False witness, p.1
False Witness, p.1Mark Dryden
Cover illustration: copyright Michael Mucci at michaelmucci.com
After I became a criminal defence barrister, it took me a while to fully grasp that most of my clients were, well, criminals. They were not noble creatures, wrongly accused, who had stepped from the pages of a romantic novel. They had scars, tattoos, missing teeth, long criminal records and woeful communication skills. They were not innocent and they were not nice. Their solicitors were not much better.
Goran Milic was a typical example. He was a low-level cocaine dealer whose residential address was usually a prison. He wandered into my life after some drug squad detectives raided his weatherboard home in western Sydney and found - they claimed - 200 grams of pure coke hidden under some blankets in a wardrobe. They charged him with possessing a trafficable quantity of cocaine. If he fought the charge and was convicted, he would probably spend five to six years behind bars.
He claimed the detectives planted the evidence. That is usually a tough defence to establish. So he should have hired a highly experienced barrister. But he could not afford one and, instead, had to instruct a solicitor at the Legal Aid Office, who briefed a cheap baby barrister - me.
I conferred with Milic and his solicitor, Clint Andersen, in my room. His face had deep lines and fissures, and he wore a Black Sabbath T-shirt specially ironed for the occasion. I had become a connoisseur of sleeve tattoos. His was terrible.
He paced around my room with a jittery stride and raged against the injustice of the charge. "Look, I'm no fuckin' angel. I done lots of bad shit in my time and took me medicine - I copped it sweet. But that weren't my coke in the wardrobe. A cunt cop planted it. I mean, where in hell would I get 200 grams of pure coke? I never get close to pure stuff. Who do they think I am - Al Capone?"
His speech was so impassioned and sincere that I wondered if he should represent himself.
I said: "Detective Ross wore a body camera. It filmed him finding the coke baggie in your wardrobe."
"So ferkin' what? Another detective planted it there before Ross went into the bedroom."
"The guy in charge, Hanrahan, wasn't wearing a body cam. He planted it. That's a fact."
"Why'd he plant it?"
"'Cos he visited me a few days before the raid and tried to shake me down for money. I told him to fuck off. He planted the baggie to teach me a lesson."
"The coke baggie had your DNA on it."
"So what? Hanrahan wiped it on me sheets before he put it in the wardrobe. Easy. But it ain't got my fingerprints, has it? He's a bad dude that one - totally rotten - a disgrace to the police force."
I stifled a sigh. "So, you want to plead not guilty?"
I shrugged. "Matter for you. But how do I prove the coke was planted?"
"You've got my evidence."
The jurors would not be told about his long criminal record, but it was obvious from his scag-ravaged face and jittery movements that he had not devoted his life to the betterment of his fellow man. "I'm afraid your chances are pretty slim. Jurors usually believe cops."
"You can show he's a liar."
"I'll try. But I need some evidence to work with. I'm not a magician."
"Well, I'm not gonna just roll over. This is a matter of principle."
"I understand," I said, not understanding at all.
I looked over at the hefty figure of the Legal Aid solicitor, Clint Andersen, who stopped digging for earwax and shrugged.
The trial was held in the District Court, a few weeks later. The Crown Prosecutor put Detective Senior Constable Terence Ross in the witness box and got him to explain to the jurors how he discovered the bag of cocaine in the wardrobe. The prosecutor also screened film from the body camera Detective Ross wore. The film showed Ross pulling back a blanket and finding the baggie.
I cross-examined Ross: "Detective Inspector Hanrahan and two other detectives arrested Mr Milic in his bedroom, didn't they?"
"You weren't in the bedroom at that time?"
"No, I searched it later."
"How much later?"
"Oh, maybe fifteen minutes later."
"So Inspector Hanrahan could have put the bag in the wardrobe without you knowing?"
The Crown Prosecutor, Philip Drake, often looked and sounded like he was half-asleep. Indeed, his dullness gave him an air of integrity. Now, however, he shot aloft and squeaked. "I object, you Honour. The question asks for an opinion."
The presiding judge, Leon "Percy" Purcell, was bright, mild-mannered, good-humoured and utterly heartless. Anyone convicted in his court soon discovered his bonhomie was an act. Speaking in a kindly tone - more in sorrow than anger - he dished out harsh sentences. Several of my clients who caught his lash said afterward, in a perplexed tone: "But I thought he liked me" or, "He seemed so nice."
As I expected, he rejected my question. But I had lodged the issue in the minds of the jurors, as I intended.
I said: "No further questions, your Honour."
The judge turned to the Crown Prosecutor. "Call you next witness, Mr Crown."
Drake called Detective Inspector Carl Hanrahan to give evidence. Most detectives have criminal miens and look like they went dumpster-diving for their suits. However, Hanrahan had well-coiffed hair, handsome features and an athletic build tucked into a bespoke suit. He sat in the witness box and took the oath with calm authority. Clearly, he would rather be out on the streets fighting crime, but this was an unavoidable part of the job.
The prosecutor got the detective to explain how, after a "confidential informant" informed him that Milic was selling cocaine from his house, he led an early morning raid that resulted in 200 grams of coke being found in the wardrobe.
Constant practice makes most cops - no matter how dopey - good liars in the witness box. However, Hanrahan was obviously a master of his craft. His features remained impassive, and he even sounded slightly bored, while mangling the truth like a paper clip. The jury hung on his every word.
When I rose to cross-examine him, a couple of the jurors looked annoyed at my impertinence and obviously wanted to apologise to Hanrahan.
I said: "Detective Sergeant, you belong to the Western Sydney Narcotics Strikeforce?"
"You claim that you received information from a confidential informant that Mr Milic was selling cocaine at the premises."
"Who was that informant?"
He looked at the judge: "I would rather not provide his name, for his own safety."
The usual practice was for the name of the informant to be written on a piece of paper and shown to the judge and me. However, I had no doubt that the detective had lined up an 'informant' to give evidence if needed.
I said: "I don't insist."
I accused him of trying to shake down my client a few days before the raid, and he calmly rolled his eyes. "The first time I met your client was when we raided his house."
I got him to explain how, just after dawn, he and several other Strikeforce detectives bashed down the front door and stormed inside. Three of them, including Hanrahan, found Milic sleeping alone in the main bedroom. "We took him to the lounge room and the team started searching the house."
I said: "During the raid, you didn't wear a body camera, did you?"
"I didn't need to. I was the supervising officer. I didn't make the arrest and I didn't search the house."
"You entered the house?"
"Yes, to observe what was happening and give instructions."
"You could have easily worn a body camera?"
"Yes, I guess so."
"In fact, you only had to clip it onto the front of your jacket?"
"It would have been prudent to do so."
A regal shrug. "Maybe. But I didn't think we would be arguing about this in court."
"You didn't wear a body camera because you didn't want your movements in the house recorded, did you?"
"And, while you were in the house, you went into the bedroom?"
A slight hesitation. "I was there when Milic was arrested. I followed them out to the lounge room."
"Followed? You mean, at one point, you were in the bedroom on your own?"
"Only very briefly."
"And while you were in the bedroom, you put the bag of cocaine in the wardrobe, didn't you, so it would be discovered later?"
"You're presenting this court with a tissue of lies, aren't you?"
"Definitely not." His relaxed tone accepted I had a job to do, though not much of one.
We both knew he was lying, but the jurors didn't. They looked like they wanted Hanrahan's autograph.
I said: "The bag was inspected for fingerprints, wasn't it?"
"No fingerprints were found."
"True, but the accused's DNA profile was found."
That was not strictly true. The DNA profile matched one-in-a-million people, including the accused, but I was not going to quibble.
"The accused's DNA was found on the bag because you rubbed it on the sheets, didn't you?"
"I did not."
I spent another twenty minutes taking him back and forward over his story, hoping he would contradict himself, without success. He was cool as a cucumber and, most importantly, knew his story backward. His discipline was such that, as he left the witness box, he showed not a hint of triumph.
As I sat down, my solicitor, Clint Andersen, leaned forward and whispered into my ear. "I think you did some damage."
"The jury didn't think so. Did you see their faces?"
Of course, we still had a chance if our client produced the goods in the witness box. He didn't. The prosecution wasn't allowed to adduce his criminal record. But his skag-ravaged face, querulous manner and jittery movements, told the jurors he had spent many nights with his head on a prison pillow. When he delivered the impassioned speech I heard in my room, it sounded like the angry whine of a desperate loser. By the time he left the witness box, the jurors knew that, if he didn't commit this crime, he committed many others without punishment.
In my final address to the jurors, I emphasized the discrepancies in Hanrahan's evidence and said there was at least a reasonable doubt my client was guilty. They didn't agree and took only two hours to reach a guilty verdict. When the foreman delivered it, it felt like a kick in the guts. Normally, when I lost a trial, I consoled myself my client really was guilty. This time, I was sure Hanrahan lied and my client was innocent. I had failed him badly. My pride was stung.
I turned to Milic, standing in the dock and shook my head. "Bad luck."
Most career criminals know that, sooner or later, they'll do a long stretch, and accept being convicted, even falsely, with true professionalism. Milic was not one of them. He shook his head. "Fuckin' bullshit. We're gunna appeal, right?"
He had no good grounds for appeal. The judge made no mistakes and the Court of Appeal wouldn't second-guess the jury's assessment of Hanrahan. "I'll think about it and let you know."
A frown. "Yeah, OK."
After thanking the jury, the judge remanded Milic in custody pending a sentencing hearing. Three hulking Sheriff's Officers hustled him out of the dock and through a side door, whistling tunelessly with no family to farewell.
I turned to Clint Andersen, loading folders onto a metal trolley. He was a small, bald man who had been a Legal Aid solicitor for almost thirty years. Far too long. He was so lazy that any activity seemed Promethean. Getting him to track down witnesses or issue subpoenae was a nightmare. His only mission in life was to catch the 6.05 p.m. train home to Cronulla. He never missed it. Indeed, he glanced at his watch and saw it was just after 5 p.m....
But he was not stupid. Every so often, his sleepy eyes shone like diamonds and a sharp insight showed he missed nothing. He also had a warehouse of experience he occasionally found the energy to ransack.
He gave me a seen-it-all expression. "That didn't go well. But I'm not surprised the jury believed Hanrahan. I believed him and I knew he was lying. No grounds for appeal, I guess."
"Don't think so."
He saw I was upset. "Don't worry, this wasn't your fault. You did well."
"And Hanrahan did better." I shrugged. "Anyway, I'll see you later."
I tucked my wig and gown, and brief, into my bar bag, waved goodbye to the Crown Prosecutor and strolled out of the courtroom, anxious to breath fresh air.
To my surprise, Hanrahan was outside, leaning against a wall, obviously waiting for someone, probably the prosecutor.
He smiled. "Nice try."
I felt a flush of anger and wanted to accuse him of planting the coke baggie. But I'd look naive and he'd deny it anyway. I dished out some false bravado instead. "Till we meet again."
A deep chuckle. "Not if you're lucky."
I strolled off, not realising that I would soon get my wish.
False Witness by Mark Dryden / Thrillers & Crime have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on18 votes