profile criminal trials, after reviewing the information gather by ABC.

Whealey continued: “And putting them all together I think at the very least you could say they reveal this was a much more serious manslaughter than the judge envisaged it to be.”

He added: “Has justice been done? Well there must be a question mark over that.”

The court heard during Toyer’s trial that Bruno had not requested to be choked but also that she had not asked for the choking to stop.

Initially convicting Toyer of the lesser sentence of manslaughter, Justice Gordon Lerve said he was “satisfied on balance” that Bruno “not only consented to the act of choking but actually instigated it … [the first time the couple] had sex”.

He said the choking was “committed in course of a consensual sexual act”, that there was “no issue or concern as far as public safety” and that Toyer was “unlikely to reoffend”.

Police say new evidence ‘not necessarily grounds for new finding’

Toyer lost his job in the air force after Bruno’s death, which Lerve took into account when sentencing him. Toyer also received a 25 per cent discount on his sentence for pleading guilty. In the end, he was sentenced to 22 months’ imprisonment for the manslaughter of Mhelody Bruno, 25, whom he killed while engaging in an act of erotic asphyxia.

He will not be eligible for parole for 12 months.

Superintendent Noble, who runs the Wagga Wagga police station, says police were interested to learn Bruno was found fully dressed but “ultimately a narrative was presented to the court that they had engaged in sex that morning”.

“Ultimately you can only prove what you can prove and you can’t prove what the evidence doesn’t substantiate,” he said.

“That is OK to do as a lay person but ultimately prosecutors and, in this case, [the judge], had to make a finding and a sentence, and inconvenient pieces of information that may be difficult to reconcile in one’s mind don’t necessarily constitute grounds for a different finding.”

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