Monday, April 11, 2011

What Price A Child's Life?

There were two news stories about the murder of two children this week. Yet the results of investigations are very, very different.

West Gate Bridge
Source: National Archives of Australia
 On 29 January 2009, 4-year-old Darcey Freeman died after being dropped 58m from Melbourne's West Gate Bridge. A lengthy police investigation, prosecution preparation and trial led to the conviction of Arthur Phillip Freeman of murder. He had been involved in a custody battle with his former wife, and, shortly before Darcey was dropped from the bridge, he rang her and said "say goodbye to your children". Darcey's 6yo and 2yo brothers saw him drop Darcey from the top of the bridge. Despite being recovered by people below, Darcey later died. Arthur Phillip Freeman was sentenced to life in prison, with a 32 year non-parole period.

In sentencing Freeman, Justice Paul Coghlan said  "Your crime is a most fundamental breach of trust and it is an attack on the institution of the family which is so dear to the community"

Also last week, NT Coroner Greg Cavanagh criticised Northern Territory Police for their lack of investigation of the drowning of an 8yo aboriginal boy in 2009. The boy had been weighted down with rocks in his shorts, and drowned in a waterhole. The case has now been referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions after he found a crime had been committed. Police were criticised for: being too quick to dismiss the death as accidental; not protecting and keeping the rocks; not making measurements of, and photographing or keeping other physical evidence; a beer can was not tested for DNA for months after the discovery (the DNA reportedly belongs to a person on remand for child sex offences); the waterhole was not drained and searched; evidence (a pornographic magazine and a singlet) was dismissed as unimportant without being tested. The list goes on.

Any unlawful death hurts society. The killing of a child is especially painful for family, and society. In the Melbourne, Victorian, case, police conducted an investigation which led to trial, and conviction. In the other, it is hard not to conclude that the death of an aboriginal child was deemed not worthy of rigorous investigation by the investigating police. Our society has been hurt twice by this case: once that a child has been killed; and again because the police we trust apparently did not do their job properly.