Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Snowtown Murders

Cautious Culture

Before launching into the facts, the difficulties associated with discussing a recent Australian murder case perhaps deserve some explanation.

Many details of this complex matter remain withheld by authorities, including the name of one of the victims. Much of this is simply police prudence in managing what is still an ongoing investigation.

It is worth observing however, that Australian legal-media culture is generally cautious in the extreme when compared with, say, the United States. Information Suppression or "gag" court orders, severely limiting public reporting prior to trial, are frequently obtained by both defence and prosecution counsels. Such orders are in place over certain aspects of the Snowtown case, from both sides of the legal fence.

In some states of Australia, adult sex offenders cannot be unidentified in press reports, lest it lead to the recognition of an underage victim. Even in non-sexual cases, the media and their public must sometimes wait for the trial itself to learn exactly what has happened "in their own backyard."

Also in sharp contrast to overseas practises, no cameras of any kind are permitted past the doors of most Australian courts. Hence, lawyer interviews are frequently given in the court's car park, and artists employed by newspapers hunch over their sketch pads during hearings, producing caricatures of the accused for front page publication and TV news spots.

When an Australian-written article such as this discusses a case which is "Sub Juris" (pre-trial, as Snowtown is) words such as "alleged" and "claimed" must appropriately pepper the text, demonstrating consistently that no-one has yet been proved guilty, and that many known "facts" are still subject to testing before a court.

For many years, Australian legal reformers and media representatives have debated the wisdom of these control mechanisms, at times emotively. Central arguments usually turn on the individual's right to privacy and protection, weighed against their society's need to know or be warned.

Yet against this conservative, restrictive background, much information has already surfaced about Australia's freshest -and most prolific -serial murders.


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