The Australian Newspaper
7 November 2012
Twenty-five years ago, 39-year-old Peter Keogh, a man with a record of violence against women disappeared down a laneway in Brunswick, stashed his bloodied overalls and knife in a cardboard box, grabbed a cup of coffee at the local auction rooms and fled the suburb. Behind, lying in the gutter bleeding to death was my 25-year-old sister Vicki. Her last words to the ambulance officer, repeated to the doctor at the Royal Melbourne Hospital were ‘please don’t let me die’.
As the terrible story unfolded of Gillian Meagher’s death, a kilometre from where Vicki was attacked, my mind was flooded with dark thoughts. Did Jill scream for help, as Vicki had done when Keogh produced his knife? How could Jill be on the phone to her brother in busy Sydney Road one moment and be murdered in a laneway, as police will allege, a few minutes later? What is not in doubt, as my own mother’s life bears testament, is that Jill’s father and mother will be haunted forever by the way their daughter died.
A cluster of words in a letter Mum dedicated to Vicki years after the murder, so poignantly captures a mother’s pain. ‘The worst thoughts of your death attack my heart…a young girl such a beautiful compassionate nature…’ Vicki was four years younger than Gillian.
|Is this where Jill died at the hands of a bad man? In time we will be even more horrified at what happened.
There was no peace march in Sydney Road when Vicki was murdered or when Jade Bownds was stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend in 2008 near where Jill’s young life was brought to an end. Nor was there a mass outpouring of grief when their killers were found not guilty of murder. Despite a history of violence against women Keogh went to gaol for less than four years, found not guilty of murder under the old but now disgraced provocation law. Jade’s killer, Luke Middendorp, received a minimum eight years, saved from murder by the flawed defensive homicide law that replaced the provocation law. The cases are stark reminders of the criminal justice system’s failure to address the scourge of violence against women.
The complicity of the state was never more evident than in the murder of sisters Colleen and Laura Irwin in January 2006. Unbeknownst to 23-year-old Colleen and 21-year-old Laura, the man living next door, William Watkins, was a violent misogynist and convicted rapist. On 11 May 2000, Watkins had been sentenced to a mere four years and three months for rape, aggravated burglary and theft. He was on parole when he raped and murdered the Irwin sisters. While on the run he was shot dead by a police officer he’d wounded in a gunfight. Such was the community outrage the Victorian Liberal Opposition said the case highlighted the need for extended supervision of violent criminals who might reoffend.
Sadly, as the recent killing of Sargun Ragi by her estranged husband in Melbourne only confirms, words are cheap. Despite Sargun’s expressed fear of her husband, Avjit Singh, he was able to defy an intervention order and stab her to death in a murder suicide. Violent men defying intervention orders. Rapists living next door to unsuspecting women and being free to roam the streets after dark, unfettered. Brutal courtroom narratives that blame women for being murdered. Lawyers telling judges, rape isn’t an act of violence. Tell me the justice system doesn’t have blood on its hands. If the Jill Meagher we saw in the CCTV footage had been raped and not murdered she’d have been no innocent heroine. Out walking the streets after drinking till 1.30am! It might seem incredible but those who’ve seen the system in operation know she’d have been pilloried in court.
Jill Meagher captured my imagination, not because she had a beautiful face or a lilting Irish voice, as one journalist noted, but because of the terrible reality of that which befell her and because we failed her. Invariably this is the plight of so many women, whether in the family home or the dark end of the street.
Now as we mourn the tragic death of another young woman we should reflect on the role of the belittling courtroom narratives, the disgraceful sentences handed down and the failure of the justice system. Forget that and we will have learnt nothing.