A tragedy from beginning to end

Today marks the end of a 20 year saga that has indelibly scarred my life and those of my daughter Bec and former wife Jenny.  I’ve written partial accounts of it before here at Troppo.  I hope you’ll forgive another one, it’s catharsis.

On 27 July 1995 Jenny’s mother Rene Chambers was murdered by her next door neighbour Roy Bernard Melbourne on the verandah of her Housing Commission flat in Darwin.  The basic facts are set out in the High Court’s 1999 appeal decision (reasons of McHugh J [4] -[6] inclusive), but the full facts are even more distressing.  McHugh J’s account records that Rene was stabbed three times, however she also had her throat cut from ear to ear.  We were told that Melbourne (who at the time was 60 years old) had once been a slaughterman at an abattoir and that he had slaughtered Rene as you would a sheep.

Moreover the murder took place in front of our daughter Bec who was just two days short of her 7th birthday at the time. Rene was babysitting Bec while Jenny and I went to shop for a present for her birthday. Afterwards we were all planning on going to the Sailing Club for dinner, but we never got there.  After Rene was killed Bec ran around the carpark of the unit block for several minutes screaming for help, her feet covered in her grandmother’s blood up to her ankles, until a neighbour came out and rescued her. We arrived half an hour later and so began (for us) the saga that ended this morning.

Melbourne originally asserted that Rene had been persecuting him  by banging on the walls of his apartment at night. The Police told us they believed he was intending to run the partial defence of provocation which would have resulted in a conviction for manslaughter rather than murder and therefore a sentence of only a few years in prison rather than life.

However Police then discovered from other neighbours that there was a longstanding plumbing problem at these apartments.  The reticulated garden watering system had been defectively installed and so the water pipes drummed repeatedly whenever the timer switched between systems (about every 30 minutes for 2 1/2 hours each night). Melbourne blamed Rene for this.

When this evidence was given at the trial it seemed to me from Melbourne’s demeanour and expression that he didn’t believe it (although he didn’t challenge it). However I suppose his reaction might conceivably have been that of a man publicly confronted with the enormity of his actions: he had butchered an innocent, helpless old woman in front of her grand-daughter.   However he at no stage expressed any regret for his actions either at the trial or subsequently.

In any event, once the Police discovered this evidence and it was disclosed to Melbourne’s defence team, they switched their line of defence by abandoning any plea of manslaughter and relying solely on a plea of diminished responsibility, which also results in a conviction for manslaughter if successful.  Particulars of the alleged abnormality of mind sufficient to constitute the defence were:

(a) cognitive defects arising from frontal lobe damage which was the result of alcohol and benzodiazepine abuse;

(b) clinical depression; and

(c) a delusional disorder that the deceased was persecuting him by deliberately banging on the walls of her unit at night.

Fortunately (at least from our viewpoint) the jury preferred the prosecution expert medical evidence over that of the defence.  Melbourne was convicted of murder, which carries a mandatory term of life imprisonment with minimum non-parole period of 20 years.   The evidence on sentencing was that he was a lonely old man who had had little contact with his family over the years (although his son  was present at the trial) and who had lived a peripatetic life working on cattle properties and in abattoirs in various places.

When the jury’s guilty verdict was delivered I was surprised to find myself sobbing uncontrollably, not through sorrow but relief that this part of our ordeal was over and we could get on with grieving and putting our lives back together.  However I was wrong about that last part. Melbourne appealed unsuccessfully to the Court of Appeal and then again to the High Court. Special leave was granted but the substantive appeal failed, although only by a margin of 3:2.  The legal ordeal lasted until August 1999.

In the meantime we had worked to set up Victims of Crime NT. One of its early initiatives was to lobby the NT government successfully to promulgate a Victims of Crime Charter, and one of the processes under it is that victims (including secondary victims like the immediate family of a homicide victim) can register to ensure they are informed when the offender applies for parole.

A few months ago we were notified that Melbourne had applied for parole, having served 20 years imprisonment.  He was 80 years old, and we were told he intended moving immediately to Queensland to live with his son and family.  Because of the bizarre nature of the crime and Melbourne’s seeming lack of contrition, we remained anxious that he might harbour some grudge that he might seek to prosecute on release.  Moreover. my (now former) wife Jenny still lives at the same address in Darwin as in 1995 and would be very easy to find if anyone was so minded. We asked for parole conditions including that Melbourne be escorted straight from the prison to Darwin airport on release and that he reside in Queensland.  They were included and parole was approved.

However 2 weeks ago we were contacted again and advised that Melbourne had requested that his parole be revoked.  His son was “sick” and not in a position to care for Melbourne. The Parole Board approved Melbourne’s request.

This morning I received a phone call from a detective from the Major Crime Squad. Melbourne was found dead in his cell last night.  The detective was careful in what he said, but it sounds like he committed suicide.  After a few moments of shocked silence I thanked him and remarked that I almost felt sorry for him, though not quite.  But I do feel sorry and so does Jenny Parish.  What a dreadful tragedy from beginning to end, for everyone involved including a lonely embittered old man named Roy Melbourne.  I’ve been sobbing again today, not out of relief this time but from grief for all that has been lost.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic at Charles Darwin University, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law) and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 12 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in he early 1990s.
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10 Responses to A tragedy from beginning to end

  1. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks for the writeup Ken,

    I recall speaking to you about this a good while ago.

    Sympathies for the horror and suffering all round.

    I hope, amid the tears, you can take some comfort that the terrible saga is at an end – at least its corporeal manifestations.

  2. Tim says:

    What a thing, Ken. I hope telling the story had something of the desired cathartic effect and that this is well and truly behind you. All the best…

  3. Peter WARWICK says:

    Ken, good to hear of the catharsis.
    But so very good that you can put the whole dastardly event behind you.
    The sun will shine for you.
    PW

  4. Ken Parish says:

    It seems that the story of the death of Roy Melbourne is even sadder than I had realised. I just heard on ABC radio news that Melbourne was one of 6 convicted murderers returned from Datjala prisoner work release camp near Nhulunbuy in the wake of the escape and later voluntary surrender of murderer/rapist Edward Horrell. I wrote a post about the Horrell case last week.

    Those events led to the forced resignation of Corrections Commissioner Ken Middlebrook and no doubt contributed to Attorney-General John Elferink’s decision to announce yesterday that he would not be seeking re-election at the next Territory election.

    It now seems that the events also caused Roy Melbourne to decide to hang himself in his cell at Darwin Prison last night following his return from Nhulunbuy. He was an 80 year old man who had already served 20 years in prison, and who was not only eligible for parole but had actually been granted parole. He subsequently decided to stay in prison because he had nowhere else to go. His own family didn’t want him for whatever reason, and I suspect he didn’t relish the prospect of an isolated life in a bedsit in Rockhampton where he knew no-one. Light duties at a work camp in Nhulunbuy where he no doubt had friends and felt comfortable must have seemed a better option. But then that option was taken away in the moral panic following Horrell’s momentary escape. Here was a man who only remained in prison through his own choice (and would no doubt have been re-granted parole whenever he applied) but who was deemed to be too dangerous to allow out on a supervised prison work detail in a remote part of the Northern Territory.

    When suicide is the best solution something is badly wrong. We will never forget how Roy Melbourne killed Jenny’s mother, but he didn’t deserve to die in these circumstances. Next time the media beats up a cynical law and order panic maybe one or two might pause to reflect that there is always much more to it than a cheap sensationalist headline. There are some murderers and rapists who should never be released from prison: the psychopaths like Adryan Bayley who killed Jill Meagher in Brunswick or the Territory’s own Andy Albury. But Roy Melbourne wasn’t in that category, he was a lonely old man who committed a single appalling act of extreme violence acting under a tragic misapprehension. He had paid his debt to society, even to our family, and he was unlikely to be a danger to anyone, even to us despite our anxieties. He should have been left in peace.

  5. Bob Durnan says:

    Thanks for telling us this sad story Ken. I hope you and the rest of your family are now able to ease it from your minds, at least for much of the time.
    In relation to the media and sensationalism, you are probably right. Living in Alice Springs and remote communities, I don’t get to hear a lot of the NT commercial media’s outrage on these things. Nonetheless, the template for this type of response was built in steel by the CLP governments of the last 40 years. They constructed a successful system for dominating governance of the NT by continually amplifying law and order problems, and engendering a virtual bloodlust amongst many citizens against offenders. Elferink has reaped what he and his mates have sewn.

  6. Helen says:

    I’m so sorry to read this Ken. I hope Bec is well and happy now and not haunted by what happened that day.

  7. Persse says:

    Thank you for telling this story and sharing your deep humanity and decency.
    Over the decades we have seen a push, a successful push, to treat crime and criminals in a dehumanised manner, where vengeance is the primary objective. Every case, in my view,is different, every individual and case is unique. Judges are human and make mistakes, but our system with highly trained specialists in the role is vastly to be preferred to the cries of the mandatory sentencing lobbies whom I despise. If I could I would have judges sentence twice, once at trial and again, with revision up and down, at mid sentence, based on all the factors that arise post sentence (including victims views).

  8. Pappinbara Fox says:

    I cannot imagine the horror and trauma and mind altering effect that seeing such an incident would have on a 7 year old. This is truly appalling and I hope your daughter does not still suffer and I have nothing to offer in the way of words that could help if she is still suffering but I trust that you and her mum do.

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