R v Wood

This must surely be my case of the week for last week.

On Friday morning, just short of eight days after they retired to consider their verdict (though they had the weekend off) the jury returned a verdict of guilty against Gordon Wood for the murder of Carolyne Byrne.

This is the end, or probably just the latest instalment, of an incredibly long and colourful saga. It’s a public saga because it is a spin-off from the Offset Alpine saga. Part of the prosecution theory in this case was that Wood killed Byrne because she knew too much, either about Wood’s life as a gopher for the late Rene Rivkin and part of Rivkin’s circle of younger male attendants and assistants or about whatever skullduggery lay behind the acquisition by Rivkin and others of shares in Offset Alpine – shares which took a sharp hike in value after the company’s well-insured printing factory was burnt down in a fire.

That’s not saying anything which almost everybody doesn’t know already. Winston Terracini (counsel for Wood; my elder sister went out with his younger brother at high school – just thought I’d mention that as a six-degrees-of-separation thing) obviously thinks this is part of the problem. As the SMH reported:

Outside court, Mr Terracini said the trial had been lopsided and unfair from the beginning.

“A lot of the media would be very pleased because of the role they have played in securing [a guilty verdict],” he said.

On my way to court on the day the jury retired, I accidentally met Gordon Wood’s eye. In the tradition of press reports, which instantaneously switch over to certainty once a conviction is secured, I suppose I can now say I have met two murderers. The other was positively creepy – and I was appearing for him (but not “alone and without a leader” – it was during my criminal reading, which is a kind of new barrister’s work experience). Wood didn’t seem like a murderer to me – but then, you never can tell, can you? All the same (and I’m thinking especially of Wood’s famous “So do you think I did it?” question to Paul Barry) I wonder if Wood has suffered a kind of Lindy Chamberlain adverse reaction in public opinion for reacting the “wrong” way to the death. Juries are members of the public after all.

Based on the reports of the trial, I find it difficult to accept that this wasn’t a case where there was a reasonable doubt. But, as a criminal lawyer colleague to whom I expressed this view reminded me – if you weren’t at the trial for the whole show, you can’t really judge. That’s the jury’s job.

That’s a kind of necessary faith in the justice process. Because neither I nor the jury were there when Caroline Byrne died, and all we have is the process to make a finding. But I know enough from my own experience how unlike the truth as it looks at least to an advocate (who of course likewise wasn’t there) the results of a trial can come out.

I do wonder to what extent Wood went down because he didn’t testify in his own defence. Juries don’t necessarily take seriously people’s right not to testify, no matter how much the jury is reminded of that right. But jury speculation is a sport which can send you mad.

Now that the verdict is in, the Sydney Morning Herald has been reporting the shock on the Wood-sympathisers’ side, as well as some of the more controversial aspects of Tedeschi’s conduct of the prosecution. Doubtless, those in Wood’s camp will think this hypocritical: it’s just another way to spin the story out. The press must have made a mint out of this case over the years, whereas Wood’s mother has been pushed to the financial brink. At one stage the Legal Aid Commission attempted to to restrict the grant of legal aid to Wood on the basis that his mother still had assets.

There is bound to be an appeal.

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