So rare is it for women to kill men out of possessiveness that the citing in court of a husband's affairs is almost non-existent. It was quite different when defence counsel salivated on the affairs of Julie Ramage after she was strangled by her husband, James Ramage, in their Balwyn home in July 2003. It was enough for Ramage to be granted a defence of provocation and found not guilty of murder. The provocation defence has always been the domain of men. Even when women have explored a provocation defence it is more often a case of self-preservation or self-defence. For a range of reasons, cultural and biological, women are unable to kill in the manner indicative of a loss of control.
Victorian woman Heather Osland, who in 1996 was famously sentenced to fifteen years for the murder of her husband, had first drugged him before asking her son to smash his head with a pipe. Osland argued that years of physical and sexual abuse had left her fearful and that she wanted him killed because he was about to run amok. In the eyes of the crown the drugging and the time that had elapsed since her husband's last act of violence proved it was nothing less than premeditated murder. In a separate trial her son, who admitted killing his stepfather, was found not guilty.
Notwithstanding the chorus of male defence barristers singing the praises of the criminal justice system, the evidence is clear. Dead women rarely receive justice. In her book Joe Cinque's Consolation, published in 2004, the celebrated Australian author Helen Garner appeared to join the male chorus. Joe Cinque died as a result of a cocktail of drugs, administered by his girlfriend, Anu Singh, in Canberra in 1997.
A self-centred young lawyer living in a maelstrom of drugs and manipulation, Singh drugged Cinque - boyfriend - with Rophypnol before injecting him with heroin. What followed were hours of mayhem and ultimately a trial in which Justice Crispin found her guilty only of manslaughter. As there was no jury in this case the decision belonged exclusively with the judge. It was the second time Garner had turned her talents to what she believed was the villainous behaviour of young, middle class women. Few critics or commentators drew any link between her revisionist book The First Stone and her impassioned attack on Singh. In The First Stone she lambasted a group of women at Melbourne University's Ormond College for bringing misconduct charges against the master of the college in the mid '90s. Many feminists were up in arms and the debate raged in the media. Still, there were plenty of supporters.
Morag Fraser, editor of the magazine Eureka Street, said the book was 'premised on the belief that truth is more important than feminist party solidarity'. Journalist and ABC broadcaster Terry Lane supported Fraser, comparing the case to the Salem witch-hunts. Some wondered whether he meant that Garner had turned the girls into witches. If it was Garner's intention to prove that the problems of a bunch of privileged girls at Ormond College paled into insignificance with the murder of women I'd have agreed. That however didn't seem to be the premise of the book.
For reasons best known to her, Garner hasn't ever written about murdered women or how the justice system fails them. Does she see the critique of family violence as the domain of the same 'victim-feminists' who always want to blame men? I don't know. I'd suggest that if Garner looked more objectively at the Ormond College case, she might see it as a metaphor for the failings of the criminal justice system. It might not rank with violence and murder, but the way the College authorities turned their back on the women was not unlike what the courts do in provocation cases.It came as no surprise that Terry Lane would describe the Singh case as 'a counter balance to the notion that laws that excuse murders always favour men'. Lane's passionate defence of free speech and the public broadcaster's role in protecting it is only matched by his contempt for women's organisations that claim family violence is endemic. The law of provocation is ridiculous and should be abolished, but women aren't the only victims of the justice system, says Lane.
Joe Cinque's Consolation is a passionate and challenging book in which the characters are brought to life with great skill and an artist's eye. Unfortunately, it bristles with questionable offerings. When she writes 'I didn't want to hear her (Singh's) academic views on the patriarchal nature of sentencing' Garner shows her hand. If any of the wife killers currently doing time had taken up reading and fallen upon this offering or those in the following paragraph they'd have surely smiled:You don't think she might have goaded him until he snapped? I once did it myself to a bloke, when I was a student. I treated him so cruelly and hurtfully that he hit me across the face. It was only an open hand but it knocked me to the ground. I never felt badly towards him for it, though. I was ashamed. Because I knew he wasn't that sort of guy. I knew I'd driven him to it. I pushed him past the limit.
The Anu Singh that Helen Garner turns into a witch is not a good person. And there can be no doubt she was lucky to beat the charge of murder. Notwithstanding how fortunate Singh was, this was not a legal outcome derived from a judge's insensitivity or prejudice towards the victim. It was a decision founded in 'diminished responsibility', an impaired state derived from Singh's addiction to drugs and had nothing to do with gender. Anu Singh was found guilty of manslaughter because, in Judge Crispin's words, 'she was pretty ill psychiatrically'.
Unlike the average wife killer Anu Singh did not besmirch the victim's character. Although Singh had told a counsellor she was 'terrified' of her boyfriend, this allegation played no major role in the case and there was no evidence led to suggest Cinque was to blame for anything. 'Joe Cinque's character was never raised in Singh's case because it was irrelevant to any issue in the case,' says defence barrister Jack Pappas.
Just why Garner is obsessed with finding female villains is anyone's guess. Even when she describes her foray into a throng of grieving relatives at a Victims of Crime rally outside the Victorian parliament, she finds a female culprit. The majority of people at such rallies have lost someone to the violence of men. Yet the one person whose tale Garner hears has a different story. The poor woman, says Garner, lost her brother in 1945 at the conclusion of the World War 11, when someone he'd met in the city appeared from the crowd, yelled 'watch out' and pushed him off the wharf. The person was never charged. Of course, she was a woman. Was this mysterious woman on the waterfront a metaphor for the Anu Singh, Garner describes as 'the figure of what a woman most fears in herself - the damaged infant, vain, frantic, destructive, out of control'?
The killings of Joe Cinque, Vicki Cleary and Julie Ramage nee Garrett were equally as tragic and the court cases that followed brought unimaginable pain to grieving families. Yet for all her sins, Anu Singh cannot be judged in the same way as the man who 'assassinated' my sister. Nor can what she did be be compared with James Ramage's killing of his wife. To escape a verdict of murder James Ramage had to convince a jury that his dead wife was a manipulative Anu Singh. His barrister obliged by painting a picture that matched Garner's damning assessment of the worst in women, 'vain, destructive and out of control'. A love affair during the marriage and another, only weeks after leaving the family home 'proved' she was vain and destructive. And of course Julie was pre-menstrual when her husband killed her. That of course confirmed that she out of control. These myths are the rocks on which every provocation defence is built.
'What Anu Singh had done was called murder (and) not a spontaneous stroke of revenge for cruelty or betrayal or abuse, but a carefully planned revenge killing'. It is in these fiery words that Garner casts her patriarchal die. There can be no doubt about where she stands. Spontaneous acts of revenge, of the kind that are the preside of 'wife killers', do not qualify as murder. This sad, discredited argument is exactly what every wife killer has offered under the law of provocation. It saved Ramage and Keogh.
It's time Helen Garner cast an eye over the killing of women and our society's complicity in the killings. If you want to see injustice at work you need look no further than the killing of a woman by the bloke in her life. And try reading my last two books, Just another little murder and Getting away with murder.