Julie Ramage’s mother wept silently on her husband’s shoulder yesterday when she heard the verdict: “Manslaughter.” But she was unable to stifle her sobs as the jury left the courtroom. And she was unable to restrain her rage as she left, passing her son-in-law, the man who had killed her daughter.
“Bastard,” she hissed.
His head was bowed, as it had been since the verdict was announced. He did not reply.
After two days of deliberation, a jury of seven men and five women had concluded that James Stuart Ramage should not be convicted for murder over the killing last year of his estranged wife, Julie, who had separated from him a month earlier.
The defence had argued that Ramage should be convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter because Julie had provoked him with verbal taunting and gestures in the moments before Ramage “lost it”, punched her to the ground and throttled the life out of her on their family-room floor.
The prosecution had argued that she would never have taunted him because she feared him – he had been verbally and physically violent to her before.
Outside the court, her distressed parents called for the law of provocation to be ditched.
“I just feel that there’s no justice,” said her trembling mother, Patricia Garrett. “Any woman that’s in a relationship where she feels threatened, I tell her not to stay for the sake of the children. Get out . . . My daughter stayed for the children, and she’s paid the ultimate price: she’s dead.”
She said Julie’s teenage son and daughter “have got no mother now”.
“I’m just devastated. She would not have provoked him . . . My gentle daughter . . . She knew he was a violent man. She would never have provoked him. And that law should be thrown out.”
Julie’s father, Raymond Garret, argued that his daughter would never have knowingly allowed herself to be alone with her former husband, and that she had gone to the family home on the day of her death only because she had been told a builder would also be there to discuss renovations with her.
He said: “All those people that were close to her always told her, ‘Never be alone with him. Be in a public place . . . It could be very dangerous.’ ”
Mrs Garrett said that her daughter had shared her fears of her husband’s violence, but that her family and friends had not been allowed to talk about this when giving evidence. “We weren’t allowed to say what she told us. That’s hearsay. He can say she said anything and that’s allowed. Now how just is that?”
Julie Ramage had long feared her husband would “lose it”. She had left the family home when he was on an overseas trip, worried that there would be terrible scenes if she had to tell him in person that she was moving out.
She had enlisted friends and family in her plan to “let him down gently” – to allow him to believe for a while that she might come back to him in time – because she feared he was not ready to face the truth. And she had written him a firm but generous letter when she left: “If you do care for me, please let me go without a horrible fight, for the kids’ sake. Let’s prove to them that we are better than all the other separated couples that we know.
“I could hate you so much for some of the things you have done and said to me over the years, but I also understand that you are a good person and that you work hard and, most importantly, that you love our kids very much.”
Their daughter Samantha, now 17, told the Supreme Court: “She was worried he might be angry. That he would do something to try to hurt her, like kill (her) horses or steal the horse float or control the money . . . or maybe be violent towards myself or her.”
And Samantha cited another reason for her mother’s softly-softly strategy: “She didn’t want to kick him while he was down.”
The Ramages had seemed to have the perfect middle-class life. At the time of the killing he was 43, handsome and strong; she was 42, pretty and charming and kind. They had a son at Scotch and a daughter at Lauriston.
Their two-storey Balwyn home was being renovated and they owned a holiday house near Lorne. He drove a Jaguar, she had a Mini-Cooper and they shared the family Fairlane. They had joint assets with a net worth of $2.6 million.
But at lunchtime on July 21, 2003, the bourgeois dream ended in the dirt, in a shallow grave off Arthur’s Creek Road near the Kinglake National Park, after Ramage – a hard-working, conservative man, his business partner told the court – lost his temper and killed his wife. He told police he strangled her with his own hands.
She fought him a little, he said, but not for long.
Prince Charles, gazing upon Diana’s dead body, is reported to have asked, “How did it come to this?”
James Stuart Ramage, it seems, did not pause for reflection. He made no attempt to revive his wife or call for help. He dragged her body out to the family garage and packed her and a shovel into the boot of his sleek Jaguar. He got a bucket, tea-towels and detergent and cleaned her blood off the floor.
He packed himself a change of clothes and gathered up her handbag and mobile. He took her car and parked it 700 metres from the house near a restaurant they both used. And then he drove, for nearly an hour, to a remote patch of bushland. On the way he tried to lay a false trail: he called her work and her mobile, as if he were looking for her.
On a patch of private property, he dug a hole and put her in it, then covered the newly turned soil with branches and bracken. A few metres away he dug a second hole, where he buried incriminating evidence, including the bed ruffle that – in a continuation of the dark domestic motifs that ran through his crime – he had used to wrap her body.
On the way home, in a move that might have been scripted for a black, black comedy, he stopped at the Reservoir workshop of Acropolis Marble to discuss the granite for the bench in his renovated kitchen/family room – the one in which he had just strangled his wife. Staff said he was calm and pleasant, if a bit fidgety with those deadly hands, as he debated how best to join the side panels.
So, how had it come to this? The defence painted Ramage as a pitiable figure; a man who had found the last few weeks crazy-making, who had been duped, who had been clinging to false hope, who had been desperately trying to remake himself and his home in an attempt to get his beloved wife to come back.
He had talked obsessively to friends and to his son, Matthew, about what he might do to win Julie over. He had written himself lists of things to do, said Matthew, including one instruction that “I must relax and be more carefree”.
Matthew, now 19, told the court: “I spent four weeks with Dad every night going through everything he could do to improve himself.”
James Ramage had seen four different counsellors, and taken his wife to two of them, in the hope of salvaging their marriage. His lawyer, Philip Dunn, QC, told the court: “He tried to work on his spiritual side, which someone had told him about,” so he booked into a course of 16 meditation-relaxation sessions.
He was anxious and not sleeping; both his children testified that they had found him weeping at night. Mr Dunn said: “He’s on an emotional seesaw, he’s all over the place because he’s not being told the truth.”
Julie Ramage, meanwhile, had blossomed. She was no longer with the controlling man who had chosen her clothes, dictated her haircuts, and forced her to sneak money out of their accounts to pay for her horses. She was no longer limited in her contact with family and friends, her identical twin sister, Jane Ashton, told the court.
“She had the freedom to come and go. I saw more of her in that last six weeks than I had seen of her in the months before. She was happy. It was as if a weight had been lifted off her shoulders,” Mrs Ashton said.
But Julie remained wary of her husband, she said, for fear that if he got angry he would be violent towards her.
Prosecutor Julian Leckie, SC, told the court that there had been a (undetailed) violent incident early in the marriage, and that 18 months before the separation Ramage had pushed his wife out of bed, and that he had broken a glass in an argument – which left his wife feeling intimidated.
She was not so intimidated that she could not have two affairs behind her husband’s back while they were married, the defence argued.
And Mr Dunn pointed to her latest lover – a man she met after she separated from her husband – as the reason she might have abandoned her long-held caution and finally told Ramage the truth. She had told several people that she wanted her new relationship out in the open and “didn’t want to lie any more”.
James Ramage told police that he killed Julie after she had told him she didn’t care about the renovations and made a “wank wank” gesture; after she had told him the marriage was over and she should have left him 10 years ago; and after she told him that sex with him repulsed her, and that she had found a new man who was much nicer.
On the basis of this alleged exchange, and on the basis of the confusing messages Ramage had been getting about whether the separation was final, the defence argued that his crime should be reduced from murder to manslaughter because his wife had provoked him.
As the burden of proof was on the Crown, it was up to the prosecution to prove that the alleged provocation had not taken place; Ramage did not have to prove that it had.
He had turned himself in to police late the night of her killing after having dinner with his son, contacting his daughter, and speaking for three hours with lawyers.
A distressed Mrs Ashton yesterday said after the verdict that the jury had not been allowed to hear evidence that Ramage had once broken his sister’s nose in an attack. She said the outcome meant that the legal system was telling women that it would not protect their right to leave their partners in a safe and civilised way.
“James Ramage has shown no remorse . . . The claim that my sister provoked him allows him to exonerate himself and blame her for his loss of control. Provocation carries with it the assumption that a man has a right to punish his wife if she defies him.”
Justice Robert Osborn remanded Ramage for pre-sentence submissions on a date to be fixed.
_With Peter Gregory
See also Honour Killing In The Suburbs
First published in The Age.