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William Collins
19 July, 2005  
The age of the forensic superstar

The forensic tussle in the Gatto case has spilled into the street. While Mick Gatto rests at Hamilton Island the Crown Prosecutor gives defence star Robert Richter a post-trial spray over the submissions about the gun and the lethal bullet. Our fascination with the glittering orbs of the law knows no limit

Fascination with what goes on in the courts especially on the criminal side is stronger than ever. After nearly 50 years of television, Australians have advanced to middle age on a steady diet of US courtroom drama from the good old (corny) days of Perry Mason to the thoroughly (post) modern forensic representations of Law and Order.

Fortunately, Rumpole of the Bailey, Kavanagh QC and North Square have done something to maintain the tenuous links with the birthplace of the common law and home to the spectacular forensic performances of Sir Edward Marshall Hall, Sir Charles Russell, Sir Edward Carson, Sir Patrick Hastings et al.

Yet, there is an occasional uplifting quality to US portrayals of courtroom life. As lawyers are such a widely despised social group, the potential for satire is endless. Who but the grimmest could not roll about the floor in laughter at the courtroom antics of Lionel (“You’re the judge, and I’m the law-talkin’ guy”) Hutz in The Simpsons?

The combination of a prominent citizen accused of a heinous crime and a dazzling defence counsel is a unique form of free public entertainment, as the saturation coverage of the O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson trials amply demonstrate.

We have yet to reach the stage where there is the antipodean equivalent of Court TV which enables US aficionados of the forensic arts to spend their waking hours soaking up everything from axe murders in Poughkeepsie, NY, to arson in Willacoochie, Georgia.

But our own media is no less aware of the circulation-boosting potential of blood-curdling tales from the courts. And our lawyers are no less newsworthy.

imageAt the end of June, readers of this town’s mighty organ of record, The Age, received issue No 9 of the age (melbourne) magazine (lower case being, typographically, de rigueur in the world of glossiness).

A magnificent, moody photographic portrait, by Denis Montalbetti and Gay Campbell, of the robed Robert Richter QC, consumed the cover of the age magazine. Here he is balancing his horsehair wig on his right forearm, anxiously peering into the middle distance. The caption is, “Robert Richter Barrister to the rich and famous”.

Inside, there was another arresting full-page sepia photograph of the bewigged and pensive counsel. The story by Ian Munro detailed Richter’s stellar career, his considerable legal talents, and his extraordinary energy.

There were some poetic descriptive flashes:

“Like a wisteria rampant in high summer, Richter’s untamed beard throws out new foliage in abundance, its speculative tendrils winding off into space.”

There were handy hints on the triumphant counsel’s effective working regime:

“Some barristers like to get up at 5am to prepare, but if you do that your time is finite because you have that 10am deadline for court. If you work at night you don’t have to stop at 2am or 3am. In the middle of a trial it could mean working all night. My wife works in the same sort of way so when she is on a project she works until the early hours. It’s worked out. I am one of the few senior barristers who is still with his first wife.”

His wife, Anne, declares:

“He is very good at ballistic and expert evidence.”

And really that’s at the heart of all these acres of (glossy) newsprint attention the acquittal of Mick Gatto, after a trial lasting nearly two months, on the charge that he murdered Andrew Veniamin in a Carlton restaurant in 2004.

The prosecution case, led by Crown Prosecutor Geoffrey Horgan SC, was that Veniamin was a victim of the prolonged saga of murderous bloodletting in Melbourne’s criminal underworld.

Not so, said Richter, leading Mark Taft, for the accused. On the contrary, Gatto had been Veniamin’s intended victim, and Gatto had shot and killed his assailant in self-defence after a struggle over a .38 revolver.

Much of the trial was focussed on evidence about the weapon which despatched the unlovable Mr V, and on the involvement of a second revolver, the evidence being that both the central actors in the drama were occasional users of such tools.

The Gatto case was also notable for the forensic contest between Richter and Horgan. These tussles are usually confined to the arena.

Richter opened the defence case, saying:

“The shots went off during a desperate struggle for that revolver, and it was only on the last discharge of Mr Veniamin’s weapon, which rendered him incapable of continuing his attempt to murder Mr Gatto.

The issue is whether, when the final shot is fired, there is still a struggle. That will be demonstrated through the Crown’s own witnesses.”

imageBy way of striking contrast with their often voluble US District Attorney equivalents Crown Prosecutors in these parts tend to keep a low profile.

On this occasion the contest spilled out on to the street.

Horgan weighed into the public discussion which followed Gattos acquittal. Before and after Gatto repaired to Hamilton Island to celebrate there was a lot of media chatter about how the jury may have dealt with the evidence concerning the revolver(s).

Then, on June 26, The Age carried a post-verdict story by Mark Russell under the heading, Gatto handgun claim garbage, says Crown

“Garbage”, if you please. We can’t blame the headline writer since the story itself has Horgan describing the defence argument that a misfire of a revolver proved Gatto’s innocence as “a load of garbage”.

Horgan thought the reason the prosecution case didn’t get up was because the jury did not accept that the gun used to kill Veniamin was Gatto’s.

“I can see the jury saying, ‘Well probably Gatto had the gun and probably Veniamin didn’t but am I satisfied of the fact beyond a reasonable doubt. I think not’.”

In Horgan’s assessment, the defence side’s speculation about the jury’s treatment of the evidence concerning the revolver(s) was indicative of “a feint … on Richter’s part, to create an issue where there is none”.

My impression is that this is a first for the Port Phillip District a prosecutor prepared to slug it out publicly with his courtroom opponent in the wake of an acquittal in a high profile criminal case.

It’s such an enjoyable experience; let’s hope it is not the last.

Yarraside’s judicial shuffles

Attorney General Hulls has produced another trifecta of judicial appointments: see my first despatch on this topic

imageJustice David Ashley, one of its most experienced members, has been translated from the Supreme Court Trial Division to the Court of Appeal. Judge Betty King has been translated from the County Court across William Street to the Supreme Court Trial Division, and Federal Court Deputy Registrar John Efthim has been appointed to fill the spot left vacant by the retirement of Supreme Court Master, Charles Wheeler.

Chris Maxwell QC (pictured here) gets the gig as the successor to jolly old-boy Justice John Winneke as El Presidente of the Court of Appeal.

Maxwell’s had a glittering career, which includes stints at the Middle Temple, a solicitor with Phillips Fox & Masel, reading with Ken Hayne and as principle private secretary to the ash-tray chucking Attorney General, Senator G. Evans. He took silk in 1998 and has been president of the civil liberties outfit, Liberty Victoria.