07 May 2016

Would a handsome, educated man ever be found guilty of murder in 1949 Australia?

Roland Molineux was born into a very family; his father was very well connected in the army and the Republican party, and was the president of a huge dye making company. Roland was a very handsome man, a talented athlete and a member of New York's elite men's clubs. When Roland was charged with murder in 1898, he was found guilty following the longest and most expensive trial in USA history till then. Appeal followed appeal, new trials were conducted and finally the wealthy Mr Molineux was found not guilty. This story might have been replicated in Australia decades later.

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John Bryan Wallace Kerr (1925-2001) had been educated at Scotch College, one of Melbourne's finest school. In his early 20s, this classy young man was an up-and-comer in the modern world of radio. Then unexpectedly, in late 1949, detectives from Victoria's Homicide Squad arrived at his elegant Toorak family home and accused him of strangling 20-year-old typist from Hobart, Elizabeth Maureen Williams (1929-1949), on the beach at Albert Park. Despite his protestations of innoc­ence and a case largely based on Kerr’s confession to the police, the young man was found guilty of murder a year later and sentenced to death.

Interest in this very old case was recently revived when the Victorian police’s Cold Case Unit received information about the Williams murder. Author Gideon Haigh was given special access to material archived at Public Record Office Victoria, thus we now have the true story of John Bryan Kerr.  Haigh’s book, Certain Admissions: A Beach, a Body and a Lifetime of Secrets, was published by Penguin in 2015.

What a story!! Murder back in 1949 Australia was rare and usually related to the criminal class. So the case became very famous. A pedestrian found Beth Williams' body, clothes torn and wet. Drag marks suggested she had been strangled near the bathing sheds. She had left her shared room in Albert Park, intending to meet up with a sailor, under the famous clocks at Flinders Street station. Alas the sailor was late, so when John Kerr and Beth Williams bumped into each other, they went out for the evening. They went to Mario's restaurant, then to a party in Prahan, then returned to her rooms in Middle Park. Although Kerr agreed he was the last person to see Williams alive, he said he had no idea why she turned up dead on the beach the following morning.

Gideon Haigh's book, Certain Admissions
Published in 2015

Kerr looked well dressed, well groomed and eloquent at his trial. He had an expensive barrister, his well-spoken parents who were a constant source of financial and moral support, a speech coach and a PR man behind him (as expected). But he (unexpectedly) had crowds of young women queuing inside the court each day, and mobs of young women outside the Supreme Court building, awaiting his appearance.

On the other side was Senior Detective Fred Bluey Adam, Homicide's roughest and toughest character. It was Adam who had conducted Kerr's interrogation, the detective who had taken a full, voluntary con­fession from Kerr. Kerr utterly repudiated the confession.

Because capital crimes required unanimous decisions, three trials were held. At each trial, the level of public hysteria became louder and louder, yet at no time did Kerr change a single word of his testimony. What was different at the third trial was that the Judge Sir Charles Lowe admitted evidence from a psychiatrist whom Kerr had seen about his old episodic ungovernable rages. Kerr had been in the armed services for a short time during WW2 – he had been court-martialled in the RAAF for striking a superior officer in 1944, pleaded guilty to breach of the peace in a Colac hotel in 1945, and been involved in a violent fight with other boarders in Hobart in 1949.

Kerr's murder trial generated a huge amount of public interest, with many women waiting outside the court to hear news of the case.
Photo credit: Herald Sun 8/11/2013

After the third trial, endless women in smart suits waited for the verdict. The jurors found Kerr guilty with a strong recommend­ation of mercy, because “he was not responsible for his actions at the time”. Why not, we ask? Kerr had been convicted and, as mandated, Judge Lowe ordered that the prisoner by hanged. His sentence was soon commuted to 20 years in gaol, but again we have to ask why? I am assuming because the Conservative State Government valued capital punishment, but the population did not.

During Kerr’s time in gaol, he became a superstar prisoner. This was the start of penal reform in Victoria, so prisoners were encouraged to attend classes that would make them more sensitive human beings eg drama and debating. Kerr loved debating and took it very seriously, even representing Victoria in the 1956 Australian Debating Championship. Kerr also did a creative writing course by correspondence and wrote newspaper articles whilst he was still incarcerated, and afterwards. Plus he kept himself busy appealing his case, all the way up to the Privy Council in London. Unsuccessfully.

Melbourne’s most prestigious newspaper, The Argus, embarked upon a six-week campaign to obtain a retrial on grounds that there had been an­other suspect for Williams' murder back in 1949, a Pole. To their credit, The Argus also published a series of editorials, trying very hard to make capital punishment illegal in Victoria for once and for all.

Kerr only had to serve 14 years of his 20 year gaol term, apparently because many prisoners’ sentences were reduced in celebration of the 1954 tour of Australia by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip. On his release in May 1962, Kerr immediately sold his story one of Melbourne’s least prestigious newspaper, The Truth. And then he went silent on the question of what had happened to Beth Williams.

Now the exact details of his life as a free man became difficult to trace. He ran away to Sydney with a woman who had been besotted with the handsome, obviously-innocent man while he was still inside. He changed his name to Wallace, took on respectable sales jobs, wore very snazzy clothing and re-wrote his life’s CV. He battled obsessive-compulsive behaviours that ordered his world but made him impossible to live with.

The worst was yet to come. John Wallace, as he now was, met a young girl Kerrie Williams and moved back to Melbourne with her. Kerrie Williams (note the surname) quickly died by overdose in mysterious circumstances. Despite Wallace having been with her the night before, her death was ruled a suicide. Did the police not know that Wallace was John Bryan Kerr? Apparently Wallace did not have to keep in contact with a probation officer, so the police truly had no idea who the bereaved boyfriend was.

On his rounds as a pharmaceutical sales rep, Wallace bumped into a very young chemist-shop assistant Denise Mahoney Duncan in 1976 and married her in 1983. (Was she a huge risk taker?) He told her his identity but no more, and not even his workmates knew his real name. When he died in Nov 2001, the funeral speeches carefully avoided mentioning the infamous John Bryan Kerr.

The author Gideon Haigh was somewhat guarded about his personal conclusions regarding Kerr's probable guilt. I thought Kerr was almost certainly involved in the murders of  Beth Williams and Kerrie Williams, and possibly other young women. Two of my students, on the other hand, thought Kerr had been totally innocent.






16 comments:

Andrew said...

He sounds guilty to me. Those very old school coppers with their 'unorthodox methods' would quickly fit someone up if they deserved it, but they never had any reason to put away genuinely innocent people.

andrew1860 said...

Wow, interesting story! People say when you have good looks and money you can get away with murder!

Deb said...

Hel I didn't know that many prisoners’ sentences were reduced in celebration of the 1954 tour of Australia by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip. I can imagine releasing drunks and debtors, but why would they release a man convicted of murder

Hels said...

Andrew

I agree with you although there were a number of flaws in the criminal justice system (police, courts, prisons etc) that needed to be sorted, after the John Wallace Kerr case. And yes, after reading Haigh's 1915 book, I was certain that Kerr had been guilty.

But look at this. On 16th September 2012, the Sunday Herald Sun had reported that “John Bryan Kerr may win posthumous pardon" after another killer confessed to murders of Elizabeth Maureen Williams and a second woman. That man was on his death bed at the time of the confession and cannot be questioned. But we still want to know whether the posthumous pardon for Kerr went ahead or not.

Hels said...

andrew1860

I normally think of "getting away with murder" as an idiom reflecting the unfairness of a person escaping the consequences of his behaviour. But in this case, you might mean it literally. Kerr went to one of the best schools in Australia, spoke beautifully, dressed beautifully, had great sex appeal, lived in THE best suburb in Australia, had great financial support from his parents in his endless legal processes, hired great barristers etc etc.

All these assets could not stop him from being charged, found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang, but those same assets did have his sentence commuted to life and ensured that he was treated with great respect in gaol for 14 years.

Hels said...

Deb

I too was a bit suspicious of prisoners’ sentences being reduced in celebration of either Queen Elizabeth's 1953 coronation or her 1954 tour of Australia. It would be helpful if we could read the details of the state or federal legislation.

But I did find a document from Canada. THAT the coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, which is to take place on the 2nd day of June, 1953, will be an event of historical importance. So British Columbia legislated that a person who had been convicted of an offence and gaoled for more than 30 days would be entitled to remission of one third of the time for which he was sentenced to be confined. There was no mention of murderers being included or not.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I haven't read the book, but there seems to be little direct or physical evidence against Kerr, only circumstantial. The death penalty or long-term confinement is a pretty drastic sentence for someone who only may have done something.

This reminds me of the case of Sam Sheppard which occurred in 1954, yet is still hotly debated in Ohio and beyond, with its mysterious intruders and equally mysterious (much later) DNA testing. Oddly, in murder cases, confessions, either by the accused or others (even on their deathbeds) apparently mean absolutely nothing.
--Jim

Hels said...

Parnassus

Capital punishment was immoral, even if there was undisputed evidence against a murderer. In 1922 Queensland abolished capital punishment, the first state to do so. Although most other states took years to change their legislation, they changed their practice much more quickly eg the last execution in NSW was carried out in 1939, although their state government didn't change their legislation until 1955 (for murder).

I remember the last case of capital punishment in Australia very clearly. In 1967, when Ronald Ryan was hanged in Victoria, the universities cancelled all lectures so that the students could demonstrate in the streets outside the gaol. I cried the entire day :(

Re Dr Sam Sheppard, I have seen analyses of his case a number of times on tv. And yes you are right... it brought out some of the very issues that I was interested in, when writing this post. Sheppard was highly educated and handsome, he came from a wonderfully supportive family, had a fine income of his own, loved lots of women during and after his first marriage, the newspapers covered the trial endlessly, there were many legal appeals and later there was a confession by someone not Sheppard.

I hope law students study these conflicted cases in detail!

Hels said...

Parnassus

I have added a link to a very similar case in the USA that you might be familiar with, the murder(s) apparently committed by the very wealthy Roland Molineux of New York.

http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com.au/2014/03/the-arrogance-of-wealth-no-justice-in.html

So In Love With Melbourne said...

Truly a handsome fellow I must admit and no wonder the sensational scene created in front of court daily! I must agree with Parnassus on this point: the evidence seems circumstantial in nature, and perhaps the lack of DNA evidence at the time means it is almost impossible to put the blame on Kerr conclusively beyond reasonable doubt. I haven't read the book but would definitely want to get a copy of it one of these days!

Pasya Amelia said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hels said...

So In Love

That is so true... there was no DNA back then, and there was precious little other physical evidence available in court.

My issue is not that Kerr should (or should not) have been found guilty. Rather that he was treated in a very special manner because of his wealth, education and family backing. For example, most people found guilty in their first trial have a limited number of appeals allowed.

Dubai Visa Provider said...

it's a interesting & heart touching story.

Hels said...

Dubai
Thank you. No nation wants to think that its justice system is more just for some of its citizens than for others.

pictionary word said...

Interesting

Hels said...

pictionary

thank you. It is very possible that the issues raised in the infamous John Bryan Kerr back in 1949 are still relevant today.