Bowraville: the long road towards justice

In his quest for justice for three Aboriginal children who were murdered in the early 1990s, Greens MLC David Shoebridge has achieved a milestone: The parliamentary campaign he spearheaded has led the NSW Attorney General to support a retrial. As David writes, it has been a long journey with important lessons to teach.
Mon, 26/09/2016

Murder investigations botched

In late 1990 and early 1991 Colleen Walker, Evelyn Greenup and then Clinton Speedy-Duroux, three Aboriginal children, were murdered in Bowraville. It is now late 2016 and we may finally see a case brought that delivers justice for them and their families. This is a story of three Aboriginal families being ignored and marginalised for decades and then finally breaking down barriers to have their demands met. It is a story of resilience, courage, grief and pride and it has lessons for all of us.

In the immediate aftermath of the murders the police focused their investigations on the families. They belittled little Evelyn’s disappearance when it was reported by suggesting she had gone walkabout. The initial murder investigations were undertaken by police without adequate training or experience in serious homicides and key leads were not followed up.

Two separate murder trials followed, both against the same non-Aboriginal man. On both occasions he was acquitted. Each time the families could not understand why the cases were separated, why the common evidence in each murder was not presented to the one jury.

After the initial botched police investigation, relations between the families and the NSW Police were damaged. Suspicion, anger and a vast cultural gulf separated them. In 1997 a then Detective Sgt Gary Jubelin and a team of highly trained criminal investigators were brought in to reinvestigate the murders. They first had to start with rebuilding trust with the community. They listened. They were patient. Gary and his team won the trust of the families and community and have worked tirelessly to build a comprehensive brief of evidence for all three murders.

Legal changes bring glimmer of hope

In 2006 changes were made to the law of double jeopardy that allowed a retrial where there has been an acquittal for murder, but only with the approval of the Court of Criminal Appeal and only where there is fresh evidence and it is in the interests of justice.

Unfortunately this didn’t deliver justice for Bowraville, with the Attorney General refusing two retrial applications..

In November 2011 the families of these murdered children and other members of the community came to protest outside Parliament, to demand justice 21 years after the murders. I joined with them and made representations to then Attorney General Greg Smith regarding the need for a retrial. As always Gary Jubelin was beside them. We got nowhere.

In May 2013 the families again marched on Parliament. Again I was the only MP to stand with them.  Once more representations to the Attorney General delivered nothing. So we worked with the community to draft a petition that could be presented to Parliament. We continued to write letters, ask questions in Parliament, and agitate in the media.

In November 2013 the families and supporters once again protested out the front of Parliament. This time they came with increased numbers and broader media coverage. This time we drew the attention of the NSW Parliament. When I moved a motion for an inquiry into the Bowraville murders

Parliamentary inquiry announced

MPs from across all political parties began to engage. Within days the Parliament unanimously adopted a motion for an inquiry by the Law and Justice Committee into the Bowraville murders:

That the Standing Committee on Law and Justice inquire into and report on the community response to the murders in Bowraville of Colleen Walker-Craig, Evelyn Greenup and Clinton Speedy-Duroux and in particular the committee is to hear from the families of these three children. 

The inquiry was an important turning point. Finally MPs from all political parties sat down with the community and heard directly from Clinton, Evelyn and Colleen’s families. Their courage and their evidence was transformative. When the Inquiry’s final report was presented to Parliament in November 2014 all parties took to the floor to commit themselves to the recommendations of the inquiry.

Now, almost two years after that report was delivered we are finally seeing results on the ground. Memorials have been unveiled in Bowraville, Sawtell and Tenterfield after close co-operation between the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, her department and the families. What is noticeable in 2016 is not just the bricks and mortar of the memorials, but who is now standing with the families.

As recently as 9 September 2016 when the Tenterfield memorial to Clinton was unveiled it wasn’t just one Greens MP and one police officer standing there with the family and supporters. Also in attendance was the Attorney General, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, the Local Area Commander and the local Mayor. This is not just a hollow political statement, it’s a testament to the impact that the ongoing campaign for justice has had.

Attorney General supports retrial 

Of course the core demand continues to be justice. This too has achieved real success with the current Attorney General Gabrielle Upton now having given her consent and support for a retrial application to be filed with the Court of Appeal. When this comes on for hearing either later this year or in early 2017 it will be the first time that any court has been able to consider all the evidence for the three murders together. While the outcome can never be guaranteed, justice is one big step closer.

The retrial application has been a long time coming, and many people have contributed to ensuring that the call for justice was heard and amplified. Just as the denial of justice in Bowraville for 25 years required more than just one agency or person, so has the campaign for justice. I acknowledge the extraordinary work of Detective Inspector Gary Jubelin and his team who have spent more than two decades piecing this case together and rebuilding trust with the families after the initial botched police investigation. Likewise Professor Larissa Behrendt, Craig Longman and their colleagues at Jumbunna House of Learning have continued to work on this. All of the families have contributed to this, but special mention must go to the indefatigable Leonie Duroux. 

This campaign has important lessons for us all about the need to take the time and listen to Aboriginal communities rather than telling, making spaces for working together here in Parliament and out in the community, and for just keeping on going. If you take the time to listen you can hear a big truth from the Bowraville families, that persistence, courage and a belief in justice can overcome any barrier.