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Edition 17

Contents
Reportage

The juror’s tale

ON A STEAMY Sydney day, I find myself in a crowded room, summoned for jury service. There are about fifty of us, all called by chance in a lottery we want to lose. The court officials, who could be models for pompous officials in Little Britain, accept few excuses from those who ask for exemption. The dominant mood is grumpiness. When we are shepherded into court, a red-robed judge, sitting on high, welcomes us. The Accused is charged with murdering people I have never heard of, who died in a place I do not know. Other charges relate to stolen ATM cards as the Accused allegedly did "dishonestly obtain for himself monies, namely withdrew from the bank accounts" of those he is alleged to have killed. He is but a shadow, a question mark for the court to resolve. This crime has nothing to do with me.

The judge's associate draws lots and reads out a list of numbers. In New South Wales, jurors are known only by their numbers. Without any knowledge of names, lawyers and clients must rely on guesswork if they decide to challenge. I hope the severity of my black shirt will indicate an alienating persona. The man next to me wears a white shirt and silver tie. His is the second number called and I start to relax in the belief that probability will give me freedom. The next number called is mine. The Accused's barrister challenges the man in the white shirt. Only men are challenged, most of the surviving jurors are women.

Gleebooks has the last remaining copy of Malcolm Knox's Secrets of the Jury Room (Random House, 2005), which becomes an essential companion for the duration of the trial. Knox repeats the judge's admonition that we cannot speak with any other party to the trial, publicly identify any fellow jurors, or discuss our deliberations. To do so is against the law in this country. However the constraints do not prevent me from talking of my own experiences, my own observations and my own thought processes. There is on reflection something gloriously, impossibly, romantic about the British tradition of justice. Twelve citizens are selected at random to judge the truth or otherwise of evidence in a criminal trial. They cannot be lawyers or criminals, so it is fair to say they are unfamiliar with the legal system. These twelve, none of whom knows the other, most of whom have different occupations, must come to a common agreement. On our heads rests the collective responsibility of a decision that could either send an innocent man to gaol for the rest of his life, or set a murderer free.

The white-haired prosecutor stands to open the case for the Crown. He tells a tale of "an elderly wealthy couple" found strangled in their home, robbed of money in their bank accounts and of evidence that will prove it was indeed the Accused who did these deeds. His speech creates layers of absurdity. The Victims were aged fifty-eight and sixty respectively. Both Mr Crown and the Judge are significantly older than this, yet they both speak of the Victims as old. As for wealth, they were retired and their largest source of money was the woman's state superannuation. Maybe barristers don't save for retirement, or perhaps he assumes that the jury will regard this as rich.

For the first time I look closely at the Accused, sitting in the dock facing the jury box. He is only a little younger than the Victims. Despite being well presented in a suit, his craggy features are prison pale. The shoulders of his large frame are hunched forward at the beginning of the trial, but he sits more erect as the evidence unfolds. For much of the time he treats the dock almost as his desk, spreading out papers, writing notes, leaning over to summon his solicitor. This man once had a desk job; he is at ease with paperwork.

The first witness is the Elder Son of the Victims, aged about thirty. He is diffident, clearly uncomfortable as he outlines his career, marriage, children and relationship with his parents. They were happy in their retirement. The house where they lived and died was his childhood home, and they loved the bushland setting.

Mr Defence is younger than Mr Crown. He affects a Rumpole-like paunch which is emphasised when he puts his hand in his waistcoat pocket and pushes his belly forward in full rhetorical stride. He concentrates less on wealth and more on family relationships. He implies that adult sons who only see their parents once a month are negligent. He tries to weave a tale of a dysfunctional family, of children failing to show due deference. I keep on thinking of my eldest daughter. We are close, she lives nearby, and I see her about once a month. I feel sorry for this son who phoned his parents for days without getting a response then travelled north late one night after putting his children to bed. No lights were on as he approached his childhood home, and when he entered he found his mother's rotting body tied to a chair in her bedroom. He did not wait to find his father, but ran outside and called the police.

The local police who were first on the scene are young, and their memories are sorely tested in the witness box. One remembers the sickly smell of decay inside the house, but cannot remember the car parked outside. The jury is given a folder with many coloured photographs of the crime scene. The house is a modest 1970s blond brick dwelling surrounded by a swathe of neatly mowed lawn while an infinity of wilderness reaches beyond. Inside, crocheted doilies on the tables, the piano by the front door and the books on the shelves give an impression that those who lived there enjoyed life. The furniture is well cared for but neither new nor antique. There are financial papers neatly laid out on the billiard table, drawers open, stockings and scarves tumbling out. Unmade beds in a house that is otherwise so neat signals that the murders must have happened in the morning. In the study where the Man's body was found there are photographs of children on the wall. Were these the last things he saw as he died? Probably not, he was blindfolded. The bodies look like rag dolls upended and wrapped. It takes a while to realise that the smooth patterned fabrics around their faces and necks are the silk scarves that strangled them. Their faces are bloated by death and the tea-towels that were stuffed in their mouths. Their feet are bare, but puffed and purple with decay.

The young Crime Scene Investigator is steady through her evidence. On the dressing table she noticed pantyhose tied in a knot, and thought this might be significant until she realised that all the Woman's pantyhose were tied to prevent tangling. Such a neat person should not have died in this ugly way. The Investigator had noticed footprints in the living room and arranged to have them photographed before realising they were regulation police boots, probably from the night before. Wallets were emptied of cash and cards, a radio was still playing, business cards in the kitchen, bloodstains on the wall and towel, all were photographed. There was surprisingly little mess from these violent acts. In the laundry, the police found a mop and bucket filled with water and a bloody towel. The killer had done well, cleaning away the evidence.

The Defence becomes a hectoring schoolmaster. He suggests the Crime Scene Investigator is careless, sloppy. "Let me put it to you," he says. How does she know they are police footprints? Didn't all police wear protective shoes on a crime scene? Why was a cigarette lighter moved before being photographed? Why wasn't every item in the house removed to be tested for DNA? How did she know the Man sometimes slept in the second bedroom? It could have been the murderer. There were missing photographs, he claimed, and missing markers. It was not enough to test the house for fingerprints. This investigation is a clear case of police negligence, he says. I notice he does not challenge the process by which the police removed the ligatures around the bodies for testing, nor the swabs that were taken from the chairs on which they died. But the Crime Scene Investigator is rattled. At the end of her evidence, she sits at the back of the court waiting for a colleague, cradling her head in her hands. Another police witness confirms that at least two police had walked through the house on the night the murders were discovered and no protective shoes had been worn.

The business card of the local pest exterminator had been stuck in the front door, so he comes to the stand to add his small piece of the puzzle. He tells us he had come to the house by appointment, but the Victims had not answered the door even though their car was parked outside. He tells the court that, four years previously, the house had been invaded by termites, and as a result some of the interior walls had been replaced by a handyman.

 

IN A WAY, being on a jury is like reading the most intense detective novel, a larger-than-life Dorothy L. Sayers. But the narrative is discontinuous and often frustrating. A young brash homicide detective, now self-importantly attached to the Counter-Terrorism Squad, takes the stand. He attended the postmortems, saw samples bagged for pathology, and collected the mail from their post office box. A month later he collected "an item" from a bank and two weeks later flew interstate where he was present for the arrest of the Accused. I am puzzled. I draw a diagram showing the Victims as two ovals enclosed in a circle. They belong to each other. At a distance I draw the Accused. I cannot see any connection between them. Nothing so far places him in the orbit of the crime. Yet when the Defence rises for cross-examination the questions are not about the disconnect. Instead, he is asked whether or not the detective wore protective clothing, and about the details of a second trip interstate where he looked at the shoes of the Accused. These apparently are missing. Over the course of the trial, the Defence tries to make these missing shoes a focus, but no one admits to taking them and the police maintain that they only looked at them to see whether they had bloodstains.

Two puzzles begin to emerge. How did the police make that leap into even thinking of the Accused, and what happened to the Victims to leave so much blood? I keep on thinking of those two giant silk-bound dolls who once were people, who once were alive.

The pace changes. The Daughter-in-law, wife of the elder son, is a solicitor. The law is her world and this may be why she is more confident in the witness box. She easily sketches her late parents-in-law as kind and funny people, affectionate homebodies who were close to family and friends. Their home in the bush was an extension of their love of nature and in retirement they had led a physically active life. The Victims had welcomed her into the family circle twelve years ago when she became their son's girlfriend. They adored their grandchildren. The Woman teased her husband about his snoring and for this reason they often slept apart. The Victims become real; they are people I would like to have known, and their death becomes a tragedy as well as a crime. After her testimony, the Daughter-in-law sits in the body of the court. She is there most days, sometimes joined by her husband, and sometimes by other relatives who have been there all along. It is odd, the view from the jury box. You see the court visitors but do not know whether they are friends of the Accused or the Victims. It becomes clear that the most constant visitors are connected to the dead.

The Victims had two sons. The younger is more emotional than his brother. When he gives his address, I am startled as it is in the inner city, a kilometre from my house, near where I used to live. He describes his movements of the week of the murder and I recognise this life of friends, computers, sleepovers, rock climbing and cinema. A group of young men sit at the back of the court while he gives his evidence, supporting their mate. Boys like this tumble through my house, my children's friends. I can understand why cynical police would at first have been suspicious of someone who took a sickie and went to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the day his parents were murdered because the patterns of his life do not fit their norm. His girlfriend provides an alibi, but more importantly so do his rock climbing mate and his computer records. This does not stop the Defence from implying this son has something to hide, that he is fiscally irresponsible and otherwise unreliable. He asks the Younger Son if he knew the Accused. Then he asks if he remembers going to his parents' home when they were out and being "caught" there by the Accused, who was mowing the lawn. I can understand the Younger Son's visible surprise. Long after I moved out of my mother's home, I would occasionally return for some of my belongings. The idea of being challenged by the man who mowed the lawn is absurd. What kind of relationship did this shadow man, the Accused, have with the dead?

Both Crown and Defence want to establish a precise time of death: one to implicate the Accused, the other to provide him with an alibi. Neighbours come to the witness stand one by one, but their memories prove unreliable. People confuse days and times and hours. Oral history always was an imperfect tool. There is one impartial witness. The records show the house phone was answered at 10.57 on the Friday morning, six days before the bodies were found, and after that silence. Several people say the Man was in the neighbouring shops shortly after 11am. But that was the last time he was seen alive.

On television, in CSI or Silent Witness, forensic scientists would let these dead bodies speak with alibi-breaking accuracy. But real science cannot give a time of death. The university expert who tracks the life cycle of maggots says that flies had been breeding in the body of the Woman for at least four days, while none were in the Man. This does not mean one died before the other, just that some time after death a fly laid eggs in her head, but did not buzz down the corridor to him at the other end of the house. Likewise, there is no evidence as to how long she was dead before the flies came. All the forensic pathologist can say with any certainty is that these two people were strangled, and that some time before he was killed the Man received a severe blow to the back of his head. This blow was enough to give him concussion, but not enough to kill him. Both bodies had bruising on the forearms, which indicates that before death they were held down with considerable force by someone very strong.

Although there is no time of death, the forensic testimony creates the reality of the way they died. I start to visualise the Victims' last moments as they were translated from life to death, from being people to being corpses. I imagine the choking, the pain, the terror – the realisation that another human being was doing this to them. But I cannot connect their death to the man in the dock.

 

IF THIS WERE a play, we would be at the end of the first act: the narrative of the death of two good people. Now another act begins: the tale of a man who loved horses, and a country pub.

"Love" is perhaps the wrong word. The murders took place where farmland and bush meet real estate development. Horses are common, so there is a small market breeding and selling good horseflesh. But horses bred by the Accused were destined for the knackery, where they became pet food. There is another string to the story. Weeks before the murders, the man who owns the knackery lent the Accused $5,000 because he was depressed and had money problems. Two women I keep on thinking of as The Pet Shop Girls give evidence that connects to the future career of those horses. They sell meat, including horsemeat from the knackery, to those who like to feed their dogs well. They remember a busy Saturday when the Accused, who owned a large dog, paid his overdue bills, as well as buying meat in bulk. He took cash from a thick wad of fifty dollar notes. The Defence tries to shake them on the date, but they are adamant.

The Accused was arrested in a southern state, so there is a parade of witnesses, associated with his desire to buy a country pub. Frivolously, I think of the old sexist joke of the ideal wife being a deaf mute nymphomaniac who owns a pub. A country policeman, clean scrubbed and wide-eyed, tells of receiving a warrant to arrest a Sydney man, of taking a drive down the road, seeing a ute with New South Wales numberplates and making the arrest. I feel irritation at the missing pieces. There isn't even a hint as to what led to this decision. I don't blame the Accused for refusing to comment. The police drove with him to a hotel, which turned out to be the hotel he is trying to buy, where they searched and seized items. There is a video of this arrest and search, but although we are promised the sight of some edited scenes, they never appear.

Other police come to the stand to explain the arrest and the search. I can't understand the to-ing and fro-ing of their cross-examination. It seems to be about how many police should be present when evidence is seized. There seems to be confusion about who owned the hotel, who was responsible for what, and in the middle of it all a retired circus performer stands to tell about a locked box the Accused had given him for safekeeping. The circus man gave it to the police as soon as he heard of the arrest.

The Country Policeman is puzzled. He is square, blond and tanned; I can almost see the hayseeds in his hair. He hadn't heard of the arrest in his one-pub town until he got the phone call. After he collected the box, he opened it and logged its contents on to the computer system. One of the items was sufficiently important for him to phone the city police, who came and collected it the next day.

The Defence goes at him like a terrier. "Were you alone when you opened the tool box?" he asks. The Policeman replies that, as it is a small station, he is alone most days, and this was one of those days. "How big is the station?" asks the Judge in a mild tone. The Policeman looks around at the courtroom, as if suddenly aware of its size. It is about half the size of the court. "A bit like Blue Heelers?" asks the Judge. The Country Policeman is visibly relieved at this friendly suggestion, and agrees. This intervention allows the Defence to pause for breath. He returns with renewed vigour.

"Were you alone when you opened the tool box?" he asks.

"Yes."

"There was $51,000 in that tool box and you took it!" A gasp in the court.

The policeman sounds surprised as well as shocked. "No I didn't."

"Didn't you pocket it to give yourself financial assistance?"

"No."

Someone drops a pen.

 

FOR THE NEXT two hours, the jury sits locked in its windowless room while arguments happen below. When we file back to the court, the judge rules that, as the policeman is accused of stealing, the jury is entitled to know what he found in the box. He reads from the official police receipt: "One blanket, one box ammunition, one drug (cannabis), one drug packet (cannabis), four packets of cannabis, one pipe/bong, one hookah, one Bentley shotgun (sawn-off), one kitchen utensil grater." This list causes almost as much of a sensation as the accusation of theft. The Judge warns that this has no bearing on the murder, and he is right. Just because someone has a large stash of dope and a personal protection device doesn't make them a cold-blooded killer.

This is the story. The Accused was trying to buy the hotel, but didn't have the money on him. The conveyancer who acted for the hotel owners didn't trust him because he promised much and delivered little. He said the delay was because he was waiting to finish selling his thoroughbred horses. At one time, the Accused delivered $10,000 as a cash deposit to the vendors, but never completed the sale. Mr and Mrs Vendor give their evidence in tandem so effectively they are almost like a song and dance act. They showed the Accused the hotel in June. In July he promised to buy it. He missed the settlement dates, and in November he tried to renegotiate the terms, claiming the hotel was a wreck. By the time the Defence finishes tearing them apart the Vendors could be the stars of an old Dodgy Brothers comedy sketch, selling their overpriced hotel to a sucker wanting to make a fresh start. The trouble is that the Accused looks equally dodgy: wanting to buy, but slithering out of actually parting with money; running away from his apparently terrifying ex-wife while berating her for not funding his departure. If the only thing that was at stake was the purchase of a broken-down country pub, then the Vendors and the Accused could deserve each other. But this case is not about money or pubs. It is about two people who've been murdered, and whether the Accused killed them.

 

SO MUCH FOR people. The reality is that this case is driven by technology. But those who give scientific evidence are as human as the rest of us. The DNA Expert rushes into court, her fair hair accidentally tucked into the back of her black jacket. She enters into a dialogue with Mr Crown on the precise nature of trace DNA and how it can be identified and measured. In her manner, she is a bit like an infants' school teacher, smiling encouragement at Mr Crown's intelligent questions. "Yes, that is correct," she says with slow reassurance. So, in tandem, they explain how statistics can prove that the code we inherit from our parents is unique (except in the case of identical twins). We are taken through the recent forensic science of trace DNA, where even the sweat from our hands will leave a signature. I touch you, on the skin or on your clothes, and a part of me remains mingled with your scent. You strangle me with my own clothes, and your bodily fluid joins my terror. The art of the forensic scientist is to reduce these signals to neat tables of numbers, one set per person. It is only after a detailed seminar on trace DNA that Mr Crown asks the Expert about samples taken from fabric on the Victims' bodies.

Here she found evidence that turned the case. The DNA of three people had mingled where two had died. The Victims had met with a man not related to them, and his DNA joined theirs. The court is told of samples taken from various neighbours, but none matches another. Months later, the Ex-wife of the Accused and her daughter give their DNA to the police. The Ex-wife's numbers are subtracted from those of the daughter, and the result is a match with the sample taken from the scene of the crime. Later this is verified with DNA taken direct from the Accused. But why did they think of him? What brought this man to their attention?

Nothing the DNA expert says is described in absolute terms, but "does not exclude" means the odds are ten billion to one that the Accused touched the fabric used to kill. On some other items, the odds are less dramatic. They are more than a thousand to one. In this city, many people would fit that profile. I find myself relishing the language of science. It is so precise, yet leaves open room for other possibilities. Mr Crown asks whether DNA would be released by friction of skin against fabric. "Yes, that would encourage DNA transfer," comes the calm reply. If someone tied a knot in fabric, would that transfer DNA? "It is possible." How long does trace DNA survive? Is it weeks or months? "It is possible." What if an item containing trace DNA was washed? "It would wash away."

I look at the Accused, who is staring at me from deep-set eyes. How can he refute this witness? She is calm, professional and dispassionate. There is no hidden agenda except to defend her science, and this she is happy to do. "How long does trace DNA survive on a surface?" the Defence asks. "Under shelter as compared to out in the weather, would it stay indefinitely?"

"It depends on what kind of substance it is on," comes the placid reply.

"Assume the Accused would take the washing off the line," pursues the Defence. "Would there be his DNA on the items?"

"It is possible." The Defence will not attack her scientific method, or the bulk of her conclusions. The Accused will not even deny it is his DNA on the clothes. Rather, it will be claimed that there are legitimate reasons for the Accused's presence at the scene of the crime.

"Assume that there was a termite problem and treatment," the Defence pursues his advantage. "Assume the Accused was required to shake out the Victims' clothing. Would there be DNA on the clothing?"

"That is possible."

If the Accused has a legitimate reason to deposit his DNA on the clothes, then the DNA evidence will count for nothing. The term "reasonable doubt" springs to mind.

 

THE SECOND STRAND of the case is based on the way the Victims' bank accounts were accessed after their death. I'd always believed the warning signs about ATMs being filmed and assumed that cameras were hidden, recording every move. It is with shock that I hear that most banks' surveillance cameras are non-functioning. Only the signage is real. Of all the banks raided in the aftermath of the murder, only one had a functioning camera. The film is of such poor quality that, in the words of the DNA expert, the Accused "cannot be excluded" from consideration. Even the Accused's Ex-wife will not positively identify him from this footage, and she is hardly his best friend.

The Ex-wife is a small woman with the aggressive charm of a rampant bantam hen. She relishes her chance to attack the accused: his unreliability, dishonesty, fiscal follies. In her enthusiasm to condemn, she becomes his greatest advocate. Soon after their marriage, but before their daughter was born, her parents bought them a house in the district. Until life went sour, he worked as an insurance investigator and she helped in his business. In 1987, a notorious year for fiscal transactions, they sued a bank and lost their house. Her parents built them another house, but made sure that the title deeds remained in their names. I look across at the Accused and wonder what it would do to a big old-fashioned man to have his wife's parents providing their house with her openly scornful of his capacity.

Mr Crown asks about thoroughbred horses. The Ex-wife laughs. "There were always horses," she replies bitterly. She tells of horses breeding out of control on their land, none of them thoroughbreds, and the constant visits of the man from the knackery. After the insurance business collapsed, the Accused went on the dole, but worked on the side in bars at local clubs and as a handyman. The Victims were clients in the handyman business. He mowed their lawn, and did other odd jobs. She helped and had been at the Victims' house, when he was building a pergola. They paid him $20 an hour, a standard rate for unskilled work. I wonder how he felt, working for people who were comfortably retired, living on government superannuation. I wonder if he resented their easy life.

There is really no need for the Defence to ask the Ex-wife if she "despises" the Accused, but she answers in the affirmative cheerfully enough. She is, despite her aggression, a credible witness. But now I feel some sympathy for a man unable to adjust to a world in flux, sinking from white-collar affluence to poverty. After she gives her evidence, the Ex-wife sits in the body of the court, often with a friend, watching her husband's trial with all the glee of Madame Defarge at the guillotine.

The next witness is a surprise: an elderly hippie, a relic from the sixties – the source of her style. I try to guess her age. The crevasses on her pale face say she is old, but maybe she has just lived a tough life. She was a friend of the Accused for many years; indeed, it becomes clear that he was a handyman in more senses than one. He had once kept horses on her land, none of them thoroughbreds. Shortly before the murders, he had told her he was travelling north, and had asked her to sign some papers he faxed to her. She signed them "because he asked me to", even though they made no sense. The papers she signed were an agreement to buy a horse for $60,000, and the name on the space for the signature was not her own.

"Did you have $60,000?" asks Mr Crown.

"I'm a pensioner. I have no money."

Why did she sign if the document was untrue?

"I was presented with that paper and asked to sign it. He said he needed to put horses in other people's names to get them insured." She was happy to do a favour for a friend, but when she realised a crime was involved she recanted and told the truth. Mr Defence tries to wear her down. He points out that the name on the false document is a variation on her maiden name, but she does not budge. She has nothing to lose. For all her fey quality, she is a good witness. I begin to know that the story of the thoroughbred horses is untrue, and the Accused does not look a kind man. The Hippie becomes another habitué of the court and sits with the Ex-wife, a curious friendship.

There is evidence that the Accused was in financial trouble, but it is no crime to have problems with money. An old friend testifies that he was asked for a loan of $3,000 but couldn't oblige. The friend is left with the impression that the Accused is seriously depressed and was moving to the country for a new life. But still only the DNA links him to the murders, and the Defence has successfully shadowed that with doubt. It does not matter that he now appears to be a less than pleasant person, or that I am sceptical of the idea that DNA could be on the washing. If there is doubt, he must go free.

 

THE MAN FROM Telstra has all the personal charisma of a trainspotter. His evidence is dry, precise and unshakeable. It undermines the whole notion that we might lead private lives.

This expert on mobile phone technology tells that each mobile phone base is divided into three segments so that it is possible to locate every call within a 120 degree radius of the nearest base station. Our mobile phones act as plotting devices, showing where we go. He uses a giant map to show that the Accused's movements are tracked by the signals to his phone. Messages received by him reveal that he was near the banks when money was taken out of the Victims' accounts. I feel a strange and terrible physical reaction. I am dizzy, faint. I do not know what will happen next. Will I vomit, or shit? Both seem equally likely. Fortunately, we break for lunch and I retreat to the loo.

In the afternoon the nausea lingers. The evidence is overwhelming. The Defence does his best. He asks whether it is possible for the Accused to be on the top left-hand side of the map when the phone is receiving messages at the bottom right. "No," says the Telstra man, with emphasis, pointing out the absurd geometry. When the Defence suggests that calls get diverted, we are treated to a discourse on the difference between SMS calls that use one bit of memory and phone calls that can be many bytes. It is "extremely unlikely" that an SMS would be bounced on to another cell base. It is clear that "extremely unlikely" means there is more chance of John Howard leading the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras while dressed in Alexander Downer's fishnet stockings than the Accused's phone not being at the banks.

There is a stir in the court when the Accused's girlfriend appears. I had wondered what kind of femme fatale would precipitate such changes in his life. Yet the woman who comes into court is pathetic. She looks like a broken down racehorse with a face worn to brown leather. Just as the Ex-wife's hostility worked to assist the Accused, so the Girlfriend's loyalty aids his downfall. She proudly describes herself as his partner and indicates that this commitment happened well before the end of the marriage. The Ex-wife, the Hippie and several other women sitting in the court bristle. With how many women was this man handy? She claims she and the Accused were together for most of the day of the murders, and all subsequent time until she left on the Monday morning. She claims the SMS messages were sweet nothings between two lovers in the same house, except when he left to get petrol. She is proud of lying to the police when they first came searching for him, and gives a taunting glance to the policeman sitting in the body of the court.

"So you lied for him?" asks Mr Crown.

"For both of us," she replies.

"So if there's a reason you will tell a lie?"

"Yes."

"Is that true?"

"Yes."

"Are you lying now?"

"No."

But who could believe her?

I am drawn into the repartee of cross-examination. Mr Crown starts to ask questions, then apparently thinks better of it and says: "I withdraw that." Suggestions come with "I put it to you". When the Girlfriend loses her cool and asks her own question, Mr Crown acidly reminds her that "I put the questions". At times, there is almost a sexual subtext to these exchanges, and I start to fantasise about other circumstances with lawyers in wigs "putting it to" parades of witnesses. I have spent too long in this courtroom.

This wreck of a woman, clinging to her dream of romance, is utterly pathetic. She works at a chain store, lives in a public housing estate, and spends her money supporting a man who is using her to create an alibi. Yet it is her SMS messages that have destroyed his alibi. If he had turned off his phone, if she had restrained herself, then his movements would have remained private. She does not realise what she has done, but instead repeats the lies she tells to save her lover. After her evidence, she stays in court, sitting behind the Defence, passing messages and sweet glances to the Accused. She stays until the end.

The Crown is wrapping up its case. A Detective returns to the stand to tell us the police found the Accused's name in the Victims' diary because six months earlier he had mowed the lawn. This, they say, is why they looked for him. We are told there is no formal record of the Accused ever owning thoroughbred horses, racing horses or trotters. There is a final coda on the horses. When the Accused left his wife, he placed his horses on agistment at another property. The owner of this property tells of neglected animals, a mare dying in foal, a stallion discovered dead while bills were unpaid. It is a sordid story.

 

THERE IS NO need in our system for those accused of a crime to speak in their own defence. But now the Accused enters the witness box. This means everything he says is open to scrutiny. It is a gamble. In line with his persona as a man of the land, the Accused speaks with a broad nasal Australian accent. The Defence starts with the big question: "Did you murder the Victims?"

"No, I did not."

This man has a gift for appearing to be credible. He worked for the Victims as a handyman. At first he was paid $27.50 an hour, but then the Man asked him to take cash and be paid less. The invoices that tell another story were fictions created for the Taxation Department. Even though most of his work was mowing the lawns, he says he was often indoors because the couple was so friendly. He took washing off the line when he was mowing the lawn. The Victims gave him keys to the house because they trusted him and the repair work he did to the walls after the termites. That was when he went through all their drawers and shook out the clothes. He was a confidant to those who were so cruelly killed.

His evidence goes on for days. He says that he has worked since he was fifteen, first for insurance companies and then as an insurance investigator in private practice. For many years, he bred stud horses and in 1982 he was given a trainer's licence. In 1986 he began to buy a property next door for a training track, but in 1987 he sued the bank as the sale fell through. Because of his, he and his wife lost their house. They moved to a new house and he "came to an agreement with the owners" on using the land for his horses. He does not mention that the owners are his parents-in-law. He claims one year he earned up to $50,000 in handyman fees. He tells of problems with torn muscles in his arms, which meant he had no strength. There is no supporting medical evidence given for this claim. I notice oddities in his language. People are described as objects, and women are described as "females". It is strangely chilling.

When the Defence asks the Accused where he got the money to buy the hotel, he becomes expansive. He worked twenty hours a day, seven days a week, paid in cash through his private company, always dealt in cash. Some of the money he had came from the Hippie lady, even though we've been told this money never existed. He had packed the money in a box and sent it ahead with the removalist. The only reason he didn't pay the full price for the hotel was that he found it was a wreck. His money was stolen from the box. He makes his claims with such conviction that they are almost believable.

I am taking notes, and it is only as I read them later that the sheer absurdity of it all hits me. Maybe it is the singsong voice that lulls away reason.

Now we come to the day of the murder, and he tells in precise detail where he drove, how he cared for his horses, in the short time he was away from the Girlfriend's house. He was hiding from the Ex-wife and so did not wish to be seen. A few days later, he took his dog and his ute, loaded up with a trailer, on the long drive south. The arrest came as a surprise.

Mr Crown rises, almost apologetically, as he prepares to puncture this carefully constructed tale. He looks absent-minded, but everything he does is deliberate. First he goes for the money. "You mean to say you put your life savings, $45,000, in a removal truck? Did you tell them it was there?" He manages to sound incredulous rather than sceptical. "No," is the reply. Then the voice goes sharper.

"Where did you get the money?"

"Out of my company." He reels off individual creditors. "At the end of July, I had $63,000. The Accused is confident now.

"Where did you keep this money?"

"In the drawers of my desk." He is giving too much detail. "Nobody knew I had it." But there is a problem with all this money. At the same time he "saved" $60,000 he was on the dole.

Mr Crown's pace accelerates when he looks at the bogus horse documents created to give him the impression of wealth when buying the hotel. "Don't you think you had an obligation to tell the truth to the Licensing and Gaming Board? You lied to them!" Mr Crown is the avenging angel of law and order.

The Accused becomes conciliatory. "I lied to them." They, after all, are not trying him for murder.

"There was no money there," Mr Crown says with emphasis. "It was a furphy, wasn't it?"

All the Accused can say is "Incorrect", but he no longer sounds convincing. The questions come in rapid fire. The Accused wilts under the barrage. He admits to defrauding Centrelink; he denies asking for money. He says his arm made him weak, but admits being able to load a stallion in a trailer single-handed because the horse was "a perfect gentleman". He denies he was desperate for money. He denies being depressed, he denies going to the Victims' house to ask for cash. He denies killing them. Mr Crown takes the photographs, the terrible photographs of the dead, and shows them to the Accused. He does not flinch. "I would be incapable of doing that," he says, deadpan. "I wasn't there. I didn't do it." He is beginning to sound like Bart Simpson, caught in the act.

This is an uncomfortable slaughter. The Accused's voice is steady with the rehearsed answer to every question: "I deny that." His large hands, fingers clenched tight, are the only indication of what he is really feeling.

The Accused tries to challenge the telephone evidence, but can produce no expert to support his analysis. He brings in his own DNA expert in an attempt to counter the evidence of the Crown's Expert. But all this man does is prove that her methodology is sound, her conclusions valid. And if the Accused did have his DNA legitimately deposited on the Victims' clothes, it all would have come out in the wash.

 

MR CROWN AND Mr Defence spin their best in their concluding submissions. So much theatre for an audience of twelve. If I were marking these as essays, Mr Crown would get a distinction for detailed referencing, but would lose marks for histrionics in describing the way the Victims died. Poor Defence would fail. In his final speech, he reminds the court that the Victims were described as "homebodies". Therefore he suggests that the Woman would rarely wear her silk scarves, so the Accused's DNA could remain on them for four years. But I remember that the scarves were taken from the top drawer, next to her bed. That drawer is for clothes used every day. The DNA evidence stands.

The Judge talks to the jury, describing the "essential ingredients" which need to be proved for a guilty verdict. I wonder if he has a secret life as a cook. But this is not a time for levity.

When the jury files back to the court, the Judge's Associate reads out the first charge and asks the Foreman:

"What say you?"

"Guilty."

"So says the foreman, so say you all."

The litany of the judicial process is repeated seventeen times. When it is over, the man standing opposite me is no longer the Accused. He is the Prisoner. On a date yet to be fixed, he will be called the Offender and sentenced to the term of his natural life, never to be released. I can live with that decision.


From Griffith Review Edition 17: Staying Alive © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review