Legal academic Ken Parish has a post at Club Troppo marking the death of Roy Melbourne, the defendant in a 1999 High Court criminal appeal. The post is an especially poignant one, because Melbourne was convicted of murdering Parish’s mother-in-law, who was minding Parish’s daughter while they shopped for her seventh birthday present.
Parish’s post is a profound insight into the impact of High Court appeals (amongst other things) on people affected by tragedy. Parish recounts:
When the jury’s guilty verdict was delivered I was surprised to find myself sobbing uncontrollably, not through sorrow but relief that this part of our ordeal was over and we could get on with grieving and putting our lives back together. However I was wrong about that last part. Melbourne appealed unsuccessfully to the Court of Appeal and then again to the High Court. Special leave was granted but the substantive appeal failed, although only by a margin of 3:2. The legal ordeal lasted until August 1999.
And he also notes that the description of Melbourne’s crime by McHugh J (and also Callinan J) in the High Court appeal understated the horror of the event, including the fact that it took place in the presence of Parish’s daughter. These awful details stand in sharp contrast to the somewhat dry issue that was debated in the High Court: whether the jury should have been directed that Melbourne’s clean record for the 60-odd years prior to his crime (apart from a drink-driving conviction) was relevant to determining whether or not to believe his statements immediately after the killing, including not recalling the killing, believing that Parish’s mother-in-law was harassing him with late-night noises (actually a defective sprinkler system) and his medical history. A majority of the Court held that the direction was not needed, with Kirby J and Callinan J dissenting.
The most moving part of Parish’s post is his own response to Melbourne’s death, two weeks after he voluntarily returned to prison from parole:
This morning I received a phone call from a detective from the Major Crime Squad. Melbourne was found dead in his cell last night. The detective was careful in what he said, but it sounds like he committed suicide. After a few moments of shocked silence I thanked him and remarked that I almost felt sorry for him, though not quite. But I do feel sorry and so does Jenny Parish. What a dreadful tragedy from beginning to end, for everyone involved including a lonely embittered old man named Roy Melbourne. I’ve been sobbing again today, not out of relief this time but from grief for all that has been lost.
In a comment, Parish adds that Melbourne’s death reportedly followed his return from work release after a law and order controversy in the Northern Territory, which Parish had criticised in an earlier post.
A very poignant post indeed. I almost found myself weeping after reading it. What a sad, sad chain of events. And it’s a reminder to us that the descriptions in a case don’t always reflect the full lived realities behind them.
Yes. In fairness to McHugh J and Callinan J, the NTCCA didn’t summarise the facts at all. At the High Court hearing, Melbourne’s counsel (Stephen Odgers) said: “The basic factual scenario is set out in the written submissions of the appellant. In very brief terms, the appellant stabbed the deceased a number of times”. The argument before the Court does not mention a knife, Melbourne’s profession or the victim’s granddaughter.
It is possible, I guess, that there was no further information before the High Court, though that depends on the submissions in the High Court, the text of counsels’ closing arguments at trial, the trial judge’s summary to the jury and the sentencing remarks, which all would have been in the file (and none, including the latter, seem to be online.)