By Bri LeeNon-fiction Allen & Unwin
Eggshell Skull: A well-established legal doctrine that a defendant must 'take their victim as they find them'. If a single punch kills someone because of their thin skull, that victim's weakness cannot mitigate the seriousness of the crime.
But what if it also works the other way? What if a defendant on trial for sexual crimes has to accept his 'victim' as she comes: a strong, determined accuser who knows the legal system, who will not back down until justice is done?
Bri Lee began her first day of work at the Queensland District Court as a bright-eyed judge's associate. Two years later she was back as the complainant in her own case.
This is the story of Bri's journey through the Australian legal system; first as the daughter of a policeman, then as a law student, and finally as a judge's associate in both metropolitan and regional Queensland-where justice can look very different, especially for women. The injustice Bri witnessed, mourned and raged over every day finally forced her to confront her own personal history, one she'd vowed never to tell. And this is how, after years of struggle, she found herself on the other side of the courtroom, telling her story.
Bri Lee has written a fierce and eloquent memoir that addresses both her own reckoning with the past as well as with the stories around her, to speak the truth with wit, empathy and unflinching courage. Eggshell Skull is a haunting appraisal of modern Australia from a new and essential voice.
If only more legal texts were as honest as Bri Lee’s Eggshell Skull. From judge’s associate and assault survivor to legal complainant, Lee weaves together memoir with a rigorous examination of the law. Whose side is it on and who should carry the burden of proof?
As readers, we are all too familiar in the #MeToo era with gory details of abuse. Usually much less attention is given to what justice should look like and how long it takes to achieve, if at all.
The writing in Eggshell Skull is frank and the pace compelling, as Lee deftly carries the reader through her gruelling legal excursion.
From her descriptions of regional Queensland to the various characters who pass through the courtroom she works in, Lee wavers between a scorching feminist certainty and the self-doubt and skepticism of many fine non-fiction writers. Also impressive was the ability for the book to be a memoir of her own body, a vital reminder that abuse is not abstract, that the law may have subjects, but its force is felt by people.
The next day we started another trial. The defendant, Mr Baker, was a big man – both tall and wide – with a white beard. He gave the overall impression of a Santa Claus impersonator in the off-season, especially because of how confused and sad he seemed. It was another child sex trial, though, so I was fresh out of sympathy. It had only been a couple of weeks and I’d already stopped giving these men the benefit of the doubt. But had I ever presumed them innocent? I was too close to see any of it properly. I knew about damning yet inadmissible evidence, having proofread or seen many pre-trial arguments where evidence that could almost certainly secure a guilty verdict is deemed inadmissible. I’d been researching how widespread sexual assault against girls is. At law school the first and most sacred principle they teach you comes from Blackstone: that it is better that ten guilty men go free, than for a single innocent man to be imprisoned. Benjamin Franklin said it was 100. I doubted that Franklin had been confronted with the rapes of one hundred girls, but my tally was stacking up. I also started seeing more clearly how men were given the benefit of the doubt outside of the courtroom. Debate about quotas for hiring and boards was raging in the press, while some commentators were denying the existence of the wage gap. It was all connected in a big sticky web that I couldn’t see past.
Every case felt like a David and Goliath battle. ‘There’s no evidence apart from the complainant’s story,’ they kept saying, but what evidence was she supposed to bring? So many of them were terrified, submitting to intercourse to avoid the punches or cuts that, ironically, would have helped them secure a conviction. So many took months or years to come forward – then, despite showing monumental strength in making a report, they were cross-examined about their ‘inexplicable’ delay.
My opinion on a defendant’s guilt or innocence had no effect on the outcome of a case, so while I was forced to sit mute, observe and document, at least my mind was free to indulge in whatever trains of thought helped me through the day. I looked across at the twelve people whose names I’d just called out, who now sat at attention for R v Baker listening to Judge’s opening address. Had they come in with clean eyes and ears? How much evidence would they actually hear and how much would be confirmation bias? Sex crime trials have higher rates of conviction where weapons are involved and where people of colour are the defendants. Mr Baker was big enough not to have needed even a butter knife against a small girl, and he was Caucasian. It was a farcical idea that my selection of individuals from the wooden barrel would turn them, miraculously, from average Australians full of fear and misunderstanding into truly objective arbiters of truth.
Thinking about all that for too long made the wigs and robes seem gaudy. The pomp and rigmarole was a pantomime. The more I learned of the huge, ‘blind’ justice system, the more I learned that it was just as human and fallible as everything and everyone that created and preceded it. I didn’t know how to reconcile its festering belly with the righteous image of my father. Disillusioned was an understatement.
The prosecutor stood up and welcomed the jury, resting one arm on his podium and taking a relatable, calm approach to stepping them through the horrors Mr Baker was accused of perpetrating. The jury was going to hear about two occasions that Maggie, the complainant, and her mother took the train to visit Mr Baker. Once they arrived at his house, they all shared a cup of tea and had a chat. After the tea, on both occasions, Maggie’s mother suddenly felt sleepy and lay down for a long nap. Baker had a room full of model aeroplanes, and one time he took Maggie there, and another time he took her into a white van he’d parked out the back of his house.
While Maggie presented her evidence-in-chief from the witness box, I heard her mention that Mr Baker’s house was near Yeronga Train Station, and my gut dropped. That was my train station, in the suburb I’d been born into, grown up in, still lived in. I’d be getting the train home to Yeronga that afternoon. Had I walked past Mr Baker’s house before? Had he been in line behind me at the bakery before? Another light in the constellation of crimes had flickered on.
The second time, in the white van, Maggie had fought back. She said that both times she had been terrified of Mr Baker, and that she had ‘frozen’, but somehow in the back of that van, with his body so huge and terrible, she’d screamed and kicked and escaped. I looked at her properly then. She wore a white blouse, and her long brown hair was still slightly wet from being washed that morning; a beautiful, gentle cowlick sat just to the left of where she parted it. A gold chain sat lightly at her neck. Maggie had managed the impossible: Maggie had fought The Freeze. And she sat there in court, just metres from Baker! Maggie was my heroine.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist