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A reasonable doubt is our best defence

<em>Illustration: michaelmucci.com</em>

Illustration: michaelmucci.com

The murder of someone by their spouse is still the most common form of murder. The good news is that the number of wives and female partners charged with murder is rising, and women are more than holding their own as spouse killers.

An interesting sideline is that, in keeping with modern trends in these efficient times, outsourcing the actual murder to hitmen and women is also rising. People may be losing their sense of personal responsibility and the do-it-yourself mentality or are, perhaps, just too busy to kill and bury on the day. Andrew Kalajzich outsourced to amateurs and paid the price.

Chief Judge Brian Martin's decision to acquit Lloyd Rayney caught lawyers and laymen alike with their pants down. We were shocked by the Chamberlains' guilty verdict. We were jolted at first by Rayney's acquittal.

Two bold, brave decisions by the Rayney defence team won the day. One was that they opted for a judge-alone trial, in an atmosphere of prejudice, presumption, rumours rising from the usual bitchiness of the legal profession - all professions - where a high-profile marriage is under stress and insiders know both partners have been sleeping around. A handsome couple were cheating on each other.

Judge Martin's decision was a stark, serious reminder that the criminal law demands a higher standard of proof, beyond reasonable doubt, than do the tabloids and television.

The Rayneys were a power legal couple in Perth. He prosecuted Robert Hughes and left public service to act for part of the Hancock empire after assisting the coronial inquest into Lang Hancock's death. She was a registrar of the Supreme Court. Fierce independent lawyers, respected in their own rights.

The Sydney equivalent would involve Malcolm Turnbull being charged with throwing his wife, Lucy, over The Gap a year after her death. (Though that wouldn't happen because Lucy is far stronger physically than Malcolm.)

The Rayney case had everything but a guilty defendant. The second great decision of Rayney and his team was not to have the accused give evidence. John Agius, QC, the leading Crown prosecutor, who is like a pitbull bred out of a Rottweiler, didn't get to cross-examine Rayney. The course of the trial hit the wall. The accused does not have to help the Crown make out its case.

A famous domestic murder trial with paper-thin evidence that went the other way was that of Hendrikus Plomp in 1963. Fay Plomp went swimming in the surf at Southport on the Gold Coast and drowned. She was with her husband and no other eyewitness. Fay was a good swimmer.

Plomp raised the alarm at 7.15pm, her body washed up south from where she was lost.

Plomp blamed an undertow that swept her off her feet.

The only other evidence was that Plomp was having an affair with another woman, passing himself off as a widower ready to marry her. Plomp was convicted and his appeal to the High Court rejected. That court said motive alone could not prove murder, but proof of murder could prove that Mrs Plomp was murdered, and Plomp himself did it. The difference between decisions in the two cases may be this: Plomp was with Fay when she drowned, he could explain.

The West Australian Police could not place Rayney with his wife after the bootscooting class, after which she was killed. Judge Martin found the pods in the hair meant she came home after the bootscooting class but no more.

Alan Dershowitz, the great US attorney for Claus von Bulow, an elite wife killer, said 90 per cent of his fee was to decide whether or not to put his client in the box.

The Rayney decision is a great example of ''the golden thread'' that Rumpole, the early Rake, quoted in all his jury addresses. Our criminal law requires proof of guilt beyond reasonable doubt, a much higher standard than Today Tonight.

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