WOMAN HATRED GETS LIFE
The sentencing remarks of Justice Philip Cummins, delivered as he sent the serial killer Peter Dupas to gaol for life on Tuesday 27 August in the Victorian Supreme Court, will be profound for anyone that has tasted the pain of murder. ‘There should be a fairness balance between the rights of offenders and the rights of victims,’ he said, adding that Dupas was not only a psychopath but also a ‘woman-hater’. The comments came twenty years and one day after Peter Raymond Keogh, a woman hater like Dupas, stabbed my 25-year-old sister, Vicki, to death. As irony would have it Vicki was attacked in a Coburg street only a few kilometres from where Dupas’ latest victim, Mersina Halvagis, was stabbed to death in Fawkner Cemetery. Mersina was the same age as Vicki and was killed not far from where my sister is buried.
Although Justice Philip Cummins has always had a keen eye for the shortcomings of the criminal justice system, his words are testament to the cultural change that is sweeping through the system. In the early 90s the Victorian Law Reform Commission said the law of provocation did not discriminate against women and, driven by misplaced notions of compassion and claiming to be bound by the law, judges continued to offer provocation defences to killers of the ilk of Keogh and Dupas. Then suddenly in 2004 the Law Reform Commission and the Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls condemned the law saying it treated women as chattels. If the law had always been bad, why had it taken so long for a politician to say so? And what was the Law Reform Commission thinking when it said the law was fair?
When Justice Philip Cummins said ‘I do not think the law has given sufficient attention to the rights of victims… this trial was a vindication of the rights of Ms Halvagis – the bringing to justice of her killer – and of all victims of crime,’ he wasn’t just talking about the law. He was condemning the culture of the courts. From my sister in 1987, to Julie Ramage in Balwyn in 2003, a stream of women have died at the hands of violent ex-partners, only to be blamed for the murder. And when it came to sentencing, too often the period of incarceration mocked the gravity of the crime. Keogh for example spent a mere three years and eleven months in gaol. Ramage received eight years. This was despite him bashing and strangling his estranged wife, after she’d made a visit to the family home in Balwyn, and dumping her in a bush grave. Regrettably, so many of other ‘wife murders’ have passed without notice, relegated to the domestic murder file.
Is it any wonder I’ve been a vociferous critic of the criminal justice system? Quite simply, the manner in which the courts have treated women killed by a former partner is a national scandal. Until the provocation law was abolished in Victoria in 2005 it had provided refuge for ‘wife killers’. And if the provocation defence - which invariably involved the defence blackening the dead woman’s name – wasn’t bad enough, rarely did judges offer compassionate words of the kind Justice Cummins bestowed on the Halvagis family. How things have changed since Justice George Hampel sentenced Peter Keogh in 1989. Whereas Philip Cummins read out a detailed judgement that ran for more than 30 minutes, Justice Hampel’s judgment totalled around 600 words and lasted about five minutes. And there was not one single word about the life of the beautiful girl whose life Keogh had taken or its impact on the family.
‘You have never wavered. The jury’s verdict will never bring Mersina back but I hope it brings you some sense of justice and of resolution,’ said Justice Cummins, before describing the Halvagis family as ‘fine people who showed dignity, courage, love and loyalty’. My mother isn’t a law and order zealot and has never supported capital punishment. Despite all the pain she and my dad endured, they never lost their compassion or their faith in humanity. But she and dad were, and still are, deeply hurt. It isn’t just that their daughter was murdered and the killer was given a provocation defence, or that the sentence was manifestly inadequate. It’s that no one in authority – no judge or politician – has ever said sorry. Twenty years on and still no sorry.
Justice Cummins comments were deliberate and considered. He was clearly doing more than addressing the crimes of Peter Dupas. In describing Dupas as evil and a woman-hater he offered a view of violence at odds with that which has permeated the courts. Instead of looking for problems in Dupas’ upbringing, he cut to the chase. Like every wife killer Peter Dupas is a woman hater. Let’s hope that pearl is the legacy of Justice Cummins’ brave and compassionate words.
My 2002 book - Just another little murder - recounts the murder of his sister. Getting away with murder deals with the murder of Julie Ramage.