Why minor assaults should be taken seriously

I’ve been following the Claremont Serial Killer trial via a couple of live-blogs, and I’ll write a proper post about it soon. But it’s brought up an interesting side issue for me.

Bradley Robert Edwards is accused of being the Claremont Serial Killer. As part of the trial preparation, police revealed that he’d previously been convicted of common assault for a 1990 attack on a social worker at Hollywood Hospital.

The thing is, that wasn’t common assault. It was an attempted sexual assault. But either he stopped or she fought him off (it gets told differently at different times), and he said sorry to her. So it was charged as common assault only.

When police were investigating the Claremont crimes they were looking for people with a record of sexual offenses, not everyone who’s ever been in a punch-up. So Edwards’ name didn’t come up, and his fingerprints weren’t checked.

Edwards has pled guilty to the charges for the Huntingdale prowler series of incidents, and for a rape in Karrakatta in 1995. The Huntingdale offenses were before the Hollywood attack, and would’ve been difficult for police to solve because it was before DNA testing was available. But could the Karrakatta rape have been prevented if the hospital assault had been taken more seriously?

Everyone gets upset when women are raped and murdered. But when a young man starts grabbing women and trying to drag them places, everyone starts looking for excuses for him.

“He was stressed.”

“He’s never done it before.”
(But how would you know if he’s been excused on a previous occasion?)

“He said sorry.”

“It’d ruin his chances of promotion.”

It’s time to stop making excuses for sexual offenses which don’t meet the technical definition of rape. People escalate the severity of their attacks over time as they gain experience. They learn how to get away with it. We need to take the unsuccessful attempts more seriously if we want to prevent murder.

Unspeakable: a podcast

LIght green text 'Unspeakable' on a textured black background.Recently I listened to a 6-episode podcast called Unspeakable. It’s about child sexual abuse and unusually for a podcast, it was made by the Victorian police. Each episode covers a different aspect of reporting child sexual abuse – talking to the cops, what an investigation involves, choosing the right legal path for the situation.

What makes it interesting is Victoria has an innovative system which puts the victims’ needs first. They start with SOCITs, or Sexual Offenses and Child Abuse Investigation Teams. These are made up of people with specialist training in dealing with these crimes. There are also Multi-Disciplinary Centres which have plain clothes police, psychologists, and medical staff all in one discreet building which is nowhere near a police station. If you go to one, you don’t have to start out by making a police report – you can just chat to people to see how you feel about it before anything is decided.

Every episode begins with a gentle reminder to only listen if you’re in an emotionally safe place or have support with you. They encourage you to take breaks if you need them. And at the end of each episode there are contact details if you decide you want to report something. Given that the subject might bring up long-ignored memories, I think this is very thoughtful. I found some of the stories heartbreaking, I can only imagine how someone with personal experience of similar things might feel.

The Victorian Police made the podcast to encourage people who might be thinking of reporting a sexual assault, whether it was recent or from many years ago. They wanted the public to be able to find out about the SOCIT service in a low-pressure way, and to explain how their methods are different from how things used to be.

Anyone who reads about crime in the news will have heard some horror stories about police not taking sexual assault reports seriously. I’m sure Victoria has had its fair share of dismissive and paternalistic incidents. So its good that they’re not only improving but letting people know things have changed for the better. Unspeakable won a public relations award, so I think it must be doing a good job of getting the word out.

I hope Unspeakable gives victims of sexual assault in Victoria more confidence that they’ll be treated with the respect they deserve. But I also think it does a great job of explaining how all police organisations should be dealing with these crimes. I’d love to see police and victims’ advocacy groups in other parts of Australia learn from it and lift their standards too.

A quick search on reporting sexual abuse in other states showed that the rest of Australia directs you to your local police station, or Crimestoppers. That’s fine for a burglary or a bit of argy-bargy outside your local pub. But sexual abuse (particularly of children) needs specialist detectives, not just whover’s taking the shift on front desk that day.

If you or someone you know works with sexual assault victims elsewhere in Australia, I highly recommend giving Unspeakable a listen to see how a fully supportive police service could be organised. It’s available on Soundcloud and iTunes – I couldn’t find any transcripts but I hope they’re available soon.

True crime is popular. But is it ethical?

An article from Jana G Pruden’s speech at the Lougheed College Lecture Series. Pruden is one of my favourite journalists writing about crime – you can also follow her on Twitter.

True crime is popular. But is it ethical?

Lots to chew on in this article (plus some good gags), but I particularly like this:

Done properly, crime reporting can be profound and powerful. It can be a way to give a voice to the voiceless, or to help someone find their voice. It can do what all good journalism should: Tell interesting, important stories that matter. What many have actually said is journalism’s duty, “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes

I was going to write a review about Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, but Aja Romano has already summed up my thoughts at Vox:Netflix’s Conversations With a Killer willfully participates in Ted Bundy’s 3-ring circus

I liked Joe Berlinger’s work on Paradise Lost, and I didn’t know much about Bundy before so I feel like I learned the basics here. But there wasn’t enough time spent with Carol DaRonch or other victims, and there was too much time spent with TV hosts and smug arsehole Sheriff Ken Katsaris.

The Beehive

Who killed Juanita Nielsen? That’s the question asked by a non-linear, experimental documentary called The Beehive, commissioned by ACMI and showing there until 6th November. It’s free and running from 10 am to 5pm each day.

Juanita Nielsen was from a middle-class family. She was educated and well-travelled. In the 1960s she moved to Kings Cross for the bohemian lifestyle you could get there back then. But the real estate there was too valuable to be left to working-class employees and artists, and it had always been the headquarters of organised crime. Rich men bought up the cheap terrace homes and got their dodgy mates in crime and corrupt police to hassle the locals to move.

By 1975 things were getting tense. The builders union refused to work on the development and locals were protesting in every way they could. But key individuals were getting harassed and kidnapped, and warned off making trouble for the guys with money. Juanita was a journalist for a local paper as well as being involved in the protests, and used her platform and education to draw attention to the corruption. When she disappeared, everyone who knew her assumed she had been “gotten rid of” as a lesson to them all. No-one was ever convicted of her murder, and her body has never been found.

According to a review at The Guardian, the film is made up of about 20 sections, with a few of them selected randomly by computer to make a film-length documentary. Each screening is different because of this. In the one I saw, some sections are of the actresses playing Juanita, re-enacting scenes from her life. Others are the same actresses talking about what they have in common, or not, with her. One older lady plays a bee-keeper, a kind of ghost of Juanita haunting present-day Kings Cross. And there are interviews with people who knew her and were involved with the protests. It was an interesting way of showing the reality of any true crime story – that it is a mosaic with missing pieces and many points of view.

I misunderstood the details of the story, and so I went in to the screening thinking it was going to be about a nice white lady who opposed some development in her nice backyard, with not much controversy about who killed her even if there was no official answer. I should have trusted ACMI more! Nielsen was a tough lady in spite of appearances, and she was dedicated to using her bit of privilege in life to get a better deal for people who were worse off. She wanted to be a champion for people who were overloooked, and she knew it was dangerous to stick her neck out.

All film directors have to answer the question of “why should I care about this?” for the audience. Director Zanny Begg does a great job of connecting Nielsen’s story to issues still current today – misogyny, race and class. Affordable housing in Sydney is a way to bring all those threads together. This interview with Begg on YouTube (captions available) is really good at explaining what I liked about this film.

Sadly, the only mystery about who killed Juanita Nielsen is which one of the corrupt rich men affected by her power was responsible for hiring a thug to kill her. But finding the precise answer would shed a lot of light on how money controls the shape of a city. I’m not usually interested in Underbelly-style stories, but the more feminist and intersectional take on this case helped me get invested.

Two fictionalised versions of her story have been filmed – Heatwave (1981, directed by Philip Noyce with Judy Davis playing Juanita) and The Killing Of Angel Street (1981, no names I recognise but won some critics awards). If you’ve seen either one I’d be interested to know what you thought of it.

Exposed, The Case Of Keli Lane

Promotional image for ExposedThe ABC has aired the first episode of a three-part special investigating the disappearance of baby Tegan Lane in 1996. As you’d expect from the ABC, it’s well-presented and deeply researched. It’s satisfying viewing for people with an interest in the case.

But I’m not sure why it got made. Keli Lane, in prison for the murder of her daughter Tegan, called Caro Meldrum-Hanna and said she was innocent. There’s no new evidence. Enough time has passed that if Tegan is alive after all, she might hear about the show and come forward. Several recent true crime documentaries and podcasts have prompted people to come forward with new evidence they were scared or too young to reveal at the time, and I guess it’s possible here too.

But there’s not a lot of mystery around Tegan’s disappearance. Lane hid the pregnancy until she went into labour then rushed to hospital. After giving birth to Tegan, she stayed in hospital and had no visitors. Two days later she checked out with Tegan, who was never seen again. Later that afternoon, Lane was a guest at a friend’s wedding and never mentioned baby Tegan to anyone for years. When questioned about it during the adoption of another baby, she told conflicting stories about giving Tegan to the biological father.

There’s no question of the police doing anything less than a full investigation. DNA checks were made, birth records and school enrolments were examined. The cops followed every inaccurate lead that Lane gave them. Tegan has disappeared, and Lane is responsible.

The first episode of Exposed shows that Lane’s water polo coaches were negligent at best and complicit at worst in their treatment of Lane. And the pressure of elite sports is ridiculous and deserves more examination. But there are already laws and guidelines to protect the health of players – they should be better enforced but there’s no new lesson to be learned from this. Lane was not a child or even in her teens when she had Tegan – she was an adult with full capacity to make decisions, with money and an education.

Should every prisoner who claims to be innocent get a TV series about them? Amy McQuire, a journalist and presenter on the Curtain podcast, said on Twitter:

It seems like if the victim or perpetrator is a white female, plenty of media resources will be devoted to the case. I enjoyed Making A Murderer and Trace, and will probably listen to Teacher’s Pet soon since it has led to some new searches. But it disturbs me that these cases get attention while others are overlooked.

Meanwhile, Kevin Henry and Derek Bromley have actual evidence which proves their innocence. The families of the Bowraville children have new evidence showing they were all victims of a serial killer. But they can’t get new hearings to present the information. Their supporters don’t have friends in the media, so they have to fight alone for justice.

Kevin Henry was 21 when he was arrested for the murder of Linda from Rockhampton. Keli Lane was 21 when Tegan disappeared. Linda’s murder had a sloppy, half-arsed investigation by police; Tegan got a nation-wide search involving several federal and state organisations as well as the police. Kevin and Keli both maintain their innocence, but Kevin was forced to give a false confession while Keli was given years to produce proof of her lies. Both are still in jail. He is a young Aboriginal man, and she is a young white woman. He was treated as a criminal immediately and denied due process, while she got not only due process but every benefit of the doubt.

And now Keli Lane gets to tell her story again, even though there doesn’t seem to be anything to learn from it on a community or evidence level, and justice is already being served. Maybe the next episodes will change my mind… but this doesn’t seem fair to me.

How to spot a psychopath

Last year Richard Fidler interviewed David Gillespie about his book Taming Toxic People on ABC Radio’s Conversations show. Gillespie isn’t a psychologist but has read all their research and has a few opinions to share. He focuses on the non-criminal type, but I think a lot of what he says applies to criminal psychopaths equally well. I listened to it as a podcast, but you can also stream or download it from the ABC link (no transcript, sorry!). I’m going to read his book and will review it here eventually.

Curtain, the podcast

A silhouette of a man overlaid with an aerial view of Rockhampton
Curtain is a true crime podcast focused on the case of Kevin Henry, nicknamed Curtain, who has been wrongly imprisoned for 25 years in Queensland. He was falsely convicted of murdering a woman named Lynda (for cultural reasons her family name is not used) and has finished that sentence, but cannot get released. 

The podcast was recently named one of the top true crime podcasts by Vulture. It’s hosted by journalist Amy McQuire and lawyer Martin Hodgson. In the first episodes, they go through the details of the murder case and it’s botched investigation. I love the way they do this – Martin explains everything simply and clearly, and just I was wondering about something, Amy jumps in with the exact question I had with “Martin, how do we know that…?” and he explains that too. 

Amy travels to Rockhampton to look at the scene and interviews people who had some involvement in the case. They also interview experts in false confessions, cultural knowledge, and crocodiles! In more recent episodes they cover similar cases of injustice for Aboriginal people such as Ms Dhu, Mark Haynes and Derek Bromley. They also look into the situation (complete inaction) at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory.

If you are interested in how the Australia deals with issues with the professionalism and bias of our police, courts and prisons, I highly recommend Curtain. It’s been running for 2 years now (with breaks) and the episodes are short and punchy. I’ve learned a lot about recent history, and about the Rockhampton area of Queensland as well. I’m very grateful to folks on Twitter who both recommended it to me last year. 

Wild, Wild Country (Chaplain and Maclain Way)

Poster for the documentary showing a close-up of Bhagwan's face tinted orange.
This is a 6-episode documentary about the time a cult started a commune in rural Oregon, USA and five years later ended up with members in jail for wire-tapping and bio-terrorism charges. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh left his ashram in India and moved to Oregon in 1981, and brought with him thousands of followers, dozens of Rolls Royces and a very real disrespect for the law.

Wild, Wild Country depends heavily on contemporary news footage the directors heard about from an archivist. The Ways interviewed some of the key figures, including current and former members of the cult as well as some of the opposing townsfolk and law enforcement.

The great part is the way the archival footage is used to structure the story, and the interviews with Sheela Birnstien and Jane Stork. Sheela is funny and outspoken as she always was, but also cold and unrepentant. She’s a fascinating figure and always interesting to watch. Jane is more sympathetic – she explains how she came to join the cult and the effect it had on her with simplicity and honesty.

The less-great parts are the restricted focus and the reluctance to really question the interviewees when they are self-serving or evasive. There’s very little detail about the cult before or after this event. We only learn about the cult’s beliefs from sensational news clips (which are hard to take seriously with their exclamations about sex cults! and Satan!) or people who are still making money from the cult. And both Sheela and the cult’s lawyer are allowed to explain or avoid any topic they like. It’s not clear that one of the interviewees, Jayananda, was married to Sheela for some of the time in Oregon, or that she bigamously married another guy there too.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by documentary directors like Errol Morris who put their interview subjects under a microscope. But the “we’ll show both sides and let you figure it out” method seems lazy to me. I don’t have the access that the directors do, so I’m relying on them to find the truth and present it.

And since Netflix gave them 6 episodes to play with, I think there’s room to explore conflicting details without being biased. Shorter documentaries can take a point of view within a complex topic, but longer ones have a responsibility to do more than “he said, she said”.

Part of the entertainment for me is that Sheela once came to my part of the world and created her usual media spectacle here. Her infamous “tough titties” line was in response to being told that the rural town of Pemberton didn’t want her cult to move there. In the 1990s I saw Rajneeshees in Perth and Fremantle and was offered some pamphlets once. So I was interested to learn more about them.

Overall it’s a good documentary, well-paced and interesting. But true crime fans will want to know more about the cult activities and will need to look elsewhere. Here are a few links to get you started: