Injustice that sparked inquiry

By: Peter Hansen

'... he was questioned on a number of occasions by a relay of detectives who said they brought no pressure to bear on him; yet, about 8.30pm, he began to confess and continued to do so, going into considerable detail, for over three hours; the confession was false from beginning to end ...'

WHAT would Queensland be like today had Des Sturgess not been so outraged by the perceived injustice suffered by a Gold Coast teenager named Barry Mannix?
Would the public have ever heard of that great reformer, Tony Fitzgerald? Would a Queensland premier, a police commissioner and the other big names have suffered the shame of having to face criminal charges?
Sturgess, Queensland's top defence lawyer before he became the state's first director of prosecutions, reveals in his sensational new book, The Tangled Web, how he went out of his way to torpedo the chances of Judge Eric Pratt when Pratt's name was mooted to head what was to become the Fitzgerald inquiry.
Sturgess scathingly criticises Pratt's investigation into the Mannix affair in 1984.
Gold Coast police had extracted a detailed confession from Barry Mannix, 18, telling how he had brutally murdered his own father, Kevin, found stabbed at his Broadbeach unit on June 22.
Mannix, who was totally innocent, was freed after spending months in jail when the real culprits came to light.
The Police Complaints Tribunal headed by Judge Pratt was ordered to find out what went wrong. It found no police at fault. None faced even censure, let alone criminal charges. And Judge Pratt's report left a cloud of suspicion over Barry Mannix even after the real culprits were brought to justice.
Mannix's mother, Raewyn, was so incensed she contacted this writer and wrote an open letter to the judge giving what she believed were glaring examples of how his report which cleared the police and insinuated Barry had something to hide, defied common sense.
Judge Pratt, who retired as a district court judge in February after almost 20 years on the bench, is now back at the Bar.
Sturgess has the insider story on the Mannix affair and also the insider story on how Pratt was discarded and Fitzgerald selected.
It was autumn, 1987, a couple of years after Sturgess took the job as director of prosecutions after turning down appointment to the Supreme Court bench. Things were beginning to hum with the airing of the Four Corners program, The Moonlight State.
``Good fortune found Bjelke-Petersen absent, occupied with his ill-fated campaign to become prime minister of Australia. The state's deputy premier, Gunn, bowed before public pressure and promised an inquiry.
``I breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief . . . Then Pratt's name began to be mentioned as the person to be appointed to conduct it.
``I heard the rumour one day, took the news home and had a joyless night while mulling it over . . . (Next day) I walked into the office, sat down, then, convinced it was now or never, picked up the phone and dialled the chief justice, Sir Dormer Andrews. I enjoyed a pretty good relationship with him . . . ''
He invited Sturgess to talk over coffee.
``He heard me out in silence as I explained why I thought this would be an unsatisfactory appointment . . . I took a deep breath. Giving advice to a chief justice, even one like Andrews, can be a bit touchy. I reminded him of what I understood to be the policy of the courts in Victoria, which seemed quite sound, that a judge wouldn't be made available to conduct inquiries of this nature, because, apart from other considerations, such matters can become very controversial and judges are better not involved in them. . . Pratt's appointment, I warned him, could touch off a first-class row. Accordingly what I wanted him to do was to tell the government the same policy would be applied here. Andrews sat for a little while in silence. Then his face started to lighten. `Yes, I think I can do that,' he said.''
STURGESS tells of hurrying back to the State Law Building to see former attorney-general Neville Harper who had appointed him director. Harper had moved on to primary industries minister.
``I was lucky to catch him because he was about to leave for Roma where a meeting of Cabinet had been scheduled. His secretary let me in and I found him engaged in packing the papers he intended to take and he continued to do so as I talked, he was in that much of a hurry.
``I let him know what I had been up to. I dare say it came as a bit of a surprise, but he concealed it well. He asked me whom I'd recommend to take Pratt's place. I told him Fitzgerald. He hadn't heard of him. I assured him he would stand up to any examination; he was a former federal court judge and I'd just finished briefing him in an appeal to the High Court (the Deidre Kennedy Ipswich baby murder conviction had just been thrown out by the Appeals Court). He thanked me and said he'd put his name forward.
``At Roma, I later heard, Gunn consulted Harper who advised him to appoint Fitzgerald and, upon the attorney-general agreeing, Fitzgerald, on the 26th of May, 1987, was appointed to `make full and careful inquiry' with respect to whether, amongst other things, . . . Bellino, Conte and Hapeta (names Sturgess had mentioned in an earlier confidential report to the government) were concerned with keeping premises for prostitution and whether any member of the police had been guilty of misconduct.''
Sturgess takes no pains hiding his disgust for Judge Pratt's efforts in the Mannix investigation.
``Barry's allegations, if correct, revealed a most serious problem in the criminal justice system. It was not a case of one or two rogue police acting unlawfully; they described a process engaging a considerable number of them, some of whom, if not actually participating, had been prepared to turn a blind eye. From every point of view, then, not the least being that the (accused police) still continued to exercise their police powers, the investigation called for expedition.
NFORTUNATELY, the tribunal took its time, it meandered through irrelevancy and 16 months passed before it delivered a report.
``Nothing like this was required to perform the task which seemed to me to be relatively simple. Barry's allegations amounted to a claim certain criminal offences had been committed against him in circumstances where the main culprits were known.
``The tribunal was not required to try the issues, only a jury could do that. In practical terms, it merely had to decide if the allegations possessed sufficient credibility to warrant a trial.
``The tribunal was not being called on to solve Mannix's murder or identify the persons responsible. By the time the matter reached it, that had been done.
``The facts to be concerned with were relatively straightforward. Although completely innocent, by the 6th of July, 1984, Barry had become the main suspect for his father's murder; from about 11.30am on that day until some time after midnight he was in police hands . . . he received no refreshment other than several cups of coffee; only after he'd confessed did he have contact with anyone not a policeman . . . throughout the afternoon he was questioned on a number of occasions by a relay of detectives who said they brought no pressure to bear on him; yet, at about 8.30pm, he began to confess and continued to do so, going into considerable detail, for over three hours; the confession was false from beginning to end; the moment he was allowed out of the police presence, he told his mother, the first person he spoke to, then (others) and his solicitor he was innocent and claimed the confession had been forced out of him.''
Sturgess writes scornfully of the hordes of glossy pictures in the expensively produced report. Pictures of the father's mutilated body, mug shots of Barry, numerous pictures of buildings and even of a woman performing a striptease at the sex shop and strip show the father ran at Tweed Heads.
``To a person unfamiliar with the case and scanning the report quickly, this collation might have indicated much industry and care and probably was meant to.
``I read it with mounting dismay and finally flung it into the wastepaper basket.
``The police had escaped unscathed. Little did I know but my disillusionment would profoundly affect other events soon to occur.''
The Tangled Web by Des Sturgess ($19.95), available now, is distributed by Herron.