By Natasha Fenner, Museum Curator, Old Court House Law Museum
In the early 1960s two young Perth men, John Button and Darryl Beamish, were wrongfully found guilty of crimes committed by notorious serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke. The temporary exhibition at the Old Court House Law Museum, ‘When Justice Goes Wrong’, examines their long path to exoneration in the early 2000s, specifically the evidence that proved instrumental for each man in overturning the wrongful conviction that has left them with lifelong psychological scars.
In 1963, on his 19th birthday, John Button was charged with wilful murder for the hit and run killing of his girlfriend, Rosemary Anderson. After helping police with their immediate initial inquires, John, still in shock from discovering his girlfriend severely injured, was driven back to police headquarters. John explained that he was then subjected to brutal questioning during which his interrogators accused him of lying and punched him in the stomach. It was during this period that he was told Rosemary had died.1Button, J. (1998). Why Me Lord! The John Button Story, p. 49.
The strain of losing Rosemary combined with the mental and physical intimidation of the detectives was too much, and John says he broke and confessed to a crime he did not commit. John was not told that his parents were sitting in the corridor waiting to take him home. No lawyer had been present during the questioning and signing of the statement and confession that were drafted by the interrogating officers.2 Button, J. (1998). Why Me Lord! The John Button Story, p. 50.
However, that night was only the start of John’s psychological trauma. After being charged, he was sent to death row at Fremantle Prison to await trial, knowing that a guilty verdict would see him sent to the gallows. John was spared this fate, being found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. He was released on parole from Karnet Prison Farm in late December 1967.
Writing about the impact of a wrongful conviction, Leslie Scott says that most people could not imagine the injustice of being ripped out their lives, their communities, for a crime they did not commit.3Scott, L. (2010). “It Never, Ever Ends”: The Psychological Impact of Wrongful Conviction. American University Criminal Law Brief, 5(2), p. 10. The psychological impact on the wrongfully convicted is ‘vast, severe and long-lasting.’4Brooks, S. K. & Greenberg, N. (2021). Psychological impact of being wrongfully accused of criminal offences: A systematic literature review. Medicine, Science and the Law, 61(1), p. 52
The impact continues after release with the struggle to reintegrate into a society that has moved on and still views them with suspicion. Scott lists poverty, societal and employment discrimination, and difficulty rebuilding relationships as issues that impact the mental health of the wrongfully convicted.5Scott, L. (2010). “It Never, Ever Ends”: The Psychological Impact of Wrongful Conviction. American University Criminal Law Brief, 5(2), p. 10-11.
John Button, the victim of one of the worst miscarriages of justice in Western Australian history, has kindly agreed to share with us the impact that his wrongful conviction has had on his mental health.
A: From the moment I found Rosemary’s body in the sand, unconscious, my life changed forever, for the worst. For the five years I was in prison I found the nights to be horrific. I paced the floor till the early hours of the morning arguing with an imaginary jury and judge. I kept myself busy in study to take my mind off the loss of my freedom.
After my release I found myself trying to pick up the pieces of my life as though there was no time gap between going in and coming out of prison. I was to find that the life that I once had was gone for good; the friends and things I used to do were no longer there.
Marriage and children gave me a purpose for life, but even that could not shake off the serious depression that I was sinking into. Medication only dampened any feelings of loss, but it also took away any feeling for my wife and children. The black cloud over me intensified until one weekend I realised I had taken too many sleeping pills.
Fearful for my life I took a long drive into the country at midnight where, naturally, I fell asleep at the wheel. Dozing on and off I collided with two white posts and finally ended up speeding across a freshly ploughed paddock at 100 km per hour. Not knowing what to do, a voice immediately screamed in my ear, “turn left”, which I immediately did. It led me to the embankment from which I shot up onto the road and pulled over into a truck bay to sleep.
Believing in divine intervention, I asked a God that I had never believed in to take my life and heal me. I also asked that he give me justice in my lifetime. That decision was to shape my life and set me on a path I never dreamed of. My life changed from one of despair, to one of hope and purpose. I started finding love and happiness in my wife, Helen, and family.
However, there was no closer to the events leading up to my imprisonment or the seven years following, and there never will be, but having someone bigger has given me blue skies and opportunities to help others that suffer like I did.
A: My wife, Helen, has stood by me through all the most difficult times. After we married, we started a family straight away. Helen was prepared to take over everything to allow me to heal, even to the point of coming out to the building site with me so that I could try and spend a whole day at work, otherwise, on my own I would pack up after a few hours and drive back to the Claremont area where I had spent so many wonderful hours with Rosemary.
She would work beside me, her hands bleeding and sore, labouring for me as well as caring for the children in the playpen on the grass under the tree. She would then drive home and proceed to cook, wash and iron so that none of the other duties she had fell behind.
The children grew up wanting to be there for both of us; determined to make this whole experience work for them and to rise above the stigma of a killer father. My son, Gregory, worked first as a veterinary surgeon, then five years later went back to medical school and is now the director of emergency services at Orange Hospital, New South Wales, as well as being a Lieutenant Colonel in the army reserves, training medics. My daughter, Naomi, is a child and family therapist specialising in the use of puppets to converse with children.
A: The hardest criticism to bear was that of Rosemary’s parents, who accepted the police position of my guilt. Even after my exoneration Mrs Anderson stated that “You took her out that night and never brought her home, so it’s your fault.”
On many an occasion builders that I worked for would not pay, telling me that if I wanted my money to take them to court, knowing that I would never step inside a courtroom again. There were others that would pay but believed that I was guilty because I confessed. Their reasoning was that they would never confess to a crime they hadn’t committed no matter what happened to them, therefore I must be guilty.
Interestingly when the programme “Australian Story – Dancing with Strangers” was aired in 1998 and the follow up show, “Murder He Wrote 1 -2”, the public was invited to respond online; there was over 1000 letters and only one negative one amongst them.
A: From my conviction in 1963, the next 39 years of my life became a mission to prove my innocence. It was all geared towards the verdict handed down by the Chief justice David Malcolm in 2002 in which he said he had come “to the conclusion that the verdict must be regarded as unsafe and unsatisfactory on the grounds that there has been a miscarriage of justice.” I was overjoyed and at the same time numb. I found it hard to believe that I had won and that all the fighting was finished.
However, after a fortnight I began to realize that nothing had changed; all those that had believed still believed and those that hadn’t possibly still didn’t.
Having nothing to fight for left me in turmoil so I looked for the next stage of my life, and that was to be the setting up of the Innocence Project. Those that helped me took it to Edith Cowan University, where they created the Innocence Project unit and the work is continued by Law students that I have the privilege of working alongside, following up on cases that I have been pursuing for the last 20 years.
A: There are many important changes that must be made to the justice system. Certainly, one of those is proper compensation. This must be through the courts as in any compensation case where the victim has suffered due to the negligence of others. It must take into account the total financial cost of loss of wages and all expenses related to the whole procedure of the charge. There must also be an amount paid for the emotional pain and loss of freedom.
To be told that the Government is not obliged to offer anything at all only adds salt to the wound.
I contacted Mr Quigley after he became WA Attorney General and reminded him of his comments in the paper. I asked if he would now put right what he deemed to be an entirely unacceptable outcome; he refused.
A: Unfortunately, there is no support or programs for this type of injury. The closest psychiatrists have come to the problem is to treat it as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which doesn’t cover the many facets of a wrongful conviction.
In the case of being convicted of a loved one’s murder, you firstly have the heartbreak of losing the one you love. In my case, there was the trauma of facing the gallows. Then having to serve a long prison sentence in an horrific environment while trying to deal with the grief and trauma.
Upon release you do not return to a sympathetic and loving society, as happens in an overseas hostage situation. Rather, you are thrown to a pack of wolves in a society that believes you to be the worst of the worst. You are not supported financially and are expected to find your own solutions. I feel the only solution is to be paid proper compensation so that you can find your own solutions.
A: You need to find someone that will support you no matter what. Someone that understands what you are going through, and don’t be afraid to call out to those that have given their pledge to help. Also, you need to find a purpose for your life to move forward. One pursuit, as I found, is to externalise it by writing it all down. Importantly, when all hope is gone, turn to God.
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