Daughter tells of attack on mother

ERIN Margach is 10 years old. Yesterday she sat and watched a videotape of herself in which she told a policewoman about what she had seen the night her father killed her mother.
In the tape made four days after her mother’s death, and played to the Supreme Court yesterday, Erin, then eight, was dressed in red tracksuit pants and a white top with her hair in an alice band. She folded her hands tightly in her lap as she told her story in one long narrative with few prompts.
She started her account with the night before the killing, when her mother, Tina, and father, Paul, argued over whether to end their marriage because of her mother’s brief flirtation with another man. Her father punched her mother in the face, she said. The following night, Erin heard her parents arguing in the kitchen and her mother saying: “I’m just going to pack my bags.”
Her father said: “No, I want you to stay here.”
Her mother replied: “You are just an idiot!”
Erin’s younger sister Bree, then four, wanted to go to her parents but Erin told her, “Don’t go out because it’s only adults.” Then she heard her mother call out “Erin!” from the kitchen.
“She was yelling and screaming ‘Ah help!’ and I rushed out because I thought it was an emergency. Dad was waving a knife around and he wanted to stab her but he was missing. He must have stabbed her once or twice because there was blood everywhere, like on her arms and legs and body.
“Bree was crying really badly and she just rushed in her room and I was the only one. I was yelling out ‘Don’t!’ in a really loud voice at the top of my lungs. I thought I could rush over and pull him away from her but I was too scared because he had this really scary face on.”
Her mother “started moving around and kicking him off her and saying, ‘Get away!’ She was laying down horizontal (on a couch) . . . She kicked him in the stomach to get off and she kicked him in the hands so the knife wouldn’t go near . . . Wherever she moved, he moved, just putting the knife near her.”
When her father moved away, her mother “put her her hand on her heart to see if it was still beating . . . and she started to close her eyes and she went all white. And Dad rushed over and said, ‘What’s happening? I have to call the ambulance’.”
Erin raced into her bedroom to call her grandmother to ask her to come “really, really quickly”, but had trouble getting through. “I heard my Dad saying hello to emergency and then I hanged up . . . (I was thinking) this is just a dream, this is not happening.”
She went back to her mother in the kitchen. “I felt her head and she was, like, cold or something. I got a glass of water and just put it on her face to cool her down . . . and then I put some water in her mouth and she took a breath and when I stopped she went (Erin sighs) like that.”
The operator on the emergency line told Erin to get a towel and press it down where her mother was bleeding. “Her whole body was bleeding and I pushed down on her arms and her heart but when I was putting it in all different places she was going like that (Erin exhales heavily again).”
Erin saw blood on her mother’s face as well but “I thought if I put it over her face she might suffocate and stop breathing . . . Dad was yelling ‘Where’s the ambulance?’ and walking around and stomping and said he was about to punch something . . . Then I said, ‘Could you help me?’ but he didn’t listen. He was yelling really loud.”
Erin was composed both in her police interview and when she was being examined by remote video link in court yesterday. But on the fateful night she swung between panic and practicality in the emergency call, an audio tape of which was also played to the court. The court heard Mr Margach sob as he begged for aid, and his children screamed in the background.
The operator called Erin to the phone when Mr Margach was too distraught to take in her instructions. Erin politely said “Pardon?” or “Excuse me?” whenever she had trouble understanding the emergency operator, but screamed at her father to get the towel and screamed at her mother, “Mum, Mum, oh please!”
Erin: “The ambulance are here, but she’s not waking.”
Operator: “Erin.”
Erin: “It’s never happened to me.”
Operator: “No, I know it’s never happened to you, darling.”
Erin later told a policewoman in her interview: “I felt a little prickly from seeing all that. I felt a little bit sick.” When Erin Margach was taken to a neighbour’s house after it was all over, she vomited.
Paul Jason Margach has pleaded not guilty to the murder of Tina Maree Margach in Hurtle Street, Ascot Vale on October 15, 2004.
The trial continues before Justice Betty King.

First published in The Age.

Husband ‘blew a fuse’ before killing, court told

WHEN Paul Margach suspected his wife Tina was having an affair, he searched her mobile phone for telephone numbers and called a man he had never met, Shane Breheny.
Pretending at first to be his wife’s brother, Margach asked Mr Breheny whether he had got along with Tina, “and if we had it off”, Mr Breheny told the Supreme Court yesterday.
“He was trying to put his (four-year-old) younger daughter on (the phone), and saying ‘This is your new Daddy’, ‘You have broken up my family’, all that sort of stuff.”
The following night, Margach stabbed his wife to death in a jealous rage. Firemen who arrived at the house in Hurtle Street, Ascot Vale, after he phoned for help on October 15, 2004, found him waving and crying with both his young daughters on the front veranda.
He told them he had stabbed his wife because he found out she was having an affair and begged them to save her life.
Margach, 38, has pleaded not guilty to his wife’s murder. His wife had not had an affair with Mr Breheny, a sign-writer, but had confessed to her husband that she had a couple of drinks and danced with him while on a weekend away in Swan Hill with her girlfriends.
She and Mr Breheny phoned and sent text messages to each other several times the following week, and she told Mr Breheny that she had feelings for him.
The night before she died, Mrs Margach told him that her husband “blew a fuse” over the news of her flirtation and hit her on the nose and that “the kids are all crying”. But she still wanted to stay with her husband and said, “I deserve everything I get at the moment.”
Mrs Margach spent much of that phone call debating with Mr Breheny about whether her husband could trace their conversation. In fact, Mr Margach had installed a listening device on the family telephone line. Her conversation was replayed in court yesterday.
Mrs Margach suggested to Mr Breheny that they both leave their partners. Mr Breheny told the court he was being light-hearted when he replied, “I would in a heartbeat.”
Mrs Margach told Mr Breheny that her husband had “this big jealousy problem” and that she did not show him the affection he wanted.
She said she had to remind herself that her husband was a good father and a good provider, “But is that everything? . . . If I didn’t have kids, it would be like, there’s my door.”
She told Mr Breheny that she felt differently about him to the way she felt about her husband: “If someone . . . wanted to touch you or something and I was there I’d want to knock them out.”
Mrs Margach told Mr Breheny that in the argument with her husband, he said, “I’m going to make it my goal just to destroy you.’ I said, ‘That’s good, that’s great . . . You forgot the acid. Do you want me just to lay down now and pour it on me?’ . . .
“But I don’t want to hurt him like that . . . He was really hurting tonight and that hurt me.”
The case continues.

First published in The Age.

‘Perceived’ affair provoked husband to kill, court told

ERIN Margach, 8, had promised to read a bedtime story to her little sister, Bree. When her mother called from the kitchen for help, Erin went to answer.
She found her father, Paul, with her mother, Tina, who was bleeding to death from multiple stab wounds. The moments that followed were captured on a taped 000 call that was played yesterday in the Supreme Court.
“Put that eight-year-old on the phone!” the operator barked at Paul Margach, who was begging for help for his wife but crying so hard he seemed unable to take in the operator’s instructions.
Erin, who had been screaming in the background, took the call. “You keep quiet. You listen to me if you want to help your mum,” the operator commanded. “Go and get a towel, quickly! Put the towel where your mum’s bleeding.”
The operator tried to keep Erin focused while the child swung between calm and hysteria. At one point Erin screamed, “Mum, Mum, oh please!”
“Come on, you have to hurry!” said the operator. “Are you doing the right thing?”
“Yes, I’m doing it,” the child said.
As the tape was played yesterday, Paul Jason Margach sat sobbing in court. An engineer formerly of Hurtle Street, Ascot Vale, he has pleaded not guilty to the murder of his wife on October 15, 2004.
The Margachs had met when Tina was 16 and married when she was 21. The marriage had begun to unravel, the court was told.
Prosecutor Boris Kayser said Mrs Margach, 36, had gone to Swan Hill with girlfriends the weekend before her murder. There she had met a man with whom she danced and chatted, but there was no sexual contact.
Margach, 38, had been suspicious about his wife. He installed a recording device on their home telephone. He accused his wife of having an affair with the man. Mrs Margach denied this and said she did not want the marriage to end.
In a conversation taped from the home phone that was played in court yesterday – “a voice from the dead”, said the prosecutor – Mrs Margach said: “I can’t communicate with Paul. It’s like we have hit a stalemate . . . It’s just humdrum, boring, I can’t be bothered and he feels rejected.”
She said she was “a bit flirtatious” with the man in Swan Hill but it had gone no further. Of her husband, she said, “I love him to death.”
Mrs Margach said she was bewildered by the intensity of her husband’s anger.
According to the prosecutor, on the night of the killing, Mrs Margach had found her husband weeping in Erin’s bedroom and telling the child about the marriage break-up. Mrs Margach remonstrated with him “for talking like that to an eight-year-old”.
Margach followed her to the kitchen. He later told police that his wife had said the marriage was over, saying “I don’t want a baby, I want a man!”
He said his wife picked up a knife and they struggled over it, and that she told him, ‘I did f— him and I enjoyed it’.
He told police he stabbed her because he found out she was having an affair.
Margach’s lawyer, Christopher Dane, QC, said his client had not intended to kill his wife because only moments earlier he had told her she could stay in the house and that he would move out.
Mr Dane said there was no claim that Mrs Margach had actually had an affair in Swan Hill, but that the case centred on provocation and perceptions of infidelity: “Is there a difference, in a degenerating relationship, between actual and perceived (infidelity)? If you believe it, then that’s what’s driving you. If you have got it wrong, does it matter?”
Mr Dane said Margach was guilty of manslaughter, not murder.
The case continues.

First published in The Age.

I knew my sister had been killed, twin says

JANE Ashton remembers the first flash she had that her twin sister, Julie Ramage, was dead. She says it was lunchtime on the fatal day and she suddenly found herself shaken by a dreadful feeling: “It was to do with understanding grief, and why people do awful things to each other.”
Later the same day police confirmed that her sister was dead, killed by her husband at the family home. But long before then, Mrs Ashton had filed a missing person’s report on her sister. “It’s in the statement. Three or four times, I told them that he’s strangled her and put her in the boot of the car. They thought I was being a bit dramatic and ignored my intuition. I just knew she was dead.”
She says another policeman told her later that “it’s not unusual for there to be a prophetic vision in cases like this, especially if the relationship was between twins, or a mother and child”.
Mrs Ashton knows that the law could not bring her sister back, but she remains appalled at the outcome of the trial of her brother-in-law, James Ramage, who was last week found not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter.
She is angry at the way her sister’s name was tarnished, with an emphasis by the defence on her sister’s extra-marital affairs. “No mention was allowed of a broken nose Jamie gave her 15 years ago and how she had lived in fear of him ever since.”
She is also outraged by what she saw of the legal defence of provocation and how it was used to argue that Julie Ramage had provoked James to kill her.
“I’m just devastated that in this day and age, provocation can still be used as a defence to murder, and that women cannot leave their partners in a safe and civilised way. I really hoped that the ‘ordinary man’ (the test juries use to judge behaviour) would have been able to help us. I don’t see how the ordinary man could do this.”
Mrs Ashton says that she and other witnesses were traumatised by the restrictive laws of evidence that meant that some of Julie’s experiences of abuse in the marriage could not be revealed. “None of Julie’s story was coming through,” she says.

See also: Honour Killing in the Suburbs

First published in The Age.

Honour killing in the suburbs

Julie Ramage was killed by an enraged husband who didn’t want to let her go. The jury found him guilty of manslaughter, not murder. Does the law still treat women as the chattels of men? Karen Kissane investigates.
THERE was no sound but for the hiss of the videotape.
Those in the courtroom were still as the police footage took us along the route James Ramage had driven with his dead wife in the boot of his Jaguar.
The day of her killing, the heavens had opened, lashing Melbourne with wind and rain.
But this day, the morning after, sunshine dappled the unmade road The road wound on, and on, a reminder of how focused he must have been on his task: so many twists and turns, so much time to think better of it. Finally, the camera turned off the road and onto a remote bush property. The lens panned police, trees, the pile of bracken in a particular spot. Then the spot again with the bracken removed.
And then the spot with its shallow coverlet of earth removed.
There lay Julie Ramage, on her left side, her legs bent up and her hair flung back as if she were asleep. She still wore her trousers, but her blue roll-neck jumper was tangled around one arm, so her pale, slender body was topless but for her blue bra. Her face was not visible in this video footage, which had been heavily edited for the jury’s consumption. This was partly a concession to privacy in what had become a very public death, and partly judicial care that undue gruesomeness not be permitted to prejudice the jury against the accused.
But Julie’s image was available, for those who wished to study it.
Her identical twin sister, Jane Ashton, sat grimly in court. Her reddened eyes were turned away from the film and away from the man in the dock, her brother-inlaw, her sister’s killer.
James Stuart Ramage, 45, was last week found not guilty of the murder of his estranged wife, whom he admitted having punched to the ground and strangled in the newly renovated family room of the matrimonial home on July 21 last year.
The jury of seven men and five women found him guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter. His lawyer had argued that he had not intended to kill his 42-yearold wife, and that she had provoked him to lose control.
The killing shocked the comfortable inhabitants of Melbourne’s leafy suburbs. Since then, it has has blown up into an even darker storm over the way Julie Ramage’s voice seemed to be strangled out of her a second time, in court. For her family and many independent observers, the case highlights the way that ideas of “good” and “bad” women are still enshrined in the legal system and how the notion of “crimes of passion” favours the passions of men. In particular, it raises the question of whether the legal defence of provocation should finally be abolished.
From the outside, the Balwynbased Ramages seemed to have it all. There was a son at Scotch and a daughter at Lauriston. James was director of a company that reporcelained baths and Julie was a financial controller for a fashion house. Their dinner-party companions included lawyers and CEOs.
The family friend James Ramage confessed to in a hotel on the night of the killing was criminal barrister Dyson Hore-Lacy, SC, best known as chairman of the Fitzroy football club. A shocked Hore-Lacy called in another lawyer to advise Ramage.
Dr Rob Moodie, the head of the Victorian health promotion foundation Vic- Health, is another friend of Ramage’s. They used to play touch rugby together on Sunday mornings.
He is still shaken that he saw the man the day before the killing and did not realise how close to the edge he was. “I did not suspect,” he says. “You feel guilt for, `Why didn’t I see this coming?’” Some of Julie Ramage’s friends knew there had been a history of violence in their relationship. For others, it was a shock to have to face up close the two misconceptions about domestic violence: “It doesn’t happen to people like us” and “All she has to do is leave.” In fact, separation is a time when women are more likely to be killed.
The jury was told that James Ramage was controlling but heard little detail about what form this took. Jurors did not hear how he had head-butted Julie early in their marriage, breaking her nose and blackening her eyes.
Or of the many times she told people she feared he would kill her. Or about her claims to friends that he routinely demanded sex from her, insisting even when she was reluctant.”
To lead evidence of the sexual contact – that he treated her like a piece of meat when they were intimate – is not relevant to anything, in my submission,” Ramage’s lawyer told the judge.
These claims were aired in court in an earlier legal process called the voir dire, where lawyers argued about what evidence should be put to the jury. Justice Robert Osborn ruled they were inadmissable at the trial, pointing to earlier rulings that such evidence could not be used if it was hearsay, happened too long ago or was unduly prejudicial to the accused.
There are good reasons for the ban on hearsay. It prevents unsubstantiated tittle-tattle from becoming part of the case. But it can also skew the picture.
Evidence of two extra-marital affairs Julie Ramage had – and the way she lied to hide them – was trawled through again and again at the trial. The judge allowed this evidence because “the reasonable possibility of the deceased saying (in that final encounter) that sex with the accused repulsed her could be viewed by a jury as gaining some support from evidence that she had had affairs with other men”.
James Ramage’s fidelity or otherwise was never raised.
Julie Ramage’s relationship with her most recent lover, Laurence Webb, whom she had met a few weeks after she separated from her husband, was used as part of the argument that her behaviour had provoked Ramage to kill her.
The defence painted Julie Ramage as a duplicitous, pleasureseeking, hormone-driven flibbertigibbet. Said defence barrister Philip Dunn, QC: “The Crown says she was frightened her husband might have found out about her having affairs. Well, perhaps she shouldn’t have had affairs in the first place.”
He made much of the fact that she went out to a “lovely dinner” with friends the night she separated and was enjoying her new freedom: “She doesn’t have to answer to her husband or have a meal on the table or look after her son doing year 12.” He boomed with outrage over the way she had fallen quickly for Webb: “She said to her sister she was IN LOVE – IN LOVE! – with Mr Webb … nine days after she’s first gone out with him.
She’s in love with him!” He made sharp asides about the fact that the estranged couple’s daughter knew her mother’s new man – “presumably she’s met him with the sleepovers” – and about the way Julie had hidden her earlier affairs from Ramage: “No doubt you might think (she) was used to lying to her husband.”
Her very femaleness was used to suggest that she was likely to have lost her temper and verbally provoked her husband: “She was in love, and her hormones were such – you will find tampons in her handbag, and Dr Lynch (who performed the autopsy) will say that at the time she was menstruating ¿ Men tend to think women get a bit scratchy around that time.”
In cases where a man claims provocation as a defence for killing his partner, it is common for the dead woman’s sexuality and character to be spotlighted. “Dead women tell no tales; they have tales told about them,” says Professor Jenny Morgan, deputy dean of the law school at Melbourne University. “I speculate that if the defence lawyers don’t sexualise her behaviour, if they don’t emphasise the sex bit, the judge is less likely to leave (the question of) provocation to the jury.”
There is another picture of Julie Ramage, a photograph that police took at her grave site. At least from a distance, glimpsed by accident from across the courtroom, it is unexpectedly lovely.
Her features are visible but the soil has not yet been brushed away from them, and the greyness looks like stone, as if this is the carved face of a goddess being unearthed from some ancient site, an archetypal image of a woman.
Julie Ramage was human, with no claim to perfection. But her friends and family say she did not deserve what was done to her in the Supreme Court of Victoria, and she did deserve that her killer should face the maximum penalty.”
I’m just devastated,” her sister Jane said after the verdict. “Females can have their characters blackened and their struggles as victims trivialised, whereas the abuser’s testimony as to how he was provoked and his emotional state before that is sanctioned by law. The burden shouldn’t be placed on the (dead) woman to vindicate herself and her conduct.”
Does the defence of provocation allow women to be dragged through the dirt so that men can get away with murder?
Troubled marriage THE prosecutor in the Ramage case, Julian Leckie, SC, is a quiet man with a lean intensity. He rarely raises his voice, but his sense of outrage at perceived unfairness can rocket him to his feet in an instant to object.
Leckie painted James Ramage as an aggressive, self-absorbed man. “Was it really (about) getting back a woman he loved, or did he want back the control in the situation?” Ramage might even have strangled his wife with a rope, Leckie argued, and an attempted sexual assault could have been part of the scenario on the fatal day.
Leckie said Julie would never have provoked James. She had been tip-toeing around his anger.”
There is no suggestion in this case of this woman being spiteful or vindictive or nasty … She didn’t have that sort of nature. She had good reasons to fear, and did fear, this man.”
James Ramage’s QC, Philip Dunn, is a Rumpolian character.
Portly, florid and genial, he is a lover of fine wine and wicked anecdotes. He is also a bit of a card; he strode into court some mornings singing “Oh, Dunnie boy …” and nicked sweets from the tipstaff’s lolly jar in the breaks.
He was kindly and amusing when addressing the jury and friendly witnesses but thundered at those who might challenge his case.
As an advocate, his job is to present the best possible case for his client available under the law.
If, as some might think, the law currently advantages men in Ramage’s situation, it is the defence barrister’s duty to make the most of this for his client.
Dunn argued two defences to the charge of murder. The first was that Ramage lacked “intent” – he hadn’t meant to kill or really seriously injure his wife; he just “lost it”. The second was that Ramage had the excuse of provocation; Julie’s behaviour had triggered his loss of control. She went around to the family home to hit him with the truth because she wanted her relationship with her new lover to be out in the open.
It is possible that the jury dismissed the murder count on the issue of intent. If a person kills, but at the time of the killing did not intend to kill or seriously injure the victim, the crime is not murder but manslaughter.
Dunn argued that Ramage might have lost his temper and attacked his wife without intending to kill her. He pointed to the fact that the assault was not premeditated, that it happened quickly, and that there were no injuries that indicated that anything more than a moderate degree of force had been used.
But it is also possible that the jury relied upon the provocation argument, which Dunn pursued more vigorously. The defence does not have to prove provocation; the prosecution has to disprove it, as the burden of proof always rests with the Crown.
This is an important part of the presumption of innocence.
If they relied upon provocation, the jurors would have accepted that its three elements applied in this case. These are: that it was possible Julie Ramage had really said and done the things in their last encounter – more on that later – that her husband claimed she did; that what she had said and done might have been enough to cause him, as an individual with his particular characteristics, to lose control; and that an ordinary person in the same circumstances might have then done what he did – in this case, punch and strangle an estranged partner.
Phil Cleary, whose sister Vicki was killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1987, believes the defence of provocation is a great slur on “the normal man”: “We are belittled by it. It stands for a form of maleness that I don’t want to be party to.”
The Ramage marriage, like most others, had begun with starry- eyed affection. The couple had been teenage sweethearts. Julie Garrett was 17 and James Ramage 18 when they met in England in 1978. She had had a happy childhood, going with her sister to pony club and Guides and sailing.
James Ramage had been going out with one of her friends but decided he fancied her more. Julie was studying for her A-levels but her father took her out of school when he discovered she was having a physical relationship with Ramage. If she was old enough to have sex, she was old enough to work, her father told her.
They came to Australia separately in 1978 and returned briefly to England to marry the following year. During the separation, Julie told a marriage counsellor that she had fallen in love with James because, “He was charming and good looking, I was a bit oppressed at home ¿ We both liked sport, going out and dancing, and we were both Virgos.”
The marriage was troubled from early on. They separated for six months in 1984 and both had relationships with others. After they reunited, Julie fell pregnant with a son, now 19, followed by a daughter, now 17.
Later came the head-butt and the broken nose, and Julie began complaining to others that James was too controlling: he chose her clothes and nail polish and hairstyle, he made the money decisions, he wanted to be with her all the time and resented her passion for horse riding – and he broke glasses when he was angry and was potentially violent. She told them she stayed in the marriage for the sake of her children.
Her family and some women friends knew of her troubles but to many in their circle, their lives looked fine. The only hint her husband’s business partner had, for example, was a comment from Julie one day that, “You don’t know what goes on behind closed doors.”
Friend Rob Moodie told The Age, “I was surprised when they broke up. They seemed to be getting on. And we’d had them to our place and not noticed anything.”
He had never seen any harshness from Ramage towards Julie.”
To me, he was likeable. Very ambitious; work-wise, society-wise, he wanted to create a space for himself. I think in a sense he was out to prove himself, that he could make it. He’d come from the UK at an early age, didn’t have any major formal qualifications, and sort of worked his way up the ladder.”
Julie’s sister Jane Ashton says Ramage wanted a Home Beautiful wife. Marriage counsellor Thomas Patterson, whom the couple saw for one session after the separation, told the court: “Julie felt she had to be a super housewife and mother, but also work hard to earn money and also be an attractive hostess and wife. Recently, she had just said `Whatever’ to him instead of fighting him, and this had just built up the hatred inside her.”
Her best friend, Gilda Pekin, says Julie saw that her marriage was different to those around her.”
For the better part of 20 years, I’ve observed Jamie Ramage preoccupied with his personal balance sheet of money, possessions and useful connections. She wanted friends regardless of their value in terms of his personal balance sheet.”
He had one set of standards for men and another for women.
He made it difficult for Julie to study, often not turning up to mind the children and complaining about the cost. He belittled her efforts in becoming employable and building a career.”
She looked at other women and knew that her life should be different. She told me this many times.”
By 1997, Julie had begun the first of two affairs with married men. In 2002, she left James overnight after an argument in which he pushed her out of bed.
Her sister says she actually tried to leave several other times over the years, but Ramage would find her packing her bags and talk her out of it or woo her back with flowers and promises to change.
Last year, five weeks before her death, Julie left when James was overseas on a business trip.
She took their daughter, arranged a $125,000 overdraft on a joint account (they were worth $2.6 million) and moved into a unit in Toorak. Their son stayed with his father.
Her departure brought Ramage undone. He tried desperately to regain control of the situation.
He rang friends incessantly and asked them for advice and to intercede with Julie. He spent night after night going through lists of self-improvements he should make to win her back.
He gave up sleeping to wander around the house or weep in his room. He saw four counsellors.
He phoned Julie, ate with her every week and sent her flowers with love poems, including one that began, “Sail away with me, my honey …”
The defence said it was during this time of separation that Julie Ramage’s provocation of her husband began.
Her daughter told the court that Julie was frightened that “he would do something to try to hurt her, like kill the horses or … control the money, maybe be violent towards myself or her”. She said her mother didn’t want to kick her father while he was down. So Julie decided to “let him down gently” – give him time to adjust to the separation before she told him it was final.
Philip Dunn argued that this was duping the man and giving him false hope, particularly as she went to several marriage counselling sessions with him and had promised to attend more. So when she allegedly finally gave him the truth in that last encounter, the strung-out Ramage lost his temper and killed her.”
Do you find it hard to believe that he `lost it’?” Dunn asked the jury. “Of course it’s not, given what you know about his mental ability to stand these sorts of shocks.
That’s like the fly that lands on the bonnet of the car that’s teetering on the edge of the cliff.”
So, first Julie Ramage had provoked her husband by lying to let him down gently, and then she had provoked him by telling him the truth bluntly before he was ready to hear it. The implications of this argument for any woman trying to leave a violent man seem grim.
Even the fact that James Ramage was a domineering man who needed to control every aspect of his life – and that he was a businessman accustomed to ordering people around, a habit he acknowledged he had wrongly brought into his home – was used in his defence: it is this that allegedly reduced his “mental ability to stand these sorts of shocks”, Dunn argued. “He was in a worse position than somebody who might be easygoing.”
The only other witness to the Ramages’ final meeting, Julie herself, was dead. So, as in many homicides where provocation is claimed, the only evidence about what happened in the lead-up to the killing came from the killer.
Critics of provocation argue that in such cases it is particularly vulnerable to fabrication.
In the Ramage case, the only evidence about the lead-up comes from what James told police when he turned himself in – late on the night of July 21, after killing his wife at lunchtime, and after a three-hour legal consultation in the evening.
A videotape of his police interview was played to the court.
Ramage, wearing a dark jumper and jeans, is composed and sits at a small table opposite a policeman.
In a flat, gravelly voice, he paints himself as a distraught husband and father trying desperately to mend his family.
He does not mention anger but repeatedly talks about his “hurt” and the “hurtful” things Julie had allegedly said to him, as if what he had done was in emotional self-defence. “That’s why all this, us splitting up, has been so hard, because the family’s so important to me.”
With his swollen right hand kept out of view for all but a moment, Ramage says his wife had sneered at the renovations he had asked her over to admire: “She ¿ made that ¿ wank, wank sort of gesture.” He says Julie told him that his daughter did not want to stay with him as much, “and the daughter’s really important to me”. And that Julie said she should have left him 10 years ago, and that she was sleeping with her new love, who was much nicer than him: “She was just – just being really very hurtful.”
It was after she said “the sex with me – `It repulses me’ … and screwed up her face” that he knocked her to the ground and knelt down to strangle her. “She couldn’t speak or anything `cos I was holding her neck”. He holds his arms out in front of him and curves his hands to show how they had encircled her throat.
Was she fighting? “She did for a bit, but not for long.” As for the way he spent hours cleaning up after the killing and driving his wife to the bush for burial – it was just “really stupid”.
Philip Dunn portrayed Ramage, who did not testify, as lovelorn. A family friend, Catherine Clark, whom Ramage phoned many times in the weeks following the separation, had a more chilling view.
She told the court Ramage would ask “whether I could perhaps suggest some ways of getting her to come back, to see the mistake she was making. He kind of required her to be back, he didn’t express missing her ¿ She had to return, it was necessary, it was like a building block in a house, something important that was required to be returned to its position.”
She advised him: “You have got to back off, stop applying all this pressure to her, stop doing what it is that she’s trying to get away from ¿ You have got to stop suffocating her because this is why she’s gone.”
Crime of passion
IN THE end, he literally suffocated her. It was in many ways a classic crime of passion. The legal term used to describe such loss of self-control is “the blood boils”.
The law has long allowed for what it calls such “human frailty”; provocation is there to distinguish between a killing that is committed spontaneously in a red haze of rage, and one that is planned and executed in cold blood. The former is seen as less culpable.
But why should sexual jealousy or rage over separation be emotions that the law privileges with such understanding? Should provocation extend to this kind of situation? Ramage’s friend Rob Moodie, who has faithfully visited him in Port Phillip Prison, nevertheless pointed out to him after the killing that, “This was not a crime of passion. It was a crime of possession.”
Provocation developed in the days when murder attracted a death penalty. Historically, it covered the way men sometimes reacted with instant rage in drunken brawls or when there were challenges to their honour.
It has long been criticised as difficult for women to use because it favours the spontaneous impulse (abused women, for example, usually kill a partner in “cold blood” when he is drunk or asleep because they fear him. Provocation is harder to argue in such cases).
Melbourne University’s Professor Jenny Morgan believes the defence of provocation “is so imbued with misogyny that I think it is unsalvageable. The traditional provocation case is like the Ramage case, a sexual jealousy case.
Women hardly ever kill in those circumstances.”
Women who kill their partners generally do so in response to violence.
Men kill their partners because they’ve left them, they taunt them, they’re doin’ it with somebody else, they might be doing it with somebody else … And that has long been accepted. It’s not a concession to human frailty. It’s a concession to male frailty.”
But Melbourne criminal barrister Peter Morrissey disagrees. “I think the defence itself is very important.
It really recognises the reduced culpability of a person when they are in an extreme state, whatever the reason for that may be … It’s got to function, because it does allow some level of mercy and humanity in a verdict which otherwise could be quite harsh.”
Does it favour men over women? “That argument is a crock. The defence is available to women; it’s capable of being used by women quite logically ¿” But some research suggests that women have much less success with it, and the statistics show that Morgan, who wrote an occasional paper for the Victorian Law Reform Commission on Who Kills Whom and Why, is right: women rarely kill a partner in a jealous rage or separation assault.
In Australia, one in five killings is between intimate partners (an average of 77 a year). In about three-quarters of those cases, men have killed women, and 70 per cent of those men killed for reasons of jealousy and control. But in husband killings, the motive was very different: 70 per cent of the women had suffered violence at the hands of the man they killed.
A previous report by the commission concluded that the defence of provocation was not gender-biased because men were more likely to raise the defence when they killed a man than when they killed a woman, and it was more likely to be rejected where a man killed a woman (36 per cent) than where a man killed a man (12 per cent).
The report found that when women raised provocation, they were more likely than men to be successful (in this study, all eight women who raised provocation in a domestic context succeeded).
But even this report found that there were still at least three cases where men were successful in arguing provocation on the grounds merely that a woman was leaving or threatening to leave.
And more recent research by the commission found the defence was of little use to women.
Last year’s Defences to Homicide discussion paper by the commission reported that between 1997 and 2001, 24 men raised provocation at trial. Eight of them (33 per cent) received a manslaughter finding. None of the three women (out of 16) who raised provocation in same period succeeded. All were convicted of murder.
The verdict has a big effect on punishment. Manslaughter attracts a maximum sentence of 20 years (median six years) compared with a possible life sentence for murder (median 17 years).
The commission’s discussion paper pointed out that many commentators found it offensive that it can be murder for a battered woman driven by desperation to kill her partner, but only manslaughter for a man to do the same after discovering his partner committing adultery. “It is seen to send a message to women that their lives are worthless.”
The commission’s final recommendations on the issue of defences to homicide will be tabled in State Parliament later this month.
Morgan says her favoured option is to abolish the defence of provocation entirely, but to strengthen the law of self-defence to make it easier for people – men and women – who snap and kill their tormenters.”
To abolish provocation and not address self-defence would be a major problem.”
In some ways, the current provocation defence says, “She had it coming.” But the law is less likely to point out that he might have had it coming. Technically, under Victorian law, if people put themselves in a situation where they are likely to be provoked – “self-induced provocation” – they cannot rely on provocation as a defence. But the commission says this is applied inconsistently.
James Ramage had been insisting for some time that his wife come to see the renovations at the family home. She had been reluctant, friends said, and her mother later said that she would never have gone if she had known she would be alone with him; she thought the builder would be there, but Ramage had paid the builder to take the afternoon off.
It is not clear which of them raised the topic of the end of the marriage, but Ramage should have known what to expect, having heard most of these things from Julie before. However, the question of self-induced provocation was never raised.
No wonder: the commission’s paper cites a case in 1989 (R v Gardner) in which a man broke into a house with a knife to confront his ex-partner, whom he had several times threatened to kill. He claimed that she taunted him about having had sex with a friend, who was sleeping in a separate room. Even in this extreme case – he broke in, he arrived with a knife – an appeal decided that the killer should have been allowed provocation.
Criminal barrister Peter Morrissey says, “I think the opposition to provocation is largely because there’s a sense of outrage against the very argument that’s being put. Sometimes it’s a shockingly nasty bloke who’s killed his victim, who then can’t argue back, and then he says she was provocative.”
(The lack of witnesses) is not limited to the provocation defence; that’s the case with all homicides, unless they are done in public. Rather like sex crimes, homicides are done in private.”
But, as in sex crimes, the provocation defence lends itself to the argument that she led him on. She made him lose his self-control.
Like Eve with the apple, woman is still responsible for the fall of man.
Morrissey says it is important to leave it to the public, in the form of juries, to decide the questions.”
The opponents of provocation have got a deep distrust of the jury system. They think it will be filled with those who are unenlightened and have not been to gender-awareness classes and are not aware of how nasty men can be … But the defence doesn’t know the characteristics of jurors.
You can’t select a sexist jury. If the defence argument is a crock, the jury will find them guilty.”
Another criminal barrister who has often used the provocation defence, Terry Forrest QC, disagrees. He thinks provocation should have been abolished when the law abandoned the death penalty for murder. Judges should be able to take provocation into account when sentencing, he says, but its continued existence as a verdict is obsolete and distressing to the families of victims.”
The relatives of the deceased find it very hard to come to terms with the fact that verdict has been diminished from murder to manslaughter.”
The aftermath JULIE Ramage has lost her life and James Ramage’s has changed forever. He will be sentenced on a date to be fixed. He sat frozen, his face blank and his eyes down, for most of the trial. “He’s down at Port Phillip and he’s doing the garden,” says Rob Moodie. “He’s very much aware of how completely he’s screwed everything up. His life. He’s actually killed someone he loved, although one might question what form that took.”
For someone who lives life through his kids, he’s done the worst possible thing. He’s absolutely shattered it – let alone his own family, and her family, and his friends ¿ He has certainly expressed remorse.”
Moodie oversaw a statewide project on domestic violence as the Ramage tragedy unfolded. “The personal and the professional collided,” he says. He brings to our interview his Vichealth report, which shows that domestic violence is the most important preventable risk factor for illness and injury in women aged from 15 to 44.
What does he think went wrong for James Ramage? “I think his issue is, if you build an image – and he’s not the only one who’s done that – of what your family is, and invest in the material things around, and have your kids at the right schools, and your partner, and that all fits into a preformed notion of what an ideal family is, and Julie walks away from all that – then it all comes crashing down. I think he drew a lot of how he saw himself from how other people would see him.”
And again, he’s not the only one doing it. It’s coming back to the fundamental problem of the poor mental health of men, in the sense of not being comfortable in your identity.”
Asked why he has kept up the friendship – he and his wife were also friends of Julie’s – Moodie says, “You mean, why don’t I hate him? Because I have a fundamental belief in everybody’s capacity to reform themselves; that everybody has the possibility of salvation, if you like.”
If suffering leads to salvation, Julie’s family are well on the way.
Her mother, Patricia Garrett, has at times found the grief overwhelming, which has led to a stay in the Melbourne Clinic. Her father, Raymond Garrett, was taken to hospital with stomach problems after testifying at the committal.
Friends of Julie have developed depression or changed jobs due to the stress of the death and the court case.
Her sister, Jane Ashton, was already a member of Amnesty International, already outraged over problems such as bride burnings in India, but now is fast becoming an activist against what she calls Australia’s honour killings.
Phil Cleary says, “It is an honour killing. James Ramage has killed Julie Ramage to avenge his male pride, to reassert his status in the world. He saw himself as the patriarch of the family and refused to accept her right to leave.”
Ashton says the defence of provocation fails to protect women who want to leave their partners.
And that the rules of evidence do not allow for the fact that “violence and abuse against women is silent, that it happens behind closed doors, and that women only tell a handful of very close friends, often in private. They’re not going to tell a room full of people, particularly if it’s sexual.”
Ashton says Julie’s friends were deeply distressed at the way their evidence had to be led in court: “None of Julie’s story was coming through.”
She was frightened. You only need to see photos of her; she is always perched on the end of her chair. She used to break out in cold sores, and at times she would lose lots of weight … He would convince her that her family was wrong, her friends were wrong, and he knew best. And that she was naughty and ungrateful.”
But my sister was a very happy person, she was very positive. No one else could have kept their spirits up in the way she did. She always tried to look on the bright side, she made the best of it for her children, she tried to make the best of it for Jamie. They had so much potential.”
Julie’s funeral was at St John’s in Toorak on July 31 last year, 10 days after she was killed. The woman described there bore almost no resemblance to the woman now immortalised in Supreme Court transcripts.
Her friend Gilda Pekin, who had known Julie since their children were babies together, told the congregation of 1,200 people, “She was always there. Julie was there when I needed help nursing my Dad. She took all four children to the park regularly so I could rest. Call it Julie’s caring recipe.”
Remember fruit duty, the Easter Bonnet parades? Julie was always there with style and a smile. Remember the Deepdene Primary fete? … Jules was there, capable and a team player. Remember VicKick and the basketball at Kew High School? Julie was there with the same style and smile, proud of her kids. Julie was inclusive and generous.”
Julie came for dinner Thursday a week or so ago. Gorgeous, black high-heel boots, that black ruffled skirt and the black and silver jumper. Greetings. I looked at her boots. She looked at our new timber floor and began to take the boots off saying, “Oh oh, the glam’s gone now.” And the thick woolly black socks were revealed, complete with holes. No one cared …”
Our beautiful friend, Julie, just happened to be beautiful on the outside as well.”
Julie Ramage was beautiful, and witty and kind. And, like all of us, complicated and human and flawed. In the Supreme Court, she became a shadow of herself.

First published in The Age.

Mother’s tears of rage after wife-killer verdict

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.

Home violence hits all: study

Men are as likely to be assaulted by their partners as women, and both sexes report similar levels of pain and need for medical attention after domestic violence, according to new research from Melbourne University.

A national sample survey of 1643 Australians in relationships found that 4.7per cent had been physically assaulted by a partner in the previous year.

Violence runs in couples, with partners striking each other in more than half of violent relationships.

The research found the only gender difference was that more women than men felt frightened or intimidated by their partner’s threats of violence.

The study, Domestic Violence in Australia, was based on an analysis of questions asked in the 1997 International Social Science Survey by the Australian National University. The questions related only to physical violence and did not canvass mental cruelty or sexual assault.

The domestic violence figures were analysed by a Melbourne University team headed by Associate Professor Bruce Headey of the Centre for Public Policy.

Professor Headey said yesterday he was confident that most of the findings were reliable, except for the figures relating to male injuries. He warned that the gender-neutral rates of injury reported in this study were not supported by other, more objective data such as medical records or police reports.

Nearly four times more women than men are murdered by their partners each year, and five times as many women as men go to hospitals with domestic violence injuries.

“We’re really talking about `in-between’ violence, not the very serious cases,” Professor Headey said.

The survey found almost exactly the same percentage of men admitted assault (3.4per cent) as the number of women who reported being assaulted (3.7 per cent). But more men claimed to be assaulted (5.7 per cent) than women admitted assault (3.6 per cent).

The study found that most people who had grown up in violent households did not become violent.

But of the men who had violent fathers, 9.8 per cent were violent themselves. The rate was only 2.5 per cent among men with non-violent fathers.

Women with violent fathers were more likely to be victims as adults. Women with violent mothers were more likely to become offenders themselves.

First published in The Age.

Kiss or kill

“Every woman adores a fascist

The boot in the face, the brute

Brute heart of a brute like you”
– Sylvia Plath, ‘Daddy’

MELBOURNE woman “Lorraine Brown” loved not wisely, but too well. She wrote to her husband of her passion for him: “The very thought of you and our love takes my breath away. My love for you, Trevor, is a tune, and every waking moment you are ‘Always on my mind’. My darling, your wants, needs, hurts are all mine. My very life is yours.”

The letter was read at her 1994 trial for his killing. She wept inconsolably throughout the hearing, which twice had to be adjourned when she could not contain her sobs. She told the court, “Yes, I wish I could have taken all his hurts … rather me have them than him … I loved that man. I would do anything for him.”

Her tenderness was rarely reciprocated. Trevor locked his wife naked in a cupboard, urinated on her, vomited on her and refused to let her clean herself afterwards. He raped her in their car in the street, forced large objects into her vagina, throttled her and dragged her around on the floor.

Yet, the night she was admitted to hospital after a fight in which he cut her fingers to the bone, she took off in a hospital gown to go home and make up with him. She found him drunk, stupefied, unresponsive. When he did acknowledge her attempt to embrace him, he called her a “f…… c…” and told her he would leave her. She stabbed him to death. She received a 28-month sentence, with a non-parole term of seven months.

The feminist analysis has it that such women are victims of their brutal men, who will not allow them to leave; that they are rejected and silenced by a community that does not want to have to deal with them; and that, when driven to kill in self-defence, they are dealt with harshly by a legal system that largely ignores the abuse they suffered.

The highest court in the land has now been asked to incorporate this view of gender politics into the Australian legal system. Bendigo woman Heather Osland has appealed against a 14-year sentence for her involvement in the killing of her sadistic husband, Frank, in 1991. Her case might set a precedent about the legal significance of battered women’s syndrome.

At present, as one lawyer told a jury, a battered woman cannot claim self-defence unless she kills while she’s “looking down the barrel of the only gun in the house, effectively”. That is, she must have killed while facing an immediate threat, and she must not have used any more force than was being used against her.

It is also difficult for battered women to claim provocation, which can reduce a murder charge to manslaughter, unless they can prove that they snapped in the face of an immediate provocation.

In reality, most abused women who kill attack their partner while he is unarmed, drunk, drugged or asleep, a reflection of differences in size and strength.

In the Osland case the main ground for the appeal is that Heather, who drugged Frank and held him as he twitched after her son David bludgeoned him to death, was convicted, while David, who struck the blows, was acquitted.

If the one who wielded the weapon did not commit murder, of what, then, can Heather be guilty?

But Heather Osland’s barrister, Dr Jocelynne Scutt, also told the High Court in April that judges should be required to tell juries to take into account the effects of years of battering, which can leave a woman feeling that the only way she can escape is to kill her jailer.
There is concern that such a change could be a licence for bedroom vigilantism. Justice Michael Kirby said he could understand someone reaching breaking point, “but that we would be laying down the legal principle that people can go around shooting sleeping people … I certainly could not agree to that … You can’t make people immune from the law of homicide”.

Scutt told him that her argument did uphold the sanctity of human life – it supported the battered woman’s right to preserve her own.

But is it as simple as that? Heather Osland left Frank eight times, but that means she went back to him eight times.

At least once she was rescued by others; her local minister and men from her parish descended on her house with station-wagons and trailers, packing up her, her children and her belongings and taking them to a safe place.

But she soon returned to her husband, as so many battered women do. How can you help women who seem to collude in their own abuse? Is there a moral obligation to rescue people who don’t want to be rescued? And why on earth do these women put up with it, anyway?

The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre would have accused them of living in bad faith, of not being true to themselves, of not taking responsibility for their lives. But then, Sartre did not believe that people can be driven by inner forces of which they are unconscious. He never came to terms with the fragility of human freedom.

THE High Court of Australia is a stolid, heavy-set building, the architectural embodiment of judicial gravitas. It dwarfs the couple of dozen women milling about its entrance this crisp Canberra morning in “Release Heather” T-shirts.

They have brought life-size cut-out figures made by women who have lived through domestic violence. A mother looks down at a small child clinging to her legs; her hand is tied to the child and the child is tied to her feet. Another female figure is hunched over a set of rosary beads: “I kept praying he would change, I kept praying he would change, I kept praying he would change . . .”
Inside the court, the issues face a different kind of scrutiny. Even some feminist lawyers privately believe that Osland’s case was not the best vehicle for the High Court action and regret that the sisterhood did not wait for a better one.

Frank Osland was undoubtedly a brute. He bashed Heather and her four children. He beat the dog so badly it had to be put down and he killed the children’s cat with a piece of pipe (perhaps it was no coincidence that this was the weapon Heather and her son chose for him).

Frank Osland raped Heather so fiercely that she suffered chronic urinary tract infections and tears to the vagina and anus. He tried to exercise complete control over the family and often threatened to kill them and chop them up. Late in Heather’s joint trial with her son, David haltingly, shamefacedly, revealed that Frank had also raped him when he was 14.

But Heather Osland and her son dug a grave for Frank before he was killed, and she later was recorded on police telephone intercepts saying that the killing had been planned for a week. This suggests premeditation.

Other feminists, such as lawyer and former equal opportunity commissioner Moira Rayner, say this case tests whether provocation and self-defence must relate to an immediate threat: “Because the killing was not that immediate, it’s really pushing the envelope. ”

Rayner’s trust, set up to help fund equal opportunity complaints, contributed to Osland’s appeal because it raised issues of access to justice for battered women, “who have never been able to avail themselves of the provocation defence”, Rayner says.
She cites the Western Australian case of “Nina”, a woman who shot her husband dead when he taunted her about how he had sexually abused her children.

“Everybody said the law of provocation was adequate. But on appeal, the judge couldn’t understand that she was acting in a state of automatism . . . The Nina case showed me that the judge didn’t understand that someone can suddenly snap after 30 years of being mild . . . because of what had happened over decades.”

Rayner is one of many who argue that the law’s “bar-room brawl” immediacy requirement, designed for the eruptions that typify male loss of control, does not allow for the “slow burn” experiences that drive women to lethal violence.

A lecturer in law at Melbourne University, Bronwyn Bartal, says that provocation privileges anger as a driving force over other emotions including fear and compassion (as in the euthanasia of a suffering spouse).

She also criticises the extent to which self-defence requires “proportionality”: that defensive force be no stronger than the force used by the attacker. It developed from the rules of honor and fair play regulating the duelling encounters of aristocratic males. But women are usually smaller and weaker than their partners, says Bartal, and have little choice but to use a weapon. (Women are far more likely to be killed by their partner than are men; a NSW study found that 73 per cent of spouse killings were committed by men.)
Forensic psychologist Dr Kenneth Byrne often gives expert evidence about the typical pattern of battering partnerships. He says the woman is often isolated, deprived of food or sleep, threatened with torture or death, sexually abused and instilled with a sense of terror that makes it difficult for her to think clearly. Severe batterings are administered unpredictably and have little relation to her behavior, which leaves her feeling helpless to avoid them.
Bashers tend to be men who blame others for their problems, deal poorly with stress, and believe that wives and children are there to serve them. They use sex as an act of aggression to humiliate women and bolster their own shaky self-esteem. They are also pathologically jealous.

But the theory of battered woman syndrome, as this cluster of characteristics is known, has its flaws. Many of the women supposedly suffering “learnt helplessness” try to escape, and it seems paradoxical to argue that a woman who killed her abuser felt helpless.

Mark Weinberg, then a QC for Victoria’s Office of Public Prosecutions, told the High Court in the Osland case that any change to the legal significance of the syndrome should be left to Parliament: “It’s too important.” Male fears of women’s untrammelled murderous impulses were alluded to more directly at Osland’s original trial, when Justice John Hedigan touched on the need for her sentence to be a warning to other women: “Perhaps it’s just generally deterring wives from killing husbands . . . There are certainly 48 per cent of the community who are in favor (of that), whatever I think.”
Phil Cleary cannot be counted among them. Cleary is the former independent MP whose sister, Vicki, was tracked down and knifed in 1987 by an ex-boyfriend she had left four months earlier. Cleary is astounded that Heather Osland received a 14-year sentence while his sister’s killer served only three-and-a-half years. “If provocation is no more than ‘A woman left a man, so he’s pissed off’, that is a barbaric view of the relationship between men and women,” he says. “That is looking at women as property.”
He holds the media partly responsible, citing newspaper stories about the murder of women by men that had dangerously euphemistic headlines, such as “Love pulls the trigger”. He also believes that there is a class element: “The killing of women is written off because they are usually working class, so they’ve got no political clout.”

But he wonders whether the imbalance is really due to an underlying force that is more pervasive but less tangible, perhaps the Judeo-Christian notion of woman as the root of all evil: “Is it Adam and Eve? Or is it deeper, something about the relationship between men and women?”
THE LOVE Lorraine imagined she had with her husband was not merely the fantasy of a disordered mind. There are intense ties in these couples, and such men can be charming, affectionate and convincing in their protestations that it will never happen again. “They are very loving and attentive, and the woman is so important to them,” says Rosalie Pattenden, a counsellor with Relationships Australia.

Associate professor of law at Melbourne University, Jenny Morgan, is impatient with the question, Why doesn’t the woman leave? She points out that most of them do leave, repeatedly, but are often obsessively pursued. “The real question is, ‘Why won’t he let her go?’ ” (And, however else these women’s perceptions might be distorted, their fear that the man will kill them if they leave is solidly founded: almost half the women murdered by their partners die as a result of trying to separate.)
Morgan says it is hard for women to leave because they are financially vulnerable and anxious about caring for their children alone – and, often, they love the man. “In all sorts of other circumstances we think love is a fine emotion,” she says. “Women are supposed to be sharing and caring, and we admire that elsewhere, but suddenly here, we think they’re stupid. All we can see from outside is the violence but relationships are always more complicated than that.”

Kerrie Collings, a Queensland psychotherapist who treats battered women, says these relationships are the result of disturbed childhoods. She says every child wants to perceive its parent as good in order to maintain a desperately needed sense of attachment: “If the parent is abusive, the child might cut off all feelings, so that they don’t feel anything at all, or they might idealise the other, as in ‘They’re doing it for my own good; I’m bad, I deserve this.’ ”
COLLINGS says about 4 per cent of people suffer “disorganised” attachment as children, in which emotional links with others are based on threats and fear of abandonment. This becomes a model that they carry into their adult relationships. (It is typical for battering to intensify whenever a woman tries to assert herself in a relationship, which increases the man’s fear that she might decide to leave him.)

But if both partners have suffered similar childhood abuse, why is there a gender split in their response to it, with men growing up to batter and women to be battered?

Dr Jon Kear-Colwell, senior lecturer in forensic psychology at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst, points out that all male mammals are more aggressive than females. Innate differences are then reinforced by child-rearing practices: “Often when boys are punished by their parents, they are given a smack on the leg; it’s the behavior that’s dealt with. When girls are naughty, guilt is used to make them feel responsible.”

It may not be that women love the fascist boot, but they do tend to feel responsible for having somehow provoked the kick (and, like Lorraine Brown, responsible for “healing” the emotional wounds of the man who delivers it).

The Wounded Prince and the Women who Love Him is a paper by two American family therapists, Gillian Walker and Virginia Goldner. They argue that many of our culture’s myths of female love (such as Cordelia’s for Lear) centre on the notion of the wounded male nursed by the compassionate woman.

Walker and Goldner say the violent man justifies himself by describing his partner as a bad woman: she is provocative, she is or will be unfaithful, she is insensitive to his vulnerabilities. “And then, in the honeymoon of contrition and forgiveness which follows the violence, this evil female figure transmutes into the longed-for, irreplaceable nurse/mother, who knows and cares for this hurt man/boy better than anyone else . . .”
The woman is beset by self-doubt. To protect the relationship, she holds on to seeing him as wounded and in need of care. This causes the man to get in touch with emotions that frighten him, such as his infantile terror of abandonment, so he feels that the woman’s love weakens him. The cycle of attack and contrition continues.

This kind of psychologising exasperates women’s activists, most of whom also dislike the concept of battered woman’s syndrome. They analyse the issue politically and see battering as an extreme outcome of the power imbalance between men and women in society. The battered woman is not mentally ill; she is having a normal human reaction to extraordinary stresses. They have a case. There is evidence that an abusive environment can reduce anyone to psychic rubble.

In 1973 a Californian psychology professor, Philip Zimbardo, recruited intelligent male middle-class university students to live in a mock prison for two weeks. The men were screened to ensure they were psychologically stable and randomly assigned the role of guard or prisoner.

The “guards” quickly turned sadistic. The abuse they meted out to the “prisoners” triggered in their captives symptoms including extreme depression, disorganised thinking, uncontrollable crying and fits of rage – classic responses of the battered woman. The experiment had to be aborted after only six days.

Zimbardo later wrote that a perverted symbiotic relationship had developed: “As the guards became more aggressive, prisoners became more passive; assertion by the guards led to dependency in the prisoners; self-aggrandisement was met with self-deprecation, authority with helplessness, and the counterpart of the guards’ sense of mastery and control was the depression and hopelessness (of) the prisoners.”

Zimbardo wondered whether this happens in the everyday social “jails” of racism, sexism – and bad marriages.

But the fact that they chose to flee their jail can be no comfort to women such as Vicki Cleary. The role of guard is much more powerful than that of prisoner, and in real life, there is often no outsider to call an end to the game.

“Sharon” had tried to leave her husband, “Pete”, many times. Once he caught her and beat her with a wheelbrace; another time he terrorised the refuge she was staying in. When she got right away and hid interstate, she made the mistake of sending a letter to her children in which she mentioned that it had been raining. Pete phoned meteorology to find out which part of the continent had been having wet weather and next day packed up the kids and drove from Queensland to Perth to haul her back.

Over the years he tied her to a tree and lashed her, aborted her with a teaspoon and forced her to drink his urine and her menstrual blood.

Sharon told the court that one baby, Molly, did not die of cot death as she had reported but had been smothered in her cot by Pete. He repeatedly raped another daughter, Jenny, from the age of eight through to 14, when Sharon finally found out and told police. “Got rid of one and f….. the other,” he would brag to her.

One morning an exhausted Sharon crawled out of bed to make Pete breakfast. He had been sick and bad-tempered for days. He refused the meal and snarled when she tried to return for more sleep: “What do you want to get back into f…… bed for, you dog?” She fetched his gun – she had always been terrified of guns – and shot him dead. She hid the body in her yard.

That’s another problem with these cases; the women often “snap” over a seemingly trivial incident.

In Sharon’s case the prosecutor, Tom Gyorffy, pointed out that “We, as a community, wrestle every February with our consciences over having an open season for shooting ducks. Human life is worth more than that. Nobody in this community, no matter how nasty they are, is shootable.”

Juries are often told that a trial is just a sifting of the relevant facts, not a search for the truth of everything that happened. Enough was prised from Sharon, in the clipped, stony questions and answers of the courtroom, to win her a verdict of manslaughter and a suspended sentence. But the police record of interview at her arrest gives hints of another aspect of the story, one not put to any jury.

A week before the shooting Sharon had received a letter from a friend who had lost a grandchild to cot-death. It brought back so many memories of her Molly, she told police. And she had no trouble remembering the date on which she had killed Pete, whose body had been decomposing in her yard for months. “It was the 21st of May because it was the day – it was the day – it was the day of me daughter that died’s birthday. Molly Rose. She would’ve been 25.”

But then, courts are not required to know the full truth about everything.

The names of Lorraine and Sharon and their families have been changed.

First published in The Age.

Battering truth from domestic violence

Some American feminists argue that half of all married women experience battering; some male commentators retort that research shows women are as violent as men. Who is right? Karen Kissane reports.

IN THE United States, they call it battered-truth syndrome, and it is women, they say, who are battering the facts. The debate on domestic violence, fuelled by the murder of O.J. Simpson’s wife, Nicole, has led to an intensified scrutiny of the facts and figures about who beats whom, how often and how badly. The conclusion: in the war between the sexes, as in other battles, truth has been an early casualty.

In the US, as in Australia, there has been a sometimes poisonous debate about whether violence in the home is done mostly by men to women, or whether women are just as physically aggressive as men. The extreme has the radical feminist, representing the analysis that “all men are (at least potential) beasts”, in one corner of the ring, and an angry man contending that “men are victims, too”, in the other.

Each side cites research to try to prove its case; sometimes each uses the same studies to try to prove opposing points. Work by the American researchers Straus and Gelles was used by the federal Office of the Status of Women in the 1980s to argue that one in three wives are battered. More recently, male commentators such as Don Parham and Warren Farrell have quoted the same research to argue that women hit men as much as men hit women.

In fact, the truth lies somewhere in between and is more complex than either analysis would suggest. At issue is the difficulty of discovering the truth about something that has long been hidden, the imprecision of social science, and human nature’s reluctance to grapple with the shades of grey in controversial issues. The feminist analysis that wife-beating springs from women’s inequality with men holds true, but it is not the whole story.

Murray Straus, professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, has been tracking domestic violence in America for nearly 20 years and been attacked by proponents from both sides of the ideological debate. He was one of the first to discover that women strike men as often as men strike women, and that they initiate as many aggressive encounters as their male partners. This aspect of his work is often cited as proof that women and men are equally responsible for domestic violence.

Professor Straus says radical feminists have made systematic attempts to discredit this part of his work and about 30 studies by other researchers with similar findings. He has experienced “bomb threats, accusations that I beat my wife, that I sexually harass students …

Many of my colleagues simply avoid the issue by not obtaining data, then they don’t have the embarrassing problem of not being able to publish it”. One Canadian researcher, he says, is now facing charges of ethical misconduct for having collected data that he chose not to publish for fear that it would be too controversial. Some feminist opponents fear that such findings will undermine public sympathy for battered women: “And here, I think, the public is losing sympathy because of the stridency of some people in the women’s movement.”
But many of Professor Straus’s findings support the view that violence in the home is overwhelmingly a problem for women caused by men.

“Many more women than men are injured,” he says. “For the same level of attack, women experience seven times more injury than men, not only because men are stronger when it comes to inflicting blows, but because women are more vulnerable, physically, on average. So if your definition of violence depends on who’s injured, then men are much more violent.”
In interviews with 10,000 people from 1975 to 1992, Professor Straus found that 16 per cent of couples experienced violence in their relationship in the preceding year. Of those cases, one quarter involved only the woman lashing out, and another quarter only the men.

In the remaining half, violent exchanges were mutual. This does not mean that serious criminal assault is the norm in 16 per cent of American homes; Professor Straus counted even low-grade violence such as a mild slap.

In marriages where women hit or kicked men, neither the wife nor the husband saw this as real violence, “at least not at the conscious level. But then when it’s her turn to do something outrageous or not to listen, the problem is that she’s provided moral justification for slapping and kicking”.

But his research cannot be used to argue that battering is a serious problem for men, or that they need the sorts of supports, like refuges, offered to women and children. “Fewer men are injured, fewer men are living in fear and fewer men don’t have
an economic alternative (to marriage),” he says. “American women generally now earn 80 per cent of what men do, but married women only earn half of what their husbands earn.”
Statistics are like the refractions of a prism; most have two or more facets, and it is not that one is right and another wrong, but that they each reflect different aspects of a complex phenomenon. Professor Straus warns that his work, which he once believed to be the definitive truth about domestic violence, is no such thing. “This is only the truth about a representative sample of the general population. But in couples where it’s bad enough for her to go to a shelter, or where the police are called, the dynamics are very different. Of women who were hit in the year of my surveys, the average number of times was six. A colleague of mine researched women in shelters and the average number of times was 58; that’s 10 times higher.”
Likewise, he says, the experiences of women who have fled cannot be extrapolated to the wider population. “For example, it’s an article of faith in the shelter movement that once violence begins, it doesn’t stop, it either continues or gets worse. That’s true for the people they work with and reflects their real experience, but that’s because if it had stopped, the woman wouldn’t have gone to a shelter. My study and other studies show that it does, typically, cease. They age out of it.”
There have been no big Australian studies into battering in the home.

Research last year at the Royal Brisbane Hospital found that one in five women who attended its casualty department, for whatever reason, had some history of domestic violence. This is consistent with another recent Queensland study on abuse in families of church communities, which found that about 22 per cent (one in five) of a sample of 1704 women had been subjected to violence sometime in their lives by someone close to them. This figure would not mean that one in five women experience violence daily, but that one in five encounter it at least once in their lives.

An Australian Bureau of Statistics survey on crime and safety in 1993 found that 0.6 per cent of women reported having been assaulted in their home that year, which would amount to 41,000 women aged 15 and over. This applies to the incidence in that 12-month period only, and the figure is likely to be lower than the reality.

Overseas, Statistics Canada has just released what is probably the world’s largest survey on the issue, in which 12,300 women aged 18 and older were interviewed in depth by telephone. It found that one in four had experienced violence at the hands of a present or past marital partner, that one in six married women reported violence by their spouse, and that one in 10 of those had at some point felt their lives were in danger. Eighteen per cent of incidents left a woman physically injured.

Statistics Canada did not ask about men’s experiences; presumably there, as in America and Australia, it is not perceived as a man’s problem because women are so much more likely to be hurt or killed.

Figures from the Australian Institute of Criminology show that, between 1989 and 1992, 160 women were killed in spousal murders compared with 44 men. Some of the women who killed their husbands had done so after years of abuse.

Nor do men present as victims to helping services. Margot Scott, a worker with Melbourne’s Domestic Violence and Incest Resource Centre, says the centre receives about 3000 calls a year from victims of domestic violence, and fewer than 10 are from men.

In terms of more general crime, violent offenders are overwhelmingly male; the National Committee on Violence estimated that 80 per cent of murderers and more than 90 per cent of those charged with serious assault, robbery and sexual assault are men.
Women, who spend more time caring for children than do men, are more often charged with child abuse, but men are more often the perpetrators in severe cases.

It appears that both sides have misused the facts. Professor Straus’s findings indicate that some feminists have overstated the incidence of domestic violence, while some male commentators have been reluctant to face the extent to which other men are responsible for its more serious manifestations.

Kate Gilmore, a member of the National Committee on Violence Against Women, says: “Fact is an elusive notion … This is the problem of social science. If you can’t put it under the microscope and subject it to tests with a control group, you move out of the realm of fact and into the realm of contested, discursive meanings, meanings that are affected by who holds them and what experiences they were
subjected to.”
Ms Gilmore argues that everyone involved in the domestic violence debate has an ideological barrow to push, and that feminists have no more distorted the truth than any other advocates of disadvantaged groups fighting for public support. “What’s going on here is trying to get something up on the public agenda that hasn’t had any attention. For all the excesses of which the field might be deemed to be guilty, it is only through these advocates that law reform, police training, education in university, and women’s refuges have come.”
What of the traditional feminist analysis of domestic violence as an outgrowth of inequality between men and women? Professor Straus says, “It’s correct, provided you don’t make the mistake of thinking that that’s the only cause.” His research found high correlations between increased violence and domination of the marriage by one or other partner; marriages dominated by men were the most violent. But he proved the hypothesis, now widely accepted, that the more violence people witness in their family as they grow up, the more likely they are to assault their own spouse.

More controversial was his discovery that the more spanking children experience while growing up, the more likely they are to strike their own spouse for “misbehaving”.

But there is much that women and men on either side of the ideological divide find hard to believe about what goes on behind closed doors, and it may be another generation before the issue can be looked at with calmness and clarity. For women who are battered, the debate is academic but damaging; the time and resources wasted in such arguments could be better spent in solving it.

First published in The Age.