Within days of Joanne Lees emerging from the hiding spot where in July 2001 the vicious Bradley Murdoch, having already shot her boyfriend Peter Falconio dead would have raped and murdered her, the instinct among some police was that she wasn't telling the truth. Her decision not to cry in public and her appearance in a 'cheeky-monkey' t-shirt many saw as flippant and sexual only reinforced the public's doubts. It didn't seem to matter that the 27-year-old backpacker's appearance was due to her having no clothes and that she'd been totally traumatised by her escape from the truly evil Murdoch in the unforgiving Australian outback. Nor was her nightmare enough to convince someone in authority that Lees needed counselling and psychological help.
Like Lindy Chamberlain twenty years earlier Joanne Lees had become the suspect in the death of someone known intimately to her. The comparisons don't end there. Lees' Yorkshire stoicism gave her the same deadpan countenance borne by Lindy Chamberlain when marched through the throng of media at the committal in Alice Springs in 1980. Like Lees she didn't cry or offer glib morsels for the media. Being a Seventh Day Adventist, whose church it was said was steeped in mystery, didn't help either. If that wasn't enough, weren't Australians convinced her daughter's name, Azaria, meant sacrifice in the wilderness?
To see Chamberlain and Lees as accidental victims of misunderstanding and the mystery of the outback is to ignore the deeper forces at work against women. If it weren't for the deeply embedded belief that women are chronic schemers the Law and Order drama that went to air last Monday night would be seen as laughable. In the absence of such prejudices no one could have imagined the police charging Lindy Chamberlain with murder or believed that a jury might convict her. How else could anyone imagine that the girl who staggered onto the Stuart Highway, hair matted and hands tied, to flag down a truck, had killed her boyfriend?
Although women so rarely kill the man in their life and when they do it follows years of violence or the genuine fear that he is about to unleash terror on her or the family, the police genuinely believed Lees might have had a role in the disappearance of Falconio. How eerily reminiscent it was of the persecution of Chamberlain. If it was membership of a maligned religion and an inability to present like the archetypal grieving mother that compounded Lindy Chamberlain's woes, Joanne Lees' beauty and sexuality surely conspired against her. An affair with a man a month prior to her boyfriend's murder only inflamed the suspicions. There's nothing like the whiff of female infidelity to fire a chorus of woman bashing.
In its 2004 report the Victorian Law Reform Commission was unequivocal about the role a woman's infidelity, real or alleged, played in saving wife killers from murder. Our criminal justice system is bursting with cases where lawyers have successfully blackened a woman's character by way of alleged infidelity. All too often these murdering husbands have walked from court with a manslaughter verdict and a trivial sentence. So savage was the Commission's criticisms of the law of provocation and the use of a woman's infidelity to diminish the crime of wife-killing, the Bracks government was forced to abolish the law.
If the abolition of provocation was one step forward for women the treatment of Joanne Lees was two steps back. That an ordinary and innocent young woman should in these circumstances be the victim of such innuendo and police suspicion, including the bugging of her phone calls, is truly astounding. That it happened twenty years after the shameful treatment of Lindy Chamberlain is a national disgrace. What was Channel 9 thinking when it ran a poll - despite Murdoch being found guilty of killing Falconio - asking whether people thought Lees was innocent?
Joanne Lees in her 'cheeky monkey' vest was the personification of the rape victims who, not so long ago, were grilled in Australian courtrooms about their sexual history or accused of leading a man on by wearing a 'provocative' miniskirt. From the simmering Australian Outback to the US drama Law and Order there's no shortage of people who genuinely think women are the mistresses of evil. How else can we explain what happened to Chamberlain, Lees and the murdered women in between?
An edited version of this article appeared in the Melbourne Herald Sun on Tuesday 17 October 2006.