Wednesday, June 20, 2012

On Lindy Chamberlain: Chester Porter QC and John Bryson

Last week, the Northern Territory Coroner finally found that Azaria Chamberlain in fact was taken by a dingo near Uluru some 30 years ago.

But how and why was Lindy Chamberlain ever charged and convicted for murdering her own child?

These questions took me back to the observations of Chester Porter QC, counsel assisting the Morling Royal Commission into Chamberlain convictions, who was interviewed by Richard Fidler on Conversations back in 2007:

Chester Porter is one of Australia's best known barristers, whose nickname at the bar was 'the smiling funnel-web' thanks to his legendary courtesy and forensic charm. He has often spoken out against wrongful convictions and brought to light all the forensic evidence blunders in the Lindy Chamberlain case. His new book is called The Conviction of the Innocent.

Chester also has concerns about the way witnesses and experts are judged on the stand. "There was a Court of Appeal decision [and] by two to one, the judges held that the demeanor of the expert witness could be used to judge whether the expert evidence was correct. Quite apart from experts, to judge any witness by demeanour is very risky."

He also believes a count case can be unfairly manipulated by underhand tactics. "If you appeal to the racial prejudices. If, perchance, you were appearing in court, and the chief witness against your client was an Aboriginal, to see if you could find anything the jury hated about Aboriginals and throw that around, that would be grossly unfair, and improper."

Criminal trials can be enormously stressful for the accused - a fact Chester believes it's important to bear in mind. "Very frequently the accused has to go into the witness box and in most cases, there's a person under enormous strain. It would be a most abnormal person who wasn't almost trembling with fear when they go in the witness box as an accused person."

Listen to the interview here.

Another very close to this subject, and who offers some answer to these questions, is the author of "Evil Angels", John Bryson. He was last Sunday interviewed by Jonathan Green on RN Sunday Extra:

A dingo took my baby. It's taken 32 years, but finally we accept the truth of what happened to Azaria Chamberlain on the night of August 17 1980. The fourth coronial inquest into the death of nine-week-old Azaria concluded last week, at last giving Azaria's parents Lindy and Michael some sort of finality and a death certificate bearing that elusive world 'dingo'. John Bryson, author of Evil Angels, has spent decades poring over the Azaria Chamberlain case, and speaks to us today about the hysteria and controversy the case has inspired.

Listen to the interview here.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Not even the state's top cop was immune from culture of surveillance

Neil Mercer | SMH | June 17, 2012

On the eve of the Sydney Olympics undercover police were watching many senior officers, including Peter Ryan.

It was Christmas, 1999, and NSW police commissioner Peter Ryan was winding down after a hectic year. With his then wife, Adrienne, he was enjoying a few drinks after work at the Marriott Hotel, a short walk from police headquarters in College Street in the city.

Unbeknown to Ryan, he and his wife were under surveillance. Not by the dark forces of organised crime, but one of his own officers, an undercover cop known as ''Joe'' who was working for Special Crime and Internal Affairs, commonly known as SCIA.

SCIA's job? To root out corruption. It was supposed to operate to the highest ethical standards.

The surveillance of the state's top cop had been ordered by the then head of SCIA, assistant commissioner Mal Brammer, who believed the Ryans, under the influence of alcohol, might be loose-lipped about confidential police affairs.

Any way you look at it, it was extraordinary. But it was not the first time SCIA, under Brammer, had been involved in highly questionable surveillance of some of the force's most senior ranks.

Earlier that year, Joe and his partner ''Jessie'' - another undercover, or ''UC'' as they are known in the trade - had spent weeks trying to gather dirt on assistant commissioner Clive Small, then head of crime agencies and in charge of squads such as homicide, armed robbery, sexual assault and fraud.

The jailed murderer and notorious crime figure Neddy Smith had alleged Small had formed an improper relationship with a Sydney organised crime figure and well-known drug trafficker, Michael Hurley, and that they were meeting at the Woolwich Pier Hotel in Hunters Hill.

The surveillance ran from January 22 until March 12, 1999.

It turned up three parts of, well, nothing, because neither Small nor Hurley ever appeared at the pub. As Joe and Jessie later remarked, at least the food was good. Small was never even interviewed about the allegation.

Just weeks before they started watching Small, Jessie had been tasked by her superior in SCIA with watching another officer, Detective Inspector Deborah Wallace, who at that time was working for SCIA. That operation ran from May 5 to December16, 1998, and involved Jessie joining the same gym as Inspector Wallace.

Like the surveillance of the Ryans and Small, it turned up nothing. There was simply no evidence that any of them had done anything improper.

As Jessie later remarked: ''It was ridiculous. She [Wallace] was just there to do aerobics.'' Despite it lasting seven months, senior SCIA officers later said they could not recall Jessie being told to watch Wallace.

We know of these three SCIA surveillance operations, from May 1998 to early 2000, because the two undercover police involved, Joe and Jessie, later told their story to Clive Small, the man they had been told was meeting Hurley at the Woolwich Pier.

Small, now retired, and his co-author Tom Gilling revealed the extraordinary saga in their book Betrayed, published in 2010.

Remarkably, the assertion that an ''out of control'' SCIA under Brammer had put its own commissioner, among others, under surveillance did not garner any publicity in the media.

Nor was there any reaction from NSW Police headquarters or the Police Integrity Commission, which is supposed to take a keen interest in allegations of wrongdoing and improper conduct.

But all these years later, those operations have become relevant because of an aspect of another controversial SCIA investigation that did hit the headlines.

It was called Operation Florida and it started in early 1999.

Plantations, Prisons and Profits

Charles M. Blow | The New York Times | May 25, 2012

“Louisiana is the world’s prison capital. The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts. First among Americans means first in the world. Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly triple Iran’s, seven times China’s and 10 times Germany’s.”

That paragraph opens a devastating eight-part series published this month by The Times-Picayune of New Orleans about how the state’s largely private prison system profits from high incarceration rates and tough sentencing, and how many with the power to curtail the system actually have a financial incentive to perpetuate it.

The picture that emerges is one of convicts as chattel and a legal system essentially based on human commodification.

First, some facts from the series:

• One in 86 Louisiana adults is in the prison system, which is nearly double the national average.

• More than 50 percent of Louisiana’s inmates are in local prisons, which is more than any other state. The next highest state is Kentucky at 33 percent. The national average is 5 percent.

• Louisiana leads the nation in the percentage of its prisoners serving life without parole.

• Louisiana spends less on local inmates than any other state.

• Nearly two-thirds of Louisiana’s prisoners are nonviolent offenders. The national average is less than half.

In the early 1990s, the state was under a federal court order to reduce overcrowding, but instead of releasing prisoners or loosening sentencing guidelines, the state incentivized the building of private prisons. But, in what the newspaper called “a uniquely Louisiana twist,” most of the prison entrepreneurs were actually rural sheriffs. They saw a way to make a profit and did.

It also was a chance to employ local people, especially failed farmers forced into bankruptcy court by a severe drop in the crop prices.

But in order for the local prisons to remain profitable, the beds, which one prison operator in the series distastefully refers to as “honey holes,” must remain full. That means that on almost a daily basis, local prison officials are on the phones bartering for prisoners with overcrowded jails in the big cities.

It also means that criminal sentences must remain stiff, which the sheriff’s association has supported. This has meant that Louisiana has some of the stiffest sentencing guidelines in the country. Writing bad checks in Louisiana can earn you up to 10 years in prison. In California, by comparison, jail time would be no more than a year.

There is another problem with this unsavory system: prisoners who wind up in these local for-profit jails, where many of the inmates are short-timers, get fewer rehabilitative services than those in state institutions, where many of the prisoners are lifers. That is because the per-diem per prisoner in local prisons is half that of state prisons.

In short, the system is completely backward.

Lifers at state prisons can learn to be welders, plumbers or auto mechanics — trades many will never practice as free men — while prisoners housed in local prisons, and are certain to be released, gain no skills and leave jail with nothing more than “$10 and a bus ticket.”

These ex-convicts, with almost no rehabilitation and little prospect for supporting themselves, return to the already-struggling communities that were rendered that way in part because so many men are being extracted on such a massive scale. There the cycle of crime often begins again, with innocent people caught in the middle and impressionable young eyes looking on.

According to The Times-Picayune: “In five years, about half of the state’s ex-convicts end up behind bars again.”

This suits the prison operators just fine. They need them to come back to the “honey holes.”

Furthermore, the more money the state spends on incarceration, the less it can spend on preventive measures like education. (According to Education Week’s State Report Cards, Louisiana was one of three states and the District of Columbia to receive an F for K-12 achievement in 2012, and, this year, the state, over all, is facing a $220 million deficit in its $25 billion budget.)

Louisiana is the starkest, most glaring example of how our prison policies have failed. It showcases how private prisons do not serve the public interest and how the mass incarceration as a form of job creation is an abomination of justice and civility and creates a long-term crisis by trying to create a short-term solution.

As the paper put it: “A prison system that leased its convicts as plantation labor in the 1800s has come full circle and is again a nexus for profit.”

Friday, June 8, 2012

On drugs

Andrew Elder | Politically Homeless | 7 June 2012

The series of articles on drug laws and the need for reform in The Sydney Morning Herald has been positive, arising from the Australia21 report on the issue. The SMH have much to show their News Ltd colleagues about fostering a debate rather than running a campaign. While it's telling that so many major figures have come out against prohibition, with Mick Palmer not the least of them, this has been a debate that's been part of our lives more broadly. Drug law reform can't and shouldn't succeed until its scope is broadened; it is a shame that both Australia21, and the SMH, have overlooked that.

There's more to the drug debate than just prohibition vs decriminalisation. You can see that in the debates going on elsewhere that both Australia21 and the SMH has rigorously quarantined from its coverage of drug law reform. Perhaps they have done this in an attempt to bring clarity to what everyone agrees is a complex issue. I disagree that it will be effective or desirable in either securing drug decriminalisation, or in mapping out what might or should happen once drugs that are now illicit become legalised.

People want drug addiction to be seen as a public health issue. Let's do that, and in so doing let's look at a public health campaign that has been hard-fought and almost won, and which is not at all unrelated to the debate on other drugs: tobacco.

The first thing to remember is that tobacco is a more serious health problem for Australians, in themselves and in terms of costs to taxpayers and the economy more broadly, than illicit drugs. The cost of prohibition should take account of the averted costs of its alternative, rather than simply being written off as some sort of dead loss.

The second is that, just as the tobacco industry faces the prospect of sinking to its knees under the weight of plain packaging, it faces the prospect that decriminalisation will not just throw it a lifeline but open a cornucopia of commercial opportunities. All of those charges levelled at tobacco and alcohol companies about marketing to minors will come back with a vengeance when tobacco growers get a licence to grow cannabis, and when smaller companies that form part of the tobacco distribution network see the opportunities in now-illicit drugs as compensation over the government's war against tobacco. Big companies will sneak their special-treatments in with the smaller ones, and government will give them. Those hoping for additional funds to be spent on healthcare can only watch the money flow away from them as "incentives" for those who have waged war on public health campaigns.

You may think that your local neighbourhood drug dealer sidling up to the kids after school with a collection of little baggies is A Threat To Our Children, if not to Our Way Of Life. Wait until the perfectly legal, expensive and sophisticated marketing campaigns hit full stride. Look at the success that junk food has had over a younger generation, and imagine how successful similar campaigns for illicit drugs would be. Now contrast that against the odd junkie scuttling into the shadows for their hit in terms of the length and breadth of a real social problem, and ask yourself whether you are really making things better.