Thursday


Great injustice - Silently Darryl Beamish was ready to face the gallows


Darryl Beamish on release from jail.

Most days when it's fine, a tall balding man of 73 takes a stroll with his wife and dog along the beach near Sydney, Australia. He may spend the afternoon in the garden of his suburban bungalow or dozing in front of daytime TV. What may seem a boring, even pointless, life to some, is the nearest thing to heaven Darryl Beamish has ever known and he treasures every single day.

And for good reason. Until nearly a decade ago, Darryl Beamish had spent most of his adult life either locked in jail or waiting to die on the gallows for a murder he claimed he didn't commit.

Now a free man for the first time since 1959, Darryl attributes his good fortune to Broken Lives, a book written by Australian campaigning journalist Estelle Blackburn, which pressured the authorities to reopen his case.

After five failed appeals, his conviction was finally overturned and what had been called the greatest injustice in modern Australian criminal law, was finally put right.

But Darryl Beamish did not hear the historic Appeal Court announcement. Nor had he heard the sombre words of the judge who had sentenced him to death in 1960. For Beamish has been unable to hear or speak since birth.

But he could write. And in a written statement after the appeal decision he explained: "I don't want financial compensation. All I have ever wanted is truth and justice. I just want everyone to know for sure that I didn't kill anyone.

"I have always told the truth. The deaf have many problems being misunderstood by people who can hear. I did not understand what was happening at the police station or at my trial in court."

The ordeal that enmeshed Darryl Beamish began in December 1959 when wealthy and beautiful 22-year-old Jillian Brewer, a leading figure in the society life of the Australian city of Perth, was attacked in her luxury apartment on Stirling Highway in the fashionable suburb of Cottesloe.

Jillian Brewer fought the fight of her life, but she lost. Her attacker used a hatchet and a pair of scissors to inflict appalling injuries after a struggle during which furniture was broken, crockery and ornaments smashed and curtains torn down.      

Why would anyone kill Jillian Brewer? Nothing appeared to have been stolen from her apartment; she had no apparent enemies and came from a close and loving family. Not even a reward of $20,000 brought any information. For four months, police vainly sought a breakthrough. When it finally came, it was the prelude to one of the most controversial and baffling cases in Australian legal history:  In April, 1960, Darryl Beamish, then 20, was arrested on charges of minor theft. He admitted the offences and agreed to be bailed, but there was clearly something else on his mind.

Through a sign-language interpreter, Beamish then apparently admitted to the murder of Jillian Brewer. He had no history of violence and was regarded by all who knew him as a harmless and rather sad individual. But at his trial in Perth nine months later, Beamish claimed through his lawyers that the confession of murder had been forced out of him by detectives.   
 
Nevertheless, Beamish was found guilty of wilful murder and was sentenced to death. Although he appealed unsuccessfully three times against the conviction given to him, his sentence was eventually commuted to life imprisonment.

There the matter rested for three years when Beamish's lawyers received a statement from a 33-year-old criminal named Eric Cooke, in jail awaiting execution for five murders, claiming that Jillian Brewer was one of his victims and Darryl Beamish was completely innocent.

Confident that a pardon would be little more than a formality, Beamish's lawyers again appealed against the conviction.

The case was heard in March 1964 by three judges who were deeply suspicious of Eric Cooke's confession, deciding that much of it did not tie in with known facts.

The judges believed that Cooke had gathered information from the reports of Beamish's trial and incorporated it in his statement to make his confession seem more convincing.

The judges pointed out that Cooke's confession was still at variance with some known facts. He claimed that the murdered woman had cried out: "Who is it?" as the attack took place, but the court had been told that the first fatal wound to her neck would have made Jillian incapable of speaking. 

For Beamish, it was pointed out that Beamish's original confession was littered with inaccuracies — he originally said the crime had taken place on Sunday when it was a Saturday.

But once again Darryl Beamish's appeal was rejected. The judges thought it possible that Cooke had been in the Brewer flat on a previous occasion — probably to carry out a robbery.

They were even prepared to accept that by amazing coincidence both men were there at different times on the fatal night. But the judges could not accept that Cooke had killed Jillian Brewer and concluded that Cooke had concocted the story to draw attention to himself.

So who was making the false confession — and why? Certainly the time left to question Eric Cooke about his motives was running out and in October 1964 he was hanged in Fremantle Prison. 

Hours before the execution, his mother Christine Cooke asked why he had confessed to the Brewer murder. Her son answered proudly: "Nobody in Australia has committed as many murders as I have. Who do you think you are?" asked his horrified mother. "Al Capone or Ned Kelly?" Criminologist Estelle Blackburn apparently believes that Cooke made the confession knowing that he couldn't be hanged while an appeal was pending in the Brewer case.

On the other hand, many experts still thought that Beamish's conviction was unsafe and that Cooke should be kept alive as a vital witness in any retrial.

But a move in Australia's Legislative Assembly to defer the execution was narrowly defeated.
At 6am on Monday October 26, Eric Cooke was taken to a special cell containing the gallows where he made a long confession to Methodist minister George Jenkins in which he still insisted that he had killed Jillian Brewer.

The last person to see him alive was his mother Christine Cooke, who left the prison saying: "The sooner my son is dead, the better for all concerned." Then before 18 witnesses, Cooke was hanged.
As Darryl Beamish languished silently in jail his supporters continued to claim there had been a grave miscarriage of justice, backed by new evidence that Jillian Brewer might, after all, have been able to speak even after the blow on her neck — as Eric Cooke had claimed.

A petition signed by over 100,000 people called for Beamish to be pardoned. The authorities refused but compromised by releasing Darryl Beamish on parole in 1971 after an independent review claimed that Beamish was suffering from mental problems leading to a general sense of guilt and desire to be punished.

But he was still technically guilty of murder — a situation which was attracting increasing interest from journalists and legal experts, most of whom felt that Beamish's conviction had been based on very dubious evidence.

Finally it was Estelle Blackburn's Broken Lives — an investigation into the Beamish case and that of John Button, jailed indefinitely for manslaughter — which forced the authorities to change their minds and finally quash both convictions... and allow Darryl Beamish to return to the obscurity he craved.

In 2011 he received a $425,000 ex-gracia payment from the Australian government, but gave much of it away. He said money could never compensate him for all the lost years.Recently he wrote to a friend: ".Perhaps now I can begin to put the past behind me for good." 

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