Island Life by David Slack


Courtroom 15

I am the kind of father who whiles away the school holidays by taking his daughter to a murder trial. Not just any murder trial, mind. Mary-Margaret is only nine, so we settled for one involving a samurai sword, chopped hands and a hostage drama.

We could content ourselves with the mall, and a Disney movie, but there is a beckoning world for an inquiring young mind to explore. Mary Margaret asked me about Parliament. How does it work? What do they do there all day? Uh huh.

And what about court? How does that work?

"Well, you know, that’s easy," I said. We could go see for ourselves." Could we? Really? Cool!

I had in mind a visit to the District Court: the doleful stream of bemused, confused, defiant; competently, briskly and irretrievably processed by The System. But then I thought: why stop there? There might be something interesting on at the High Court.

Mary-Margaret likes our Dad-and-daughter outings, but she also sometimes likes to take a friend along. She rang Belle to see if she would like to join us on a visit to the High Court. Could we? Really? Cool!

Nine year olds skip quickly towards an adventure and we are off the ferry and up past Albert Park in no time. I give them some words of caution as we arrive at the door: you'll need to be well behaved or they might not let you in. In an instant they transform themselves into sombre young women.

We walk respectfully towards the fixtures list. The IRD is pinning some taxpayer’s ears to the wall in courtroom 5; in another, a dozen or so defendants whose names suggest Asian extraction are being prosecuted in a matter regarding methamphetamine. Sundry business people have fallen out with one another over money: carefree days of long lunches at Euro with sunglasses perched atop their gelled heads have given way to litigation at a cost of many hundreds of dollars per hour as they hold one another’s feet to the fire.

Entertaining as all that might sound, I know it may seem dry to my young charges. But a criminal trial, well now, that’s another matter. The Dixon trial needs no introduction to most grownups in this little nation of ours, I'm sure, but it warrants careful explanation to tender young souls. I tell them that this case will probably be a very good example of a jury trial, but it could be scary. If it is, we shall get up and leave. I am not, despite the contrary evidence so far, a reckless or irresponsible parent. I am in fact proceeding with caution.

Up we go to courtroom 15. The High Court is to the District Court what the boutique hotel is to the backpackers lodge; quiet, warm, smoothly functional. We pad along carpeted quiet corridors past a well appointed interview room where Barry Hart has an entertained smile and is in amiable conversation with someone.

We push open the door and take three seats at the back of the courtroom. A woman is unpacking her laptop at the Press bench. The registrar is moving about the desks. The reporter gives the girls a cheerful and somewhat amused smile. I explain that we’re spending this sunny morning of the school holidays taking a civics lesson. If it’s scary, we’re leaving, I tell her. I’m really not a creepy Dad. She reassures us: no need to worry. This morning's witness is a policewoman. She was the senior sergeant who was negotiating with the defendant while he was holding a man hostage. We are reassured by this and I begin to answer the girls’ questions. This modern, small, courtroom with windows doesn’t look like they thought it would, they say. Not like the movies.

In sweep the senior counsel. Barry Hart’s smile has given way to a rather more determined and serious expression. Simon Moore has a jaunty scarf wrapped around his neck and is ebullient. He sees the girls and breaks out in a wide smile. To their delight he comes across and welcomes them. He describes what they’ll be hearing and seeing this morning. The better to illustrate this, he goes to his desk and brings back a replica of an exhibit of crucial importance: the weapon the defendant is alleged to have been training on the hostage. The girls' eyes are now as wide as saucers. He tells us that they will be playing a tape of the conversation between the negotiator and defendant. Their eyes are wider again. He also tells us that the defendant has been creating a little bit of a ruckus downstairs so we might not be getting underway on time. There are also some matters to be heard in chambers - which process he explains to the girls - and so we may have to wait outside for a little while. He introduces the girls to the police officer in charge of the courtroom and reassures them that he will look out for them. Sure enough, a moment later, the registrar tells us we must now go out and wait.

Oddly enough the very reassurance he offered seems to have unsettled my brave little girl. She has become a little tremulous at the notion of a bad man being at liberty in the courtroom. Belle and I reassure her that she will be quite safe, however we need not go back in if she would rather not. We talk it through and she decides she will take a look and if it’s not right, we’ll go.

The door opens. In we go. I give Mary Margaret a reassuring squeeze of the hand. She immediately sees that all is calm. She relaxes. “Where is he?”she asks after a few minutes. I point out the close cropped head three rows ahead of us flanked by two security guards and a third behind. She nods, satisfied now. We listen to the Senior Sergeant work her way through a remarkable scenario. A man whose words sound by turns perturbed, calm, confident, desolate. She guesses he was doing 90% of the talking. Her role was to talk her way towards a satisfactory resolution. Every few minutes I check: are you okay?: They are most assuredly okay. This is fascinating.

Barry Hart raises a number of objections: these are leading questions surely? Finally we are once more sent out while the matter is discussed in chambers.

The girls have many questions. I explain the rules of evidence, the nature of a jury trial, the reason we have a rule of law and the way it has developed. We talk about how it would be if someone could simply accuse you of a crime and throw you in jail, with no system that permitted you to defend yourself. We are having a splendid morning of civics education and they are intrigued. They are also, Mary-Margaret cheerfully tells me, perfectly glad to be watching this. It’s not even a bit scary Dad.

In we go again, and now it’s time for the tapes to roll. Wireless headsets are passed out to the jury, the press, the officers of the court and instructions are given by the registrar. The on/off switch is here at the bottom, the volume control is here.The tape is somewhat scratchy but we can nevertheless make out the two voices, the tenor of their exchanges. The Senior Sergeant, however, has noticed that we have come in after the start, and missed a page of transcript. “You’re lucky,” the judge tells her, “at least you can hear it.” The headphones are not working.

To the girls’ vast amusement, a familiar scene is playing out here. Adults are having difficulty with simple technology. The girls know, from much experience, that if they had a headset, their little fingers would have gone unerringly to the right button. Their respect for authority is not undone by this, but they are perhaps reassured to find that even in these lofty surroundings, the grownups are just like the ones at home who can’t set the VCR.

After an hour they are still agog, but their little stomachs are calling them. We adjourn for an early lunch. As we walk along the street they enthuse about the experience they have had. One part of the evidence has resonated with Mary-Margaret. The Senior Sergeant had recounted how Dixon had said he had nothing left to lose. He was going to jail for a very long time, he had no family who cared about him. She thought that was terribly terribly sad. You might say that the bleeding heart liberal has raised another, but I judged it to be her own empathetic nature at work. I love her for it.

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