Black and white

On Australia Day, I watched the 2002 film ‘Black and White’, about the Max Stuart case. I had picked up historian Ken Inglis’s book on the case at a church fete the other month, thinking it was the kind of thing a young barrister should have in his chambers, and flicked through it at the time before putting it in the waiting room for unread books. It was an excellent film, and I’ve reshuffled the book towards the front of the waiting room. Max Stuart is an aborigine who worked at a travelling fun fair. He was convicted of murder in 1959 on the flimsiest circumstantial evidence and a confession. He had previously been convicted of indecently assaulting a girl, had been a bare knuckle boxer, and was a heavy drinker.

When the 9 year old was found near Ceduna in South Australia with her head smashed in, dead, and sexually assaulted, black trackers were involved in the investigation. There was blood all over the walls of the cave in which the attack took place. But there was no blood on Mr Stuart. He signed a type written confession which the police foolishly swore was a verbatim record of his oral confession spoken in English, not his first language. The coppers swore that he told them that, after bashing the lass’s face in and raping her “After a while I got up and went to the lavatory.” He also supposedly told them that after knocking the girl unconscious, he had taken off his clothes, put them out of blood’s way, crushed her skull with a rock, wandered out across the beach naked and covered in blood, washed the blood off in a rockpool, gone back into the cave, got changed, and turned up at work. The pathologist was adamant that the fatal bashing occurred before the rape; Stuart allegedly told the police in his confession that it was afterwards.

Mr Stuart was convicted at first instance by an experienced judge. He lost two appeals — presumably to the Court of Appeal, and then to the High Court. The doughty South Australian defence solicitor, appointed by the Law Society of South Australia on a roster system which according to the film did not involve adequate remuneration, appealed to the Privy Council. There too he lost. New evidence was found, including more than one alibi. There was a royal commission. Polite society was divided uproariously. The defence solicitor came under attack for incompetence. He was offered but declined a deal to get rid of that problem. Rupert Murdoch’s Adelaide paper the News campaigned to save him from the gallows, and Mr Murdoch was personally involved. The editor was charged with criminal sedition. (Maybe Clive Hamilton’s Silencing Dissent is not news after all.)

A Catholic priest, and an anthropologist, Max Strehlow, each of whom could speak Arrente, were also involved in the campaign. Seven times Mr Stuart thought he was going to be hanged and 7 times he was not. The Premier commuted the sentence to life imprisonment before the Royal Commission gave its report. The report did not exonerate Mr Stuart, which perhaps explains why this apparent miscarriage of justice flew under my radar for so long.

It seems to have been acknowledged by the police that Mr Stuart was bashed before signing the confession.

Mr Stuart got out of jail and became one of the most influential elders in the outback. He seems to be still alive.

Age article here. Guardian here. Wikipedia here. And if you feel a bit sorry for the Crown prosecutor after Charles Dance’s depiction of him in the film, you might care to balance your reading after Inglis’s book with a perusal of Roderic Chamberlain’s The Stuart Affair. Only problem is, the 3 copies for sale on the internet start at US$50.

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