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  - 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.