Sunday, July 31, 2011

Let there be order in court over Knight

James Campbell | Sunday Herald Sun | 31 July 2011

IF YOU are as old as I am, you probably remember where you were when you heard about what was at first called the Clifton Hill Massacre.

That Sunday night in August 1987, I was at home with the radio on when a report came in that a sniper was firing at cars on Hoddle St north of the Eastern Freeway. Within an hour the ABC was saying five people were dead and a man was in custody.

Next morning's Sun reported police as saying "the gunman, 19, of Ramsden St, Clifton Hill, had had military training".

In those pre-Port Arthur days, we thought this type of thing happened in the US, with its easy access to firearms. It seemed incredible that seven people could be randomly shot dead on a Sunday evening in the middle of Melbourne.

It seemed incredible, too, that the author of such an enormity should be a drunk teenager dismissed by an anonymous cop that week as "just a weed, a nothing".

Later, as we learned more about the Melbourne High School boy and failed Duntroon cadet, the more pathetic and less interesting he became.

His adopted parents had divorced when he was nine. He lived with his mother while idolising his absent father, a major in the army. Despite being clever, he performed poorly at school and lasted less than a year at Duntroon before being kicked out after a fracas in a Canberra nightclub. He later claimed to have been bullied.

What I recall people being intrigued about was not the character or motivation of this nothing, this weed, but how it was he was legally able own the M14 assault rifle, 12-gauge pump action and semi-automatic .22 he used in his crimes.

Maybe it is because Julian Knight and I are about the same age, but I remember so vividly contemplating the 27-year minimum sentence he was given in November 1988 and reflecting it didn't seem long for what he'd done.

But as we approach the date in 2014 when he will be eligible for parole, it needs to be remembered that, for its time, Justice George Hampel's sentence for Knight was a long one. Moreover, it was not - aside from reasonable objections of survivors and families of the dead - controversial.

At the pre-sentence hearings, the Crown didn't ask for Knight to be locked up for the term of his natural life and it didn't appeal against the 27-year minimum. Nor did politicians climb over each other promising to ensure he would never be released, as Ted Baillieu and Daniel Andrews are doing.

If any of them thought the sentence was weak, they kept the thought to themselves, partly no doubt because Knight's release was unlikely to come while they were in office, but partly, I like to think, because in those days the idea of politicians overturning criminal sentences they didn't like was regarded as abhorrent.

Because whatever you think of Knight, he was sentenced according to law. As a 20-year-old man, a court determined that despite his wicked acts, he was not so beyond redemption.

To keep a man in prison for 25 years believing he may one day redeem himself only for Parliament to simply declare his sentence overturned to be replaced by arbitrary imprisonment until death would be a shameful and gross injustice. It would return us to the 17th century when it was common for English parliaments to pass acts called Bills of Attainder, which declared a person a traitor without trial.

(We have done this before in the case of self-harmer Gary David, but he was clearly mad.)

To say Knight should have the right to try to convince us he should be released is not, of course, to say he should or will ever be released.

He would still need to satisfy the Adult Parole Board he posed no danger to the community.

AS TO whether Knight has reformed himself in prison, I couldn't say - and nor do the politicians who pontificate so blithely about Knight - which is why it is best left to the board.

I know I am not the youth I was in 1987 and I dare say neither is he. He might be better; he might very well be worse.

But for Mr Andrews to declare as a matter of fact that Knight has shown no remorse and shamefully taunted the family of the people he killed is to repeat things that are untrue. In fact, Knight has shown remorse over several years for his crimes - sincerely or not is another question. He hasn't taunted the victims, unless that includes writing to apologise.

He certainly committed evil deeds, but as to whether he is an evil man, as Mr Andrews says, I don't know. And unless he has made a window into Julian Knight's soul, neither does Mr Andrews.

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