Paul Margach and the lie of provocation
An edited version of this article appeared in the Herald-Sun
on Thursday 23 February 2006
Unlike the Ramage murder case that captivated Melbourne in late
2004, the trial of wife murderer Paul Margach - possibly the final
case tried under the provocation law abolished last December -
passed with little fanfare. James Ramage lived in Balwyn and sent
his children to the exclusive Scotch College and Lauriston Girls
School. In the media he wore the title 'millionaire businessman'
like a badge of honour. At trial, defence counsel Philip Dunn
trawled through Julie Ramage's two affairs, including the one
that followed her leaving the marriage. She had, the court was
told, deserted a devoted husband. Despite strangling his wife
in the family home and dumping her in a bush grave, Ramage was
found not guilty of murder and received eight years in gaol. Somehow,
a jury believed his wife had provoked him to kill. The public
For whatever reasons, Paul Margach was not so lucky. During his
trial, defence counsel Chris Dane walked the same path as Philip
Dunn. Margach's wife had flirted with another man, sent text messages
and, on the day of the murder, not only said to her husband 'I
don't want a boy, I want a man', but that she'd had sex with the
bloke and it 'was good', said Dane. Despite evidence there was
no affair and that the possessive Margach had taped his wife's
phone conversations and, finally, brutally stabbed her some twenty
times, Dane wanted the court to believe his client was also a
victim. As with every provocation case, it was the woman not the
killer husband whom the family believed was on trial. And what
was this woman's crime? That she said she was seriously considering
leaving a controlling and violent husband.
This wasn't the first provocation murder for lawyer Chris Dane.
In 1988 he assisted the late Bob Kent QC in the trial of Kevin
Crowe. Like Margach, Crowe had killed his estranged wife in front
of her two children. He'd used a rifle rather than a knife. In
an astounding decision the judge had allowed nude photos of Crowe's
wife, Christine Boyce, to be shown to the jury. Kent's argument
captured the flawed logic of the provocation defence and the complicity
of some members of the legal community in it:
it is relevant to know that the person
attractive woman both in face and body and that in those circumstances
a juror might say, 'an ordinary man in this man's situation
may well have acted, lost control and acted in that way [the
photos show] she is somebody whom we could understand him having
a great passion for.
Imagine the pain and humiliation experienced by Christine's family
when the photos were admiited as evidence and the vicious Crowe
was subsequently found guilty only of manslaughter? If that wasn't
bad enough, Crowe copped around four years in gaol and then tried
to get custody of the children.
What's chilling is that Paul Margach could so easily have gone
the way of Crowe and Ramage, or of Peter Keogh, the man who stabbed
my sister to death in 1987. Who knows what the verdict might have
been if he hadn't incriminated himself and told police 'I'm her
husband, she was having an affair, so I stabbed her'?
Despite Margach's admission that he killed his wife because of
'the affair', prosecutor Boris Kayser did not oppose provocation
being put to the jury. Why did he not dissent, you ask? Because,
as they have done in a number of recent 'wife-murder' cases, the
wise men of the appeal court might have overturned the verdict
and demanded a re-trial with provocation!
And if the appeal court had so ruled, would those fierce defenders
of civil liberties who railed against the Howard government for
failing to save Nguyen Tuong Van from hanging in Singapore have
protested outside the appeal court? No, the law's disregard for
a murdered wife's rights has never prompted a protest meeting
by lawyers or judges. No, just as it was the community not lawyers
that forced the government to abolish this barbaric law last year,
it was a jury of twelve ordinary Australians, not the civil libertarians
who saved Tina Margach from the provocation slur.
With provocation gone, is it the end of women being blamed for
men's violence? There is nothing in the legislation to say a woman's
infidelity, alleged or otherwise, won't be dissected in a murder
trial. And it certainly won't be excluded when a judge calculates
a sentence. While the jury's out on this question, one question
won't go away. How do we to stop these killer men? That's the
real challenge for every decent bloke, including Prime Minister,
John Howard, who should turn his gaze from Muslim men to the Aussie
blokes in his own backyard.
My most recent book, Getting away with murder, deals with the
Ramage case. My previous book, Just another little murder, deals
with the 1987 murder of my sister.