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Edition 57

Contents
Memoir

What ripples beneath

The chilling realities of equal justice

JEREMY B PULLMAN was a tall, slim man with pale grey eyes and a number-three buzz cut along the sides of his skull. The rest of his dark hair was pulled back into a ponytail and tied together at the base of his neck, and then plaited down until it reached his waist. The way the strands thinned on top made it look shiny, a little greasy even, and I wondered how many times his solicitor had advised him to cut it off before getting in front of a jury. The other judge’s associates and I called it the ‘Ferguson effect’: if you’re on trial for paedophiliac offences your counsel will recommend you try as hard as you can to not resemble Australia’s most infamous paedophile, Dennis ­Ferguson. I was sitting at my desk at the opposite end of the courtroom watching him while the rest of the room bustled around me. He cocked his head to the right and I caught a glimpse of a smudgy neck tattoo. His skin had that permanent red-brown colouring indicating years of accumulated sunburns. A literal redneck.

I indulged these nasty thoughts about Pullman because he was a nasty man and because I am, of course, incredibly biased. Throughout my childhood my father would return home from work in his crisp police uniform with stories of justice being done. The morality he spoke about was addictive in how binary it was. Decisions were right or wrong, people were good or bad. I am also a woman, and Pullman had a rape conviction on his record. He was on trial in front of me that particular day for doing similarly violent, sexual things to his ten-year-old stepdaughter, so when he turned his head again and looked straight down the middle of the courtroom, right at me, his pale eyes unblinking, I felt myself sweat immediately. I flushed in panic and looked away. Another reminder that I could never be the impartial administrator the job demanded of me.

The twelve jurors were excitable when they first came in and took their seats, looking around the room at the funny wigs, but once the crown prosecutor finished his opening address a sombre kind of reverence replaced everything else. They stopped flipping through their complimentary notebooks and sipping their chilled glasses of water. The air became still and silent, as in a church. With all those wooden seats, and the leather-bound books, and the man at the top on the highest chair, the place smelt and felt like a church too.

As a child complainant, Sophie was allowed to give evidence via video link so she wouldn’t have to be in the same room as Pullman. The screens around the courtroom flickered on and we saw her in a bare room, her head and shoulders just visible over the top of the adult-sized desk in front of her. I noticed Pullman’s barrister becoming uncomfortable as Sophie’s chair was adjusted and the angle of the camera changed. ‘Sit up as tall as you can!’ the man recording asked her. I knew why the barrister didn’t like the fuss. We were all looking at this little girl with her blue T-shirt and her messy pigtails, too small even for regular furniture, wondering what kind of monster could violate her in such a manner. It felt wrong that she had to be here, defending herself in our adult world of arguments and loopholes. Pullman was looking down in his lap, calm and respectful.

It was all part of the duel. I understood why the prosecutors would have appreciated the opportunity to present a case with such a perfect victim. Had Sophie been sixteen instead of ten, they would have taken a different approach. They would have had to. I had seen it before and I would see it again and again throughout the year – the victim blaming and slut shaming, both underhanded and blatantly obvious, when a woman was on the stand. It was a relief to see a jury not immediately suspicious of a complainant’s testimony. Defence couldn’t ask this little girl about what contraception she was on, then draw inferences to her promiscuity by reminding her that she also didn’t have a boyfriend. They asked her what she was wearing to test her memory, not to suggest a shorter skirt was selected to indicate some kind of willingness. She could, in no way whatsoever, have ‘known what she was getting into’ or ‘asked for it’ or ‘made a drunken mistake that she just regretted the next morning’.

 

THE TERM ‘EGGSHELL skull’ refers to the legal principle that a victim must be accepted for who they are individually, regardless of where their strengths and weaknesses place them on a spectrum of human ‘normality’. If you strike a person whose skull happens to be as thin as an eggshell, and their head breaks open and they die, you cannot claim that they were not a ‘regular’ person. A crime cannot be treated or sentenced differently because a victim was ‘weak’. We must take responsibility for the results of our actions. Over my year as an associate I became obsessed with the concept. In this case, Pullman was at a disadvantage because his stepdaughter was young enough to be judged as a child instead of a woman. He had picked a cute little girl for a victim because she was an easy target, but in a sick way her weakness had now become her strength.

By contrast, in adult rape cases, the defence will do whatever they can to damage a woman’s credibility.

‘I’m pretty sure it was past midnight,’ she might say.

‘Well, was it or wasn’t it?’ the barrister could repeat.

‘I really think it was,’ she may reply, her comment trailing upwards at the end, making it sound like a question.

‘Well, you’ve made a very serious accusation young lady, so I’d hope you’re a bit more than “pretty sure”,’ the barrister might retort.

Tiny discrepancies in recollections of events that took place years ago get torn into gaping holes. It’s what they’re paid to do, what they’re legally entitled to do, what they have an imperative to do in order to defend their client – but I knew I could never do it.

The more brutal approaches to being a defence barrister have been falling out of vogue recently, but the associates I chatted to in the copy room all agreed it was all too common in the regional towns – particularly along the Granite Belt – of Queensland. Complainants are cross-examined for hours and hours, sometimes days. They’re made to meticulously catalogue their alcohol intake, often also their sexual preferences and interests from the past if the barrister can find a sliver of a way to make the question ‘relevant’. In Queensland there are cases that point to a man’s alcohol consumption helping to mitigate his likelihood of being convicted, but as soon as a woman admits to being ‘tipsy’ the legitimacy of her testimony will be chipped away until all but obliterated.

We don’t tell juries if defendants have convictions because it’s too prejudicial and because people will use past conduct as an indicator of guilt and reliability, and I understand and accept that, but what if you’re dealing with a dozen rednecks who think a woman’s body is their business? If she has multiple recent sexual partners and one of them gives evidence that she sometimes ‘liked it rough’, and now she is making a complaint about sexual assault, do you expect me to believe that information isn’t ‘prejudicial’? That the jury won’t take her previous conduct and apply it to their idea of her credibility? Women in regional areas face increased stigma and shame around all kinds of gendered issues like abortion and domestic violence – are we really so willingly naive to think that justice in Roma looks the same as justice in Brisbane?

Pullman was unlucky. His selection of the perfect victim had spectacularly backfired. Sophie couldn’t fight back against him, but she had people fighting for her now. When she began crying during the third hour of cross-examination I looked across to the jury and felt that they felt sympathy, perhaps even sorrow. A woman crying in the stand may be ‘emotional’ or ‘putting on the waterworks’, but children are allowed to cry. When Sophie had finally finished giving evidence and the judge adjourned for the day, the jury looked exhausted. Her testimony was so horrific that three days later at the end of the trial, when we all heard that she had tried to suicide twice in the years since the offending, nobody was surprised.

Waiting for the elevator down to ground floor later I felt a tension headache forming. I had been frowning the whole day, probably also grinding my teeth. I wondered precisely how many years it had taken my dad, or the judge, or any of the people in this building before they could leave work at work? The doors opened as I mulled over Sophie’s evidence. I walked all the way home with it, unable to shake Pullman’s face from my mind. When I ate dinner I thought about the jurors. It was as though I’d accidently popped the file in my briefcase and it kept falling out into my lap, pages slipping in behind my eyelids when I tried to sleep.

I couldn’t shake one part of Sophie’s evidence from my mind: she said that when Pullman drove her to an abandoned area and started doing the awful things, a police car came past. She must have felt a flicker of hope that she was being saved right before Pullman punched her and forced her head down over his exposed crotch, saying he’d kill her if she made a sound. She said Pullman pretended to be on the phone and the cops drove on. Of all the horrors Sophie endured, that flicker of hope being so violently extinguished made me the saddest. My father must have dealt with so much of this stuff, but how much did he also, unknowingly, drive straight past?

 

WHEN WE RESUMED court the next day Pullman’s counsel announced that he was going to give evidence, and I thought I’d misheard him. These ‘Fergusons’ normally never take the stand. In fact it was the first time I’d heard a defendant actually say something in his own defence all year.

He swore on the Bible to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, then told his version of events that included a story about there being a rat under Sophie’s bed, and that he was trying to chase and catch it in the dark with his bare hands. He offered this rat as an explanation to why he was found in Sophie’s room one night after everyone else had gone to bed. None of the other witnesses said they had ever seen a rat in the house, let alone upstairs near the bedrooms, and certainly not that night. On another occasion, on a car trip to get food for the family, witnesses disagreed with Pullman about the food being cold when he and Sophie returned. He said they had been gone only as long as it took to get dinner.

‘She was always pestering me, wanting to be with me all the time and go with me everywhere, you know?’ He said, raising his palms up and lifting his shoulders. He had been asked why he had chosen to take only Sophie with him for the drive, and not any of the other children or his partner. His relaxed demeanour made me furious. He denied everything; he was saddened by the accusations; he thought it had something to do with Sophie’s mother being jealous and resentful of his new relationship with a more beautiful, younger woman. He felt sorry for her mother, said he thought this had something to do with her, and said she was ‘unwell’.

When Pullman finished testifying the defence case was over and we sent the jury out to their little room with tea and biscuits. They deliberated overnight and I liked the idea that Pullman might be sleeping badly, waking into a nightmare. I pictured his greasy head resting on a state-issued pillow, his legs tucked up against the cold and his filthy ponytail dangling off the edge of the bed. Was he one of the crazies who had managed to convince himself he didn’t do it, or was he reflecting on his actions? Did he realise he belonged down there? When I got in the elevator and went all the way up to the thirteenth floor, into the sky, he got in and went way, way down, underground.

I was driving home from my boyfriend’s house later that afternoon, right on dusk, and the stretches of road between Indooroopilly and Yeronga were leafy and proudly suburban. Where the Brisbane River appeared before me it reflected a bright orange-and-pink sky. I remember thinking it was odd that everything looked like it did when I used to think it was beautiful but that I wasn’t there, I was outside myself, unable just to say ‘this is beautiful’. As I passed an Aussie rules oval on my right and looked over at the children’s lively bodies I wondered how many of them had terrible secrets that they were pushing to the backs of their minds.

Then I looked back to the road and slammed on the brakes. A woman on the sidewalk was screaming at something ahead of her. I followed her terrified vision and saw a huge bull terrier charging toward her from the other side of the road. The woman had two dogs of her own, small white poodles, and they were yelping and tangling their leashes around her ankles. She fumbled, trying to pick them up and move, but they were pulling away against their collars, choking themselves with their necks at sharp angles, trying to escape. She was only metres from me, just on the sidewalk, and I looked on as the bull terrier grew larger and closer to their tangled panic. Then it darted across the road in front of me and I saw its huge jaws open, heard a loud bark come out through its giant teeth, and thought that I should hit it. Put your foot down! I screamed at myself, but I was frozen.

The bull terrier passed in front of my car, leaping up onto the sidewalk and, as it closed in on the fluffy poodles and their choking diamante collars, it screeched to a halt, bowed its head and began to furiously wag its stubby tail. The woman was reeling, yanking the leashes away from the huge thing that was now nuzzling her pristine poodles. The bull terrier was so excited it let out another bark and rolled over onto its back and wiggled toward them again. Another woman rushed onto the scene, apologising profusely, and in one motion she leant down and heaved the bull terrier up into her arms, cradling it like a baby with its belly up. As its tail kept wagging it licked her face.

‘Sorry! He’s still–’ the new woman started saying before she was interrupted with a huge lick to the face, ‘–a puppy!’

I drove on for a few minutes before the adrenaline subsided and I pulled over and started crying. My face burned with the shame. I had frozen – but if I hadn’t, I would have hit and killed that puppy just because of its breed. Because I saw someone else afraid of it, and because I had heard stories about ‘those kinds of dogs’. I couldn’t see beautiful things anymore. I couldn’t do anything right. I didn’t know what to think. I wanted to call my boyfriend but I’d only just left his house and didn’t want to bother him with my emotions. I fell asleep in the car on the side of the road and, when I finally woke up, drove home in the dark.

 

THE TWELVE RESPONSIBLE adults tasked with deciding Pullman’s fate regrouped at 9 am in their special, secluded room, and they passed a note to the bailiff at 10.30 am. The bailiff then called me in my office and read it out: ‘We have reached a verdict.’ I hung up the receiver and decided to put in a little prayer. Couldn’t hurt. I went to a Catholic high school but I couldn’t remember if I was supposed to address God or Jesus when I made requests. Were they kind of the same thing? Who knew. Hey God, I hedged my bets, if you’re there, make sure this guy goes to jail. Feel free to go full Old Testament on his ass because he’s been a bad dude for a long time. I pulled my robes on again. And watch out for that little girl. I thought back to Pullman swearing an oath instead of giving an affirmation and realised he was probably praying as well.

As usual, it was my job to stand in front of the silent, tense courtroom and read out the charges against the defendant, asking the jurors if they found the defendant ‘guilty or not guilty’ of each offence. I still felt embarrassed at the absurdity of the youngest and least important or learned person in the room – me – asking the final and most important questions. Guilty, guilty, guilty, they replied to each question, to all counts, and my hands shook as I sat back down and madly started preparing documents for the sentence. When the jurors filed out and I had prepared for what normally came next I looked up and gasped, my hand flying to my mouth. Pullman had changed. His whole face and his whole body looked different. Somehow his pale eyes were dead now. His fists were clenched on his thighs, the veins in his neck bulging. He had dropped his chin and he stared up at the judge from under his eyebrows, his lips in a kind of snarl. I tried not to look away from him but my body betrayed me and I felt a surge of adrenaline make me sweat and panic again.

He had spent the last three days looking like a relatively normal man but in that moment the thing inside him, his nature, became blindingly obvious. Of course this was a man who drove his stepdaughter around to abandoned industrial areas to punch and rape her. Perhaps he thought he no longer had anything to gain from maintaining a semblance of decency. But how did he hide it before? How did he hide this thing under his skin? It must have been rippling along just underneath. I fought the urge to run from him and from that whole building that was full of people like him. I needed air. Prosecution and defence had both come prepared to move straight to sentencing though, and so we did.

The first thing handed up was the defendant’s criminal history. First entry: the violent rape of a woman in a public bathroom committed when he was just seventeen. The facts of the offending were precisely as heinous as you could imagine. Precisely the scenario that runs through every woman’s head when it’s late at night and she needs to use a public bathroom. I looked back up at Pullman and sighed, realising I then, for the rest of my life, had the face of that monstrous man to recall any time I need to pee when I was out at night.

I understand our legal system is based on the premise that you accept your punishment, serve your time, then move on with your life. I understand that the state does not want to institutionalise people and that we simply cannot afford to lock criminals up for their whole lives. When given the chance I speak to people about rehabilitation being preferable to punitive sentencing, but I do not believe that between Jeremy Pullman’s first offence aged seventeen and his offences against his stepdaughter that he’d lived an otherwise innocent life. I do not believe that he did not commit a single other sexual offence in the twenty years between that first rape and those new rapes. I do not believe that he will not reoffend when he is released from prison in ten years in his early fifties.

When the judge finished the sentence and the prison officers approached Pullman I flinched when they reach out to touch him. Imagine having to touch him. I wondered how many people I’d ever shaken hands with who were actually sex offenders. And just when I considered for the last time, as he disappeared out the door of the court to be taken to jail, what a disgusting excuse for a human being he was, there was a loud shuffling of feet and a flurry of action. A young woman let out a loud wail and Pullman turned to look back at her.

‘I will appeal this! I will be back out with you again soon, baby!’ he yelled, being dragged out.

She cried out in reply, ‘I love you!’

The door shut loudly behind him and the rest of the courtroom was silent, looking at the weeping woman. Some of the jurors had stayed for the sentence and were sat on seats just by her side, and they looked at her with a mixture of pity and horror. She hadn’t been in court for the trial (I would have noticed her) but she must have sat through the whole sentencing process. She must have heard the judge summarise all the different ways Pullman raped his stepdaughter, using different parts of his body in different places with varying levels of physical violence. Surely she must have believed he was wrongly convicted? I watched her crying in her seat from the other side of the courtroom while people shuffled out around her, trying to understand, struggling to empathise with her delusion.

Who am I to judge true love? Is that what we mean by unconditional? Back upstairs I turned into my office, dumped the files on the desk and shook the mouse to wake up my computer. While I waited for the black screen to come to life, I stared at my own reflection and wondered if my boyfriend loved me unconditionally. Not yet, but I thought we might be close. Would he love me if I had something swimming under my skin that was itchy and deadly and constantly wanting to be let out to do a horrific thing? Maybe I wouldn’t want him to love me. What if I found out he had a something under his skin? Would I still love him?

I was only six months into a twelve-month contract, but I felt like I hadn’t been able to get any fresh air that whole time, couldn’t get away from something, from it all. I was breathing in Pullman’s dead skin cells through the circulated air-conditioning in the building, carrying his terrors into my bed at night. It was seeping into my nightmares. I couldn’t put the walls up like my father did. Daytime things, work things, were bleeding into evenings, into loving spaces. In happy children I saw only Sophies. I was on an error loop, unable to reconcile the horrors certain humans were capable of without wondering if those same urges and capabilities laid dormant in all of us, in the people I loved, in myself.

 

This piece is an edited extract from Bri Lee’s forthcoming book Eggshell Skull to be published by Allen & Unwin in 2018.


From Griffith Review Edition 57: Perils of Populism © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review