On March 13 Australian’s breathed a collective sigh of relief as serial paedophile Brett Cowan was convicted for the 2003 murder (and attempted molestation i.e. “indecent dealing”) of 13 year old Daniel Morcombe. Cowan was sentenced to life imprisonment, with a 20 year non-parole period, however Queensland Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie has filed an appeal citing the non-parole period as inadequate and an ineffective deterrent. The bitter irony of Cowan’s case is that had such an appeal been made for his previous offences, Daniel Morcombe might still be alive today. Cowan had twice been convicted of sexual offences against children, and admitted he had abused up to 30 children by age 18. In one incidence in 1993 Cowan left his six year old rape victim for dead with a punctured lung and a slew of other injuries; yet he only served four years behind bars for this crime. Herein lies the problem. Not only was a maximum seven year sentence far too lenient for a crime of such brutality (he originally faced an attempted murder charge but this was dropped in a plea bargain), the parole requirements were also unreasonably easy to meet.
Cowan was transferred from a Northern Territory prison to a Queensland prison four years into his sentence in 1997 so that he could participate in a sex-offender rehabilitation program. This is a decision former parole officer Keith Drew deeply regrets, however he told the ABC he was certain Cowan would reoffend without treatment. After being accepted for parole, Cowan moved in with his uncle Keith Philbrook on request of the parole authorities. Philbrook, a now retired church pastor, says he was unaware of the full extent of Cowan’s crimes. He says Cowan was expected to regularly report to parole officers, however no checks were made when he failed to do so. Cowan eventually moved into his own flat when his behaviour (unexplained late night outings, lying etc.) gave rise to conflict between himself and the Philbrook family, and the rest, unfortunately, is history.
Although human judgement is fallible, the release of predators like Cowan back into the community is not an excusable error. During sentencing for Cowan’s 1993 crime, Justice Mildren described him as “pathological liar”, yet still gave him “the benefit of the doubt” in regards to reoffending. As promised, he completed a rehabilitation program, however there is little evidence to support whether or not such programs are effective in lowering recidivism. Furthermore, the extent of his psychological analysis upon release must be questioned. Cowan may have “appeared” to be remorseful and willing to redeem himself but to what lengths did the parole board go to ensure his progress was genuine? If he was truly remorseful, it would not have taken DNA evidence to procure his confession in 1993, and subsequently, nor would the promise of gang membership have induced his now infamous confession regarding the Morcombe case in 2011 (which upon learning the “crims” were actually under-cover cops he retracted with a not guilty plea, naturally).
Cowan is not the only violent offender to have been impetuously released with dire consequences. Adrian Bayley raped and murdered Melbourne ABC employee Jill Meagher in September 2012 as she was walking home from a night out with friends. Bayley was on parole for the violent rape of five prostitutes at the time, an offence he only served eight years for. About a year before Meagher’s tragic death, Bayley assaulted a man outside a Geelong pub, leaving him unconscious and with a broken jaw. He was sentenced to three months jail for this offence (which was not found to be a breach of his parole as it was not sexual in nature), however he successfully appealed his sentence and was free to walk the streets once more. Bayley’s history of abuse stems back to 1990, when he raped and held hostage his sister’s 16 year old friend in his marital home. Shockingly, Bayley attempted to rape two more teenage girls whilst on bail for this offence and spent a grand total of 22 months behind bars for the crimes. Bayley, like Cowan, was granted an early release for his participation in a sex-offenders rehabilitation program, something he later admitted to “faking his way through”. It should have been clear to the judiciary and parole board that this man was a huge risk to society, particularly women, incapable of change. Finally he has been given a more suitable punishment: a life sentence with 35 years non-parole, however this will not erase the trauma he has caused his victims (many of which will probably remain unknown) nor will it bring back Jill Meagher’s life.
While loss of life was the final catalyst for tougher sentencing in the aforementioned cases, Melbourne man Steven Hunter was able to kill twice before being faced with a (justifiably) harsh penalty. His first victim was 18 year old Jacqueline Matthews, a coworker at a Gladstone supermarket. In April 1986 Hunter stabbed Matthews seven times in the throat and chest after she rejected his sexual advances. He served 13 years for this crime. Hunter went on to commit a series of other offences (including a prison escape and assisting a kidnapping) but he never attracted sentences of more than a few years. On November 10, 2012, he committed his second murder, this time against 22 year old Sarah Cafferkey. An argument had escalated between the pair, after an afternoon of drinking and taking methyl amphetamine together, and ultimately ended with Hunter stabbing Cafferkey 19 times. In August 2013 he was sentenced to life in prison, never to be released.
It cannot be denied that Cowan, Bayley, and Hunter have multiple similarities: their capacity for brutality, extensive criminal histories, willingness to lie–the list continues. One particularly disturbing shared characteristic is the extent to which each of the men endeavoured to cover their crimes. Cowan removed all of Morcombe’s clothing before dumping his body and returned a week later to crush the remaining bones. Bayley extracted and broke Meagher’s sim card in an attempt to obscure incriminating evidence before burying her in a shallow grave 50 kilometres from the murder site. Hunter’s first murder “cover-up” involved setting alight the car in which he’d dumped Matthew’s body. For his second murder, he attempted to conceal Cafferkey’s body in a wheelie bin encased with cement. Such actions reveal that it was never the intention of these men to get caught and for this reason, along with the fact that they would deny their crimes until confronted with the overwhelming evidence against them, it is reasonable to assert that any remorse they felt was not for their victims but for themselves.
It is clear that each of these individuals, and others like them, needed to be separated from society as early possible. The sinister elements of their personalities are deeply ingrained, beyond the reach of rehabilitation, and unfortunately it was only through horrific consequences that authorities were able to accept this. One only needs to take to social media to witness the community outrage expressed over the lenient sentencing afforded to these men for their previous crimes. Some individuals even call for the reinstatement of capital punishment, however the ethical implications that resulted in the abolishment of the practice in Australia cannot and should not be forgotten. It is better for heinous criminals to be confined in prison, constantly reminded of their despicable crimes, than to relieve them of their actions through death (something some of them would want, as illustrated by Bayley’s attempted suicide). However, the issue of overcrowded, high-cost tax payer funded prisons must also be tackled. There is no simple solution to this problem, but offering plea bargains and rehabilitation opportunities to low profile offenders (e.g. those with petty theft and drug offences), and not to their violent and depraved counterparts, might be a start. Until then, the lives of the innocent must take precedence over any economic concerns and the utmost must be done to take dangerous individuals like Cowan, Bayley and Hunter off the streets and keep them away.