By Louise MilliganNon-fiction Hachette Australia
Witness: An Investigation into the Brutal Cost of Seeking Justice
A masterful and deeply troubling exposé, Witness is the culmination of almost five years' work for award-winning investigative journalist Louise Milligan. Charting the experiences of those who have the courage to come forward and face their abusers in high-profile child abuse and sexual assault cases, Milligan was profoundly shocked by what she found.
During this time, the #MeToo movement changed the zeitgeist, but time and again during her investigations Milligan watched how witnesses were treated in the courtroom and listened to them afterwards as they relived the associated trauma. Then she was a witness herself in the trial of the decade, R v George Pell.
She interviews high-profile members of the legal profession, including judges and prosecutors. And she speaks to the defence lawyers who have worked in these cases, discovering what they really think about victims and the process, and the impact that this has on their own lives. Milligan also reveals never-before-published court transcripts, laying bare the flaws that are ignored, and a court system that can be sexist, unfeeling and weighted towards the rich and powerful.
Witness is a call for change. Milligan exposes the devastating reality of the Australian legal system where truth is never guaranteed and, for victims, justice is often elusive. And even when they get justice, the process is so bruising, they wish they had never tried.
With over two decades of investigative journalistic experience incorporating in-depth work in the court system, Louise Milligan was already well-placed to deliver an insightful study of how the criminal justice system deals with sexual assault trials. That she was then made more personally aware of the trauma that is caused by cross-examination during her coverage of the George Pell trial elevates Witness to an essential read for critiquing the failures of a system that victims rely on for justice.
This isn’t just the tale of a journalist’s own personal experiences, though the honesty she displays in recounting them is incredibly brave. It is, as Milligan states, about and for the victims. Witness focuses on two particular high-profile cases from Sydney and Melbourne, providing testimony from prosecutors, judges, defence counsel and survivors themselves. Milligan demonstrates how much of the legal system isn’t developed to provide victims with the justice they seek, but rather cast doubt on their experiences in order to deny that same justice. Which isn’t to say the writing here lacks balance – Milligan reiterates her commitment to the maxim of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, but questions the extent to which the innocent are often treated as guilty.
The timeliness of this work cannot be ignored, demonstrated again by Milligan’s recent reportage on improper sexual conduct in Canberra. There, as in the legal profession she dissects in Witness, a system dominated by men is proving resistant to overhaul. It is an overhaul that is long needed, and this book even provides new approaches that could prevent some of the traumatic excesses that are currently inflicted. Whether or not that will come to pass, Louise Milligan is asking us all to bear witness.
You don’t sleep the night before that first day in court.
You spend it tossing and turning, bathed in a slick sweat you had never felt before, glistening like a pallid chicken about to be shoved into the oven and roasted.
You vomit. Your heart feels so close to the palm of the hand that’s clasped to your chest that it might jump on out and tumble off the bed, still pulsing in the moonlight.
Your mind spins, processing and reprocessing questions you might be asked, retorts you might deliver, then remorse that those retorts might sound too much. ‘Don’t be an angry ant,’ one of the lawyers had said. ‘That’s what he wants. Angry ants are always the worst witnesses.’
You think of the others who are also about to give their evidence. How tormented they must be. Of their poor families, struggling to know how to make it okay for them. And you think of those in their premature graves.
You get up stupidly early as there is no point lying in that stupid bed. As the shower water pelts down, you will it to wash away the fear and the signs of insomnia. And then you get out, blow-dry your hair within an inch of its life and look in the mirror.
And somehow, at that moment, a deathly calm descends over the room like an opium cloud, your heart slows down to a dull thrum.
‘This man is not going to fuck with me.’
And that is your mantra, your prayer, as you make your way to the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court that March morning.
‘This man is not going to fuck with me.’
My experience as a witness was illuminating, traumatic and, ultimately, politicising. This book recounts that experience but it is not about me. It is about and for the people I have come to know who wanted to tell their story about men, some in the highest echelons of power, only to be met with a paternalistic, disappointing and bruising system that often made them regret their decision to come forward.
A system where, even if they received what is considered to be justice, they came away from the experience worse than when they went into it.
It’s about those who made it, and those who never got there in the first place.
It’s about people who died because they were afraid, because they were traumatised by what happened to them, because they were traumatised by the criminal justice process itself.
It is about the disservice we have done them and others across the country, every day.
I AM THAT GIRL
One week after my day in the witness box at Melbourne Magistrates’ Court, I flew to Sydney to meet a source for a story. The young woman I was flying to meet had also been a witness in a trial.
Saxon Mullins still called herself a girl. Her curial ordeal had been far more profound than mine. It had been going, at that stage, for four years. She was twenty-two. I met her in the back corner of a dark and nondescript bar in Sydney’s CBD.
For the public, to that point, Saxon’s name and her face had been hidden, but her story had not. Until that time, the narrative had been dominated by the young man who had changed her life in ways most of us would struggle to comprehend.
His name was Luke Lazarus. His story is complicated – from being convicted by a jury, to being acquitted by a judge, to having that judge’s decision questioned by an appeal court, to legal limbo.
But back when the case first began, as Lazarus jostled past news crews and reporters jabbing microphones at him – ‘Luke! Do you have anything to say?’ – the indeterminate spectre of Saxon floated, faceless and nameless, above the chases to the car, the camera flashes, the bold-type tabloid headlines.
‘Sydney man jailed for rape of 18-year-old girl in an alleyway behind his father’s nightclub.’
‘Alleged rapist kept trophy list of women.’
‘Rapist says his life was destroyed by conviction after alleyway assault.’
The only picture I had seen of Saxon before I met her that May afternoon was one which, at that time, like her name, could not be published.
In it, her blonde hair was straightened, she was dressed in a strappy crop top to go clubbing, her head thrown back in a wide smile.
That was Saxon’s Facebook photo. As with so many of these things, the profile photo was not really the girl.
The person sitting across from me on a dark bentwood chair was a modestly dressed paralegal. She’d come from a coastal town to work with her big sister in the litigation department of a large city law firm. She was unfailingly polite.
Saxon Mullins had luminous pale skin, unruly dark-blonde curls framing a still babyish face, brown eyes that crinkled up at the edges when she broke into a slightly lopsided smile. Her initially shy, at times halting, demeanour belied a kooky sense of humour and a courage in her convictions. Tattooed on her wrist was an hourglass and, on the back of her neck, L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N. She sometimes signed her text messages with a saxophone emoji. Saxon could have been anyone’s kid sister, any girl’s best friend.
To be frank, as a journalist, when you meet someone like Saxon, you wonder ‘Where’s the catch?’ because she seems, as a protagonist, too good to be true. But Saxon was that good and she was that true. Not because she was perfect. Because she was normal.
To think of her, on her hands and knees in gravel in a dark alleyway out the back of a stupid nightclub, anally penetrated as her first sexual experience … To think of her, enduring that, just minutes after meeting the man who didn’t pause to ask her if it was okay – a man who later admitted he knew she was a virgin … It was confounding to compute this girl before me and that awful night.
I tried not to fumble my words as I told her what I had planned for our story on Four Corners. I could only say what I knew to be true: ‘All I can say is, I promise I’ll look after you.’
She nodded, chewed her lip a bit and said, ‘Okay.’
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist