Author Interview: Bret Christian

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Bret Christian is a journalist who runs a group of suburban Post newspapers in Western Australia, when he came across stories that he felt simply had to be told to a broader audience he started concentrating on Presumed Guilty. We were able to find out a little more about the book and the career of Bret Christian in this interview.

Welcome to Beauty and Lace Bret, thanks for taking the time out to talk to us.

Your career began as a journalist, what made you decide to write a book?

There were compelling stories to tell – stories that had never before seen daylight. The reaction to the book has shown that readers are startled and challenged by these stories, but at the same time they can’t get enough!

Can you tell us a little about ‘Presumed Guilty’?

Presumed Guilty is a book in two parts. It begins with two truly baffling murder mysteries which occurred 50 years apart, with all the elements of crime thrillers.. Both the victims were innocent women. The second case is continuing in the courts, but the investigation and court hearings of the first crystallises everything that can go wrong in cases of wrongful conviction, which are far more common than most people realise. Part two is the why – why do the wrong people come under the notice of the police and go right through a jury trial without the truth being discovered?
Lots of real-life examples are used, from Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton on.

What do you think is the biggest issue with jury trials?

Most of us presume the defendant guilty, otherwise he wouldn’t be in the dock. That’s OK if he is guilty, but sad experience has shown us that too many are not. Juries are drawn from the general population, and are influenced by this apparent presumption of guilt even when they try their best to be impartial. Studies have proved that many jurors have great problems understanding highly technical forensic evidence and legal terms such as “beyond reasonable doubt” and “presumption of innocence”. The internet has introduced a whole new set of problems – “trial by Google” where a simple net search turns jurors into criminals.

How did you come across the 1959 Jillian Brewer case and what made you want to look into it?

I first heard the gruesome details of the Jillian Brewer case from my parents when I was a child. It was the talk of the town. I looked deeply into it when I met Darryl Beamish, who as a 20 year old was sentenced to hang, but served 15 years in jail when the sentence was commuted, all for a crime he knew nothing about. No journalist could ignore a story like that.

Where did you find all the cases you unearthed?

I kept up contacts with lawyers and investigators. They tipped me off to doubtful cases and as a starting point I sat through the trials and took notes. One of those trials lasted three months. At the same time I had a full-time job editing and running my chain of suburban newspapers. Thanks to the loyal staff for covering my backside!

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Can you tell us a bit about how you managed to get a serial killer’s confession?

Darryl Beamish authorised me to access his defence file from his original cases. Although I am not a lawyer, I was adopted by his lawyers as a central part of the legal team when Darryl launched his final and successful appeal, decided in 2005. I found the serial killers chilling confession in Darryl’s file and it now forms part of the court record.

You explode the myth of ‘copper’s instinct’, can you tell us a little about that?

Many police, and most members of the public, believe that vast experience gives police officers special powers in detecting guilt and innocence in suspects. I found the origins of this belief really fascinating, and explain why. But science now tells us that “copper’s instinct” is a myth – police officers’ ability to detect liars or truth-tellers is no better than chance: 50-50. Strong belief in the myth has had devastating effects on wrongly-suspected people, when the officer has refused to abandon his initial belief in guilt. This “belief persistence” can carry on right through the criminal justice system and sometimes into appeals.

Can you tell us about the two factors making juries obsolete?

The first new factor is cognitive science, in which relatively recent studies have proved that the consensus system used by juries is the worst way to reach a just decision. Jury studies have proved that juries with strong personalities but with over-confidence in their mistaken beliefs have persuaded less assertive jurors to make unjust decisions. Jury-room bullies are more common than most people imagine. The second is the internet. Recent leaks via the internet have revealed what was once concealed by the tight security of the jury room. Jurors have tweeted their intentions to find the defendant guilty before hearing one word of evidence. The other factor is trial by Google, where information strictly forbidden from jurors’ eyes, such as the criminal record of the accused, is now freely available.

Can you tell us about the alternative to juries already in use in Australia?

We already have a tried and proven alternative to juries, the system used in appeals, where usually three experienced judges sit as a panel. They conduct civilised conversations with witnesses and lawyers, rather than “trial by battle” that now occurs between opposing lawyers. As well as being a genuine search for the truth, this system would help remove the incentive for police to tickle their evidence to help convict the accused.

Are there more books in your future and are you working on anything at the moment that you can tell us about?

There are a couple bubbling away in my internal espresso machine, both of them true-life block-busters. Wait and see.

Presumed Guilty is published with Hardie Grant and has an RRP of $29.99, it is available now where good books are sold.

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