Six years on Karen Kissane, who wrote a book about the trial, reflects on the case that shocked our city.
Julie and Jamie Ramage were married and lived in Balwyn. He was handsome and she was pretty. Materially, they were worth $2.6 million. Her two children remember that one of her favourite songs was “Summertime”, in which “your daddy’s rich and your momma’s good looking”.
Jamie drove a pistachio-coloured Jaguar, Julie had a horse she rode at weekends, and the children went to expensive private schools. Their dinner parties were sprinkled with doctors and lawyers and businessmen. They seemed to have reached middle-class Melbourne’s nirvana. But something about the Ramages’ life together had gone wrong. In 2003, after 23 years of marriage, Julie left Jamie.
Six weeks later, she came back to the family home for a brief visit. It ended with Jamie punching Julie to the ground. When she was laid out on the family room floor, he knelt down and strangled the life out of her. Realising what he had done, he did not call an ambulance or even the police. He slung his wife’s body in the boot of that lovely, sleek Jaguar and drove for 90 minutes across town before burying her in a shallow bush grave.
When his son got home from school that afternoon, Jamie Ramage acted as if nothing had happened. It was only later that he phoned a lawyer friend and turned himself in to police.
I heard of it first from an editor at The Age who wanted me to cover the story as a reporter, as a tale of love gone wrong. What I learned sitting on the wooden benches of the Supreme Court during the subsequent murder trial was that there was much more to the story. Researching with lawyers, friends and family after the verdict, I learned that there was much more to it again.
This story was a babushka doll of truths buried inside each other. It takes us into so many secret places, behind the facade of a perfect life hiding abuse, affairs and lies. It also has at its heart a double injustice: the killing of the heroine and the failure of the legal system to name what had been done to her.
When I first spoke to publishers about turning these events into a book, I was startled to find out it would be classified as true crime. To me, it was a story about the dark side of relationships among “people like us”.
If I had been then what I later became – an experienced court reporter who understood legal rules, and in particular the law of provocation as it then was – I might never have written the book. But I was an ordinary person thrown into the legal arena for the first time. In my naivety, I thought trials were about seeking truth and justice. I did not understand they are about arguing using only the facts that the laws of evidence permit to be aired, a process that sometimes leads to truth and justice, and sometimes not.
My unease began during the pre-trial process. Jurors are meant to judge the facts, but it was here I learned that judges and lawyers decide which facts they will be allowed to know. Nearly all the evidence of Jamie’s controlling and occasionally violent treatment of Julie was excluded because it was too old, or because it was hearsay: that is, Julie had said it to someone else, and it could not go to the jury because Julie was no longer alive to testify to it herself.
The law also said that Jamie’s account of that final row between them (in which he alleged he snapped after she had told him she loved someone else and that sex with Jamie repulsed her) had to be accepted as true unless it could be disproved beyond reasonable doubt. How could his account be disproved? Jamie Ramage could not be cross-examined because he chose not to testify in court, and the only other witness to the encounter was dead.
It all crystallised for me when the defence lawyer argued that Julie might have been “scratchy” during that last deadly argument because she had her period and was therefore more likely to have provoked Jamie, who pleaded not guilty to murdering his wife. His lawyer argued that Julie had provoked him and caused him to lose his temper, so he should be convicted only of the lesser charge of manslaughter. The jury agreed. I realised this was much more than a story of love gone wrong; this was also about how the law dealt with men and women and relationships.
Writing the book, I tried to explore how love can turn to this. I wanted to look at how the law dealt with family killings; how four therapists had failed to sense the danger in Jamie in the weeks before the killing; and how violent relationships work. Why does she stay for so long, and why does he do it?
Jamie Ramage’s lawyer argued that Julie had provoked her husband in two ways. The first was having led him to believe, during the six weeks of separation, that it was possible she might return. She knew he was taking the separation hard and wanted to let him down gently, something the lawyer construed as “weeks of lies”. The second form of provocation was her alleged brutal frankness with him in that final row.
If a woman trying to leave a controlling man lets him down gently, she is lying to him. If she tells him blunt truths, she is provoking him in another way. How, then, can she keep herself safe, given that separation is statistically the time she is most likely to be seriously injured or killed by her partner?
This was no Underbelly, with psychopathic career crims operating in a subculture of moral vacuum. Jamie Ramage was a respectable businessman who wanted to belong to establishment Melbourne. He was not alone and unsupported in his troubles; many of those in his leafy-suburbs circle (two of them doctors) listened to him sympathetically for hours as he talked about his marital woes. One of the mysteries was how a killing could have sprung from such ground.
If the first casualty of war is truth, the first casualty of homicide is privacy. I began my investigation with the police brief into Julie’s killing, which contained the sometimes intimately detailed statements of all the witnesses.
Few of the people I asked for interviews refused me. I spoke to friends, lawyers and therapists, and to her traumatised twin sister, Jane. For many of those who knew Julie well, and even for one friend who was closer to Jamie, there was an almost biblical need to bear witness about what had happened; out of loyalty, or out of a sense that the truth needed to be told.
Months later, I was talking to one of them about whether the book might hurt anyone connected with it. She looked at me and said, “Just keep reminding yourself that what happened here was wrong.”
The result was a portrait of a deeply troubled marriage in which there were many secrets. Every layer peeled back revealed yet another underneath and it turned out that Julie, too, was not as she had seemed.
The title of the book, Silent Death, was plucked by an editor from a line in the opening chapter. I wrote that no one in the Ramages’ street had heard a sound when Julie was killed, even though a neighbour’s windows were open: “Strangulation is like drowning: a silent death.”
The title resonated in other ways, too. It could be read as referring to the way Julie’s voice was silenced in court. It could also refer to the living death that is the abusive marriage in which a woman shields her partner with her silence. Julie herself had years earlier explained bruises on her face by telling friends she had walked into a cupboard door; in fact, Jamie had head-butted her in the face.
It was only much later that I realised that the phrase “silent death” resonated with me too, in a different way. When I was in primary school, my father was ill for several months. We were told he was getting better. It was a dreadful shock to be woken one morning and told he had gone to heaven. To me, it felt like his death had been shrouded in silence.
Perhaps that experience left me sensitised to the magnetism of a story like this one, drawn to uncover the truth about a family that had so many secrets around the death of a parent and a justice system that let too many of those secrets stay hidden.
Jamie Ramage did not appeal against his sentence (minimum eight years, and maximum 11 years). By coincidence, late last year I came into contact with an ex-prisoner who had done time with him at Loddon, a medium-security jail near Castlemaine.
He told me that Ramage had arrived with a batch of other wife-killers who came from the maximum-security Barwon Prison at the same time. “The first day he was there, I heard him say twice to people that he thought he had been hard done by in his sentencing, and it was too long a sentence for what he had done.”
Ramage did not endear himself to this man, who did not want his name used for publication. But the man acknowledged that Ramage had done a lot of good work helping the recreation officers at Loddon: “He’s been very good for helping get the art program up and running in a way that’s going to benefit the prisoners rather than simply the jail. James got money from a private foundation for this program and he did all the paperwork for that; submissions and writing reports. He does an awful lot of work for the jail where it interfaces with the outside world. There’s a food-fair day once a year, and ethnic communities set up food stalls on the recreation oval. James has put a lot of time into trying to improve it.”
But he remembered Ramage most as a sad figure: “A broken man; a whipped man.”
People often ask what effect the case has had. The problem had always been the law itself rather than any of the individuals applying it. Lawyers and judges are professionally obliged to work with the rules as they are.
Fortunately, the law of provocation was abolished in Victoria soon after this case. Proposed changes had been in the pipeline for some time, but the furore over the case might have helped energise the political will to push them through.
The case has made me realise that the law is not something that should be allowed to be “out there”, in a little bubble, remote from the rest of us. It’s meant to be an embodiment of what you and I think is fair. It’s important we scrutinise how it plays out because sometimes the fine principles that underlie it can fail to provide a just outcome.
Those interviews with the therapists have changed the way I parent my teenage children. I think there is a message here about teaching our sons and daughters how to negotiate an equal footing in relationships rather than to submit or to dominate.
We also need to convince our young people that they can bear being alone and can survive those times in adult life when there is no relationship to prop them up. This was something both Jamie and Julie Ramage deeply feared.
In the end, that fear of being alone destroyed both their lives.
Silent Death: The Killing of Julie Ramage has just been updated and re-released.
The body-in-the-boot In February 2005, Maria Korp was strangled in her Mickleham garage by her husband’s lover, Tania Herman, who had lain in wait for her. After bundling 50-year-old Korp into the boot of her own car, Herman drove around the city before abandoning the vehicle near the Shrine of Remembrance. Found barely alive four days later, Korp remained in a coma for six months until her life support was switched off. Her husband, Joe Korp, was charged with conspiracy to murder but committed suicide on the day of his wife’s funeral. Tania Herman, who claimed Joe Korp had masterminded the plot to kill his wife, is serving a 12-year sentence for attempted murder.
The parent killer In a case that gripped Melbourne, Matthew Wales drugged and bludgeoned his mother, Margaret Wales-King, and stepfather, Paul King, to death in April 2002. Family members searched frantically for the Armadale grandparents before their bodies were found in a shallow grave in the Yarra Ranges National Park. Matthew Wales, then 34, the youngest of Margaret Wales’ five children, had a clear motive for murdering the millionaire socialites: money. He is now serving 30 years in jail after confessing to killing the pair with a lump of wood and wrapping their bodies in a child’s paddling pool. The case spawned a telemovie and book, which labelled the killings “The Society Murders”.
The driveway murder In November 1997, mother-of-three Jane Thurgood-Dove was gunned down in the driveway of her Niddrie home. A hooded gunman chased the 35-year-old around her car, repeatedly shooting her as her children, then aged 10, 5 and 3, watched from the car. Detectives, who ruled out her husband, Mark, as a suspect, at first suspected a serving police officer who was infatuated with Jane. They later concluded the gunman was a Rebels bikie gang member who had accepted a contract to kill a woman but shot the wrong person. The suspect died of natural causes and despite a $1-million reward, the case remains unsolved.First published in the Melbourne Magazine.