BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Presumed Guilty, by Bret Christian
, May 9, 2015
When cops get it wrong
and courts seal the deal
by Bret Christian
(Richmond, Hardie Grant Books)
Paperback: 343 pages
Reviewed by Hal G. P. Colebatch
On the morning of 21 December, 1959, the body of beautiful West Australian socialite Jillian Brewer was found naked in her bed in a Claremont flat. While sleeping, she had been injured gruesomely with a tomahawk, knife and scissors, and left to bleed to death.
Police arrested Darryl Raymond Beamish for the murder. Beamish was apparently not mentally deficient but was profoundly deaf and lacked social and communications skills. He had some minor convictions for non-violent sex offences.
This book, by Bret Christian, the editor and proprietor of the local Post newspaper, shows his trial, which was the sensation of Western Australia at the time, to have been farcical.
The prosecution produced a bizarre “confession” allegedly made by Beamish to the police but which in fact it was impossible for him to have written. How much Beamish understood the proceedings is very questionable. His lack of comprehension was confirmed to me at the time by a reporter who had been covering the trial.
He was sentenced to be hanged, but this sentence was commuted. He served 15 years before being released and the conviction quashed. This book’s epigraph is a comment on the case by Brian Martin, QC, former chief justice of the Northern Territory: “The criminal law is replete with miscarriages of justice in cases reliant on circumstantial evidence, particularly when the heart of the case rests on the interpretation of forensic evidence.”
Also in Western Australia John Button was convicted of having run down and killed his fiancée, Rosemary Anderson. She had walked home from his car after an argument. He said he had followed her after a few minutes and found her dying by the roadside. He was also to serve a long prison sentence.
Both men claimed they were innocent; Button said he had signed a confession because he was disorientated and overcome by grief. He too would eventually have his conviction quashed.
Meanwhile, WA’s worst serial killer, Eric Edgar Cooke, confessed repeatedly to both killings, the last time
immediately before being hanged. Cooke ad no particular modus operandi, khilling with gun, knife or car as they were available. His victims tended to be, but were not always, women. In his detailed confession to the Anderson killing, Cooke said he had contemplated two other hit-and-run killings the same night.
Yet, it took years and the determined efforts of a handful of lawyers and journalists, including Christian, to persuade authorities to take notice of Cooke’s confessions. The long-held official view was that Cooke was lying to attract more notoriety to himself or to somehow gain a stay of execution.
As far as the police were concerned, though neither Beamish nor Button had anything in their backgrounds to suggest they were violent killers, “Copper’s instinct” was that they were guilty.
The people of Perth, who had suddenly found themselves living in a reign of terror after Cooke’s first random murders, were believed, especially after the ghastly, sex-charged Brewer case, simply to want a conviction.
Eventually, Beamish and Button were paid compensation. Both men slowly rebuilt their lives. Beamish showed considerable quality and strength of character in overcoming his handicaps and the legacy of the unjust treatment he had received.
One who emerges without glory from the story is the prosecutor in the Beamish case, Ronald Wilson, later a High Court judge and principal author of the well-known “stolen generation” document, Bringing them Home.
Prosecutors can be divided roughly into two types: those concerned with justice being done and the spirit and letter of long-standing legal rules obeyed; and those who apparently believe the adversarial trial system means they should obtain a conviction by any means available, irrespective of the possibility of the accused’s innocence. Wilson emerges as definitely the latter type, his position as a leading member of the Uniting Church notwithstanding.
The line between the two attitudes is sometimes a fine one, but it is real nonetheless. When Cooke confessed in court to the Brewer murder, with Beamish already in jail, Wilson did his best to discredit this. Cooke, however, demonstrated a knowledge of the circumstances of the Brewer murder which he could not have known had he not been there.
At Beamish’s original trial Wilson belaboured the jury with psychological theories he had apparently invented on the spur of the moment, and failed to disclose to the defence that not only Beamish but anyone might have entered Jillian Brewer’s flat; this failure of disclosure being not only contrary to the ancient practices of the law but also being a breach of the provisions of the Justices’ Act.
This would be bad enough with a run-of-the-mill criminal prosecution, but in a case of capital murder, when the death penalty was still being carried out, and when the accused was profoundly handicapped and barely, if at all, able to follow the trial, it was inexcusable. The possibility has been raised that Wilson’s later “liberal” positions on the High Court bench may have been the result of a guilty conscience over the Beamish trial.
This book shows that the fearless investigative journalist can still play a part in righting a wrong. Bret Christian, who with other journalists, lawyers and others devoted a great deal of time to digging up the truth of the matter, has done a service to truth and to the community.
One quibble: the prison doctor who attended Cooke’s execution was known as Roger Dunkley, not by his actual first name of Charles.
Hal G.P. Colebatch, PhD, is a Perth author and lawyer.