‘ A useful reminder that the system is fallible’ – Rough Justice: True Crime by Robin Bowles

rough-justiceThis is a challenging look at the criminal justice system. At a time when governments have responded to the fear of terrorism with extreme measures, it is a useful reminder that the system is fallible. Julian Burnside QC, quoted on the cover of Rough Justice

I picked up my copy of Rough Justice by Robin Bowles through a discount online bookstore over a year ago and it has been sitting on my shelves waiting for a moment when I had the time and inclination to pick it up. That moment came this week when I tripped and gashed my knee, forcing me to take time off. What better way to recover from an injury than to read. As I’m currently writing a novel which involves crime, the “true crime” genre appeals to me: I welcome any insights I can glean into the workings of police, investigative journalists, prosecutors and defence lawyers, as well as the courts, as background material for my fiction. Rough Justice provides plenty of such insights.

Bowles’ book is subtitled “Unanswered Questions from the Australian Courts” and it certainly raises more questions than it answers. It discusses eight cases, three in Victoria, one each in South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland and New South Wales. Some of the cases are well known, including that of Bradley Murdoch, convicted of murdering British backpacker Peter Falconio; and of Greg Domaszewicz, who, despite having been acquitted of murdering toddler Jaidyn Leskie, subsequently had a coronial finding against him. Other cases are less well known, at least to me. In each case, the defendants have protested their innocence. Several have been exonerated; others are still fighting for “justice” – or, at least, to clear their names.

But what is “justice”? That’s the real unanswered question this book poses.

Bowles looks at the processes behind these cases and reveals grave flaws in the judicial system. Her discussion identifies various points at which an innocent person can be unjustly convicted, including incompetence in how evidence is gathered or interpreted, possible police corruption and coercion of witnesses, bias created in the minds of both witnesses and potential jurors by the media, and flawed judicial proceedings. The problems, she suggests, come from our adversarial system which demands two sides play off against one another; the winner, she implies, is often the side with the deepest pockets. Thus wealth, privilege and class – or the lack of these – ensure not a “fair” trial, but what can be successfully argued in court, a recipe for creating an underclass who risk being incarcerated simply because they are too poor to mount a convincing defence.

Readers of reviews on my blog may know of my ambivalence to the fiction of Caroline Overington. Despite being riveted by Overington’s tales, I’m left with an uneasy feeling resulting from a forced encounter with moral ambiguity. I experience something similar when reading Bowles’ book. In her efforts to tell two (or more) sides of the story, Bowles, I feel, manipulates me; it’s as if I’m being drawn to form one opinion, only for the facts subsequently to be presented in an equally convincing, sometimes opposite way. It’s a clever ploy, as it reinforces the book’s theme and underlines the problems faced by police, investigators, jurors and judges in deciding what is “true”. Often, it appears to come down to, not what is true but what is “believable”, and that is restricted by the evidence known or presented at any one time.

I’m also made uneasy by the subtext about class, derived by way of language. In looking for information about these cases online, I came across a thread on a website where people (the “public”) were giving their opinions on the Jaidyn Leskie murder. One commentator mentioned how so many of these sensational cases involve communities where people have names that are spelled with “yn”, instead of (presumably upper-class) names like “Jeremy”. This (somewhat bizarre) comment made me think. Both Favel Parrett in Past the Shallows and Tara June Winch in Swallow the Air write about poor, uneducated protagonists; but both authors depict these protagonists’ worlds using language which is richly poetic. The authors’ beautiful prose has the effect of dignifying the poverty and tragedy of their characters’ lives. Both Bowles and Overington, by contrast, use plain language – a “journalistic” style – combined with, at times, the idioms consistent with the class, background and education of the people they write about; this plainness – and, at times, crudeness – does nothing to disguise the poverty of these people’s lives and values. As readers, we’re forced into an uncomfortable position. Are we meant to judge or empathise with these people? Do we stand above, or do we consider “them” to be our equals?

Bowles weighs down, in my view, on the side of empathy for the defendants, not because she demonstrates their innocence or virtue, but because she shows how these people – guilty or innocent – are equally screwed by the system. At the same time, she shows how they’re equally capable of screwing the system in return – and so is she. At one point, she describes how Denis Tanner, a man who was found by a coroner to have shot his sister-in-law, had an entirely separate charge of assault brought against him. Bowles writes:

At one point, he was charged with whacking a photojournalist in the testicles with his heavy briefcase as he left the coroner’s court. He was acquitted because a visit by the Magistrate’s Court to the scene of the alleged ‘crime’ showed that the police witness who said he saw the whole thing couldn’t have seen anything from his office because of a tree outside his window. They didn’t ask me, though. I saw everything! (161)

What did Bowles see? She doesn’t state. But “everything” could hardly be “nothing”. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, for Bowles, in this instance at least, seeming impartiality and actual complicity are one and the same thing. It could be a metaphor for the equally fraught nature of the Australian justice system. Perhaps it was intended to be.

~

Author: Robin Bowles
Title: Rough Justice: Unanswered Questions from the Australian Courts
Publisher: The Five Mile Press
Date: 2007
ISBN: 9781741786606

This review counts towards both the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 and the 2014 Aussie Author Challenge.

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7 Comments

  1. That is an interesting observation about the language used in the book and how it made you feel uncomfortable. One thing that disturbs me about some books in the true crime genre is how they can tend to be ghoulish and glorify horrific things that ruined people’s lives. Of course this is encouraged by readers who buy books that focus on the dark deeds and don’t buy books that focus on lesser crimes. Do you think this book slips into this vein?

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    • Hi Yvonne, Thanks for commenting. I didn’t find this book ghoulish. It seemed like a serious attempt to identify problems associated with unsafe convictions, but using a style that doesn’t lend itself to creating any great sense of authority (certainly non-academic). The cases were pretty high profile and sensationalised through the media though.

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  2. I think it’s important to bring the details behind these things to light but the line between illumination and sensationalism can be easily crossed. I found your review of this title very engrossing however… I think you’ve touched on something subtle but very powerful in considering ‘the subtext about class, derived by way of language’. The journalistic style seems to draw on any of our narrow-minded tendencies but then slaps us for falling into the trap set, while the more highbrow literary style can at the extreme make us ‘less than perfect’ individuals feel guilty for not seeing the best in everyone… It’s all manipulation, but the extent to which I respect the utilisation of language for this purpose depends on the context…

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    • Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Jo. You’re so right about the plainer language/style/approach slapping us when we fall into the trap – and what you write about the highbrow style is fascinating. I hadn’t considered how it might engender feelings of guilt in the reader, though that certainly makes sense. (Do you think that’s intentional, or a by product?) I’ll have to think about it some more.

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      • When that happens generally I think it is, as you say, just a by-product of artistic focus, but in some cases I do think it is intentional… In the same way a parent might tell a child refusing to eat their Brussels sprouts, “there are children in third world countries that would think it was Christmas having that on their plate”…

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  3. People think it’s odd that even though I love crime fiction I go out of my way to avoid true crime but it doesn’t seem contradictory to me. At least with fiction I know it’s fiction – with “true” crime and the justice system that I have observed there isn’t a single truth – there’s what you can prove or what you can afford – even without corruption (which I don’t think is as rampant as noir fiction would have us believe) there’s incompetence and mistakes and there is generally a chasm between how the system treats the haves and the have nots even if we would like that not to be the case. So I’m not sure I’m convinced that depicting the dignity of poverty is a better approach than the blunt one you describe here – in my observation there’s precious little dignity in being dirt poor. I’m sure this isn’t what you meant (and I don’t think it’s what Favel Parrett did in her beautiful book) but I do get a little tired of the way some writers wax lyrical about “the poor”…an elitist’s means of salving their conscience? But I’m off track as usual…thanks as always for giving me food for thought.

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    • You’re not off track for me, Bernadette. I’m intrigued by this whole topic and thanks for giving your perspective. I’ll have to think on it some more, but the “waxing lyrical about being poor” comes late to literature, I think, and may connected with the broadening of literacy and educational levels. Back when it was only the upper classes (after the clerics) who could read, it was perhaps normal that protagonists would be drawn from that class. The shift from seeing the elites as the (only) noble subjects for literature to incorporating the “low classes” as worthy of “heroic” status, I think, was an essentially egalitarian move, but I agree that the use of highbrow language can (if I take your inference correctly) gloss over the hardships attached to actual poverty. I still think I prefer the enobling language, though. To my mind, Tim Winton achieves this brilliantly. Amongs AWWs, Jessie Cole (Darkness at the Edge of Town) is probably another who illustrates this approach.

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