Story transcripts

Licence to Kill

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Reporter: Tara Brown
Producer: Stephen Rice

It's monstrously unjust. A husband or boyfriend kills in a fit of rage - then blames his victim to wiggle out of a murder charge.

It's called the Provocation Defence.

The man says that his wife or girlfriend drove him to it - that she was a nag or cheat.

And that's all the excuse he needs to get his murder charge reduced to manslaughter and to receive a much lighter sentence.

It's a license to kill.

Yet our courts are buying it, letting the meanest and most brutal in our society get away with murder.

Full transcript:

TARA BROWN: In a quiet suburb of Ipswich, west of Brisbane, Garry Mills keeps a low profile. And that's not surprising, because there are plenty of people who believe Garry Mills should spend the rest of his life in gaol for strangling and suffocating his wife, Jolene. Mr Mills, how are you? Tara Brown from 60 Minutes. In the killing of your wife, did you getaway with murder? No answer? Garry Mills served just five years for his terrible crime, and he is not alone - one of a long line of men who kill women and all but get away with murder, instead convicted for the lesser crime of manslaughter. Damian Sebo bludgeoned his ex-girlfriend Taryn Hunt to death - sentenced to only eight years. Chamanjot Singh butchered his wife Manpreet Kaur, cutting her throat as she begged for mercy – gaoled for just six years. Peter Keogh stabbed his ex-partner Vicki Cleary to death – gaoled for just three years and 11 months. All these men and many more like them have escaped a murder conviction by claiming they were provoked into killing the women in their lives - what is known as the provocation defence.

PHIL: Australians need to understand this, that you can kill your wife and get anywhere between four and eight years in jail. They are the facts of the matter.

TARA BROWN: The provocation defence is a legal relic that is centuries old. The question is: does it have any place in modern Australia? Because all too often it's being used as an excuse by a man who kills a woman because of something she is alleged to have said or done. And because she is dead, we have only his word to rely on. Clearly he has the most to gain by blaming his victim, ruining her reputation, making sure she is the one on trial.

JENNIFER: She was quite a compassionate and emotional girl, which is why people were drawn to her.

TARA BROWN: Jennifer Tierney's 16-year-old daughter Taryn was savagely killed in 2005 by her 28-year-old ex-boyfriend Damian Sebo. Still friends, they were out together the night Jennifer got a panicked call from Damian.

JENNIFER: Quite a rushed phone call, urgent, sort of telling me Jen, wake up, something has happened, and he said just get to the hospital. Taryn might not make it.

TARA BROWN: When Jennifer arrived at the hospital, Taryn was already undergoing emergency surgery for devastating head injuries. Meanwhile Damian Sebo was trying to claim Taryn must have been bashed by a stranger after he’d dropped her off on a deserted stretch of road.

JENNIFER: And I started to question him and say what happened? I don't believe you would have left her there. You're lying to me.

TARA BROWN: So he was still sticking to this story it wasn't him?

JENNIFER: Yeah.

TARA BROWN: That he hadn't done this.

JENNIFER: Yeah. And then that was the last I saw of him actually because I became quite emotional, and started yelling and telling him I didn't believe him, that he was lying to me – what had he done?

TARA BROWN: Only when it's clear witnesses saw them together does Sebo finally confess to police.

TARYN: You're driving me crazy.

DAMIAN: What do you mean I’m driving you crazy?

TARA BROWN: He claims he and Taryn had argued about her seeing other men, and in a rage he grabbed the car's steering wheel lock, and repeatedly bashed the young woman in the back of the head. But by the time police take him back to the scene of the crime, Sebo is already blaming Taryn for bringing it on herself.

DAMIAN: She goes, well I cheated on you, so go on, use it. It's not gonna stop it or something. That's when I think I have come across with it. I just got blood on my hands and on my shirt, and then that's when I thought oh my God. It's totally wrong.

JENNIFER: The impact was so great it shattered the back of her skull, and radiated all the way through to the frontal lobes.

TARA BROWN: When you saw her in hospital, did you think she could make it?

JENNIFER: I thought it would be a very slim chance if she did.

TARA BROWN: It doesn't stop you hoping though, does it?

JENNIFER: No. We actually got quite excited when she was in the hospital for two days, and she grabbed on to my hand at one stage, you know, and I was quite excited.

TARA BROWN: Never regaining consciousness, Taryn died two days after the attack, surrounded by her family. It must have been a horrible two days.

JENNIFER: It was the worst in my life, actually. Yeah. You just don't realise for 16 years, you know, I think the longest we had ever had apart was a week. When I walked into the empty house – yeah, it was very hard.

TARA BROWN: Damian Sebo was charged with murder, but pleaded provocation. The jury agreed, and found him guilty of manslaughter only. He was sentenced to a minimum of eight years' gaol, and is likely to be free next year.

PHIL: It's a fallacy to think that the killing is just about a person being out of control. So often the killing of women is a ruthless revenge killing. Revenge for the woman asserting her human rights like her desire to be free of a man, for example.

TARA BROWN: Women's rights campaigner Phil Cleary knows what it's like to lose a loved one in a brutal crime, only to be told she provoked her killer. His sister Vicki was killed by ex-partner Peter Keogh, as she arrived at work in a Melbourne kindergarten. How many times did he stab her?

PHIL: Oh, he would have stabbed her at least a dozen times – he stabbed her in the face, he stabbed her in the stomach several times, I think there’d be four or five serious wounds to her stomach, and the one that pierced her stomach and cut her liver was the one that ended her life.

TARA BROWN: Soon after, Keogh, still covered in Vicki's blood, claim she provoked him by swearing at him - an excuse the jury accepted. He got just three years and 11 months in gaol.

PHIL: Could anyone believe he would get three years and 11 months in jail? Of course not.

TARA BROWN: How is it that 12 jurors think that that behaviour is acceptable?

PHIL: The reality is that jurors seem to fall for the lie that women are bad, that women are provocative. And sadly, this is told again and again in courtrooms across Australia.

TARA BROWN: Phil Cleary has become a champion for women who can no longer speak for themselves - women like 29-year-old Jolene Mills.

POLICE OFFICER: The mission today is to locate Jolene Mills.

TARA BROWN: Seven years ago Garry Mills pretended to be distraught in this very public appeal for help in the search for his missing wife, the mother of their two children.

GARRY: A happy mum, full of life, very outgoing. Always cheerful.

TARA BROWN: It took him two weeks to finally tell police where he buried Jo's body, wrapped in garbage bags in a shallow bush grave. But it was all her fault, he told police. He claimed he lost control after Jo told him she was seeing someone else. During a violent struggle he tried to suffocate her, then strangled her with an extension cord. Can you tell me, please, how did she provoke you to the point where you wrapped an electric cord around her neck to strangle her? How did she provoke you, that you stuck two fingers up her nose? Can you tell me? How did she provoke you to do that? What did she do that was so bad that you had to kill her?

PHIL: He buried her in a bush grave. On appeal his sentence is reduced. And then he is struck off a serious offenders register. I mean, isn't there a moral in the story? Yet again the poor woman is simply a chattel.

TARA BROWN: Do you accept there is a difference between a cold-blooded killer and somebody who responds in a red rage?

PHIL: I do. I do.

TARA BROWN: And that they should be treated differently?

PHIL: I'm not against a judge considering that matter in sentencing, in a civilised way. What I'm against is the idea that when you kill the woman in your life, it is not murder.

TARA BROWN: But attempts to close this archaic legal loophole haven't always worked. Take the case of Luke Middendorp, who killed his ex-girlfriend, 22-year-old Jade Bownds.

LUKE: Who the hell is he?

JADE: He is my friend.

LUKE: Shut the hell up.

TARA BROWN: Luke repeatedly stabbed Jade at their shared house, later claiming that he was defending himself, because Jade came at him with a knife of her own - though no such weapon was found at the scene. Mortally wounded, Jade staggers out of the house trying to escape Middendorp. Does he call an ambulance? Does he try to help her in any way? No, instead he follows her out, stands over her as she is dying and says, “You deserve that you filthy slut,” before he takes off down the street. Jade dies here before help can reach her.

SHAY: He didn't have a scratch on him. Yet my daughter ends up dead in the gutter.

TARA BROWN: Shay Beck is Jade's devastated mum. How did you find out Jade had died?

SHAY: My son was banging on the door. He was sobbing, he was hysterical, saying, “She’s dead, she’s dead, mum. Somebody killed Jade.” My heart just - I will never, never, never forget that. Or the devastated look on my son's face. It was the worst, worst thing a mother could go through.

TARA BROWN: Middendorp was charged with the murder of Jade Bownds. He couldn't rely on the provocation defence - it had recently been abolished in Victoria. But he did find an escape clause - what’s known as defensive homicide – where the accused can claim he was defending himself, even though he had no reasonable grounds for that belief. So you don't believe he feared for his life?

SHAY: Absolutely not. No. The only person that lived in fear was Jade.

TARA BROWN: But the jury did believe hi Middendorp, and instead of facing life in gaol, he is likely to be out in just eight years. And for Phil Cleary it's as if the law hasn't changed at all. The defence is asking the jurors to judge what a reasonable man would do in those circumstances. You're a reasonable man.

PHIL: Good men need to ask themselves that question: is that the kind of ordinary man that I am? Am I the kind of man that would confront a woman in a carpark with a knife and stab her to death? Am I the kind of man that would wrap a cord around a woman's throat and strangle her? Am I the kind of man that would stab a woman in the back like big Middendorp did? Am I that kind of man? Is that me?

TARA BROWN: Jennifer Tierney is channeling her grief over the death of her daughter Taryn into changing these outdated and misconceived laws. She is determined that in future, men like Damian Sebo won't be able to kill with such impunity. Will you ever forgive him for that moment of rage?

JENNIFER: I can never forgive that. People act with such hatred, you know. There is no justification for it. There is no reason for it. There is no excuse for it. And there is no understanding it really.

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