Wrongly convicted

Issue 

Tim Anderson

Wrongly convicted

Gregory Brown, convicted of killing six people in the 1989 "backpackers fire", is innocent. He was wrongly convicted in a juryless trial before Justice Peter McInerney late last year, and will be sentenced on March 17. An appeal is to be lodged.

While Brown is an arsonist, he was not in Sydney at the time of the fire. There is powerful evidence that he was in Melbourne over the weekend of September 16-17, 1989. A year later, while in jail, Brown approached police and confessed, not only to the backpackers fire, but to 500 others. He now says he is "not sure" whether he lit the tragic fire that killed six tourists at the Kings Cross Downunder Hostel.

Justice McInerney decided to rely on Brown's confession alone, and convicted him of manslaughter. There was no other evidence to link Brown with the fire.

Brown was described as a person who was "borderline retarded", having suffered brain damage at an early age, and who had a history of drug and alcohol abuse. Some specialists said he also suffered from a personality and memory disorder, including factitious disorder (inventing stories). His case underlines the danger of confessions from disturbed people.

Strangely, Justice McInerney began his judgment discussing Brown's mental state and the defence of "diminished responsibility", before he addressed the real issue of whether Brown's confession should be accepted.

Brown's admissions came in six different, inaccurate and contradictory interviews with Detective First Class Parish; these statements were later "verified" by a senior officer, Detective Aarne Tees. Linguist Andrew Lohrey concluded that details were fed to Brown through such questions as "Did you spread newspaper on the lounge?"

Justice McInerney also disregarded important alibi evidence. Two witnesses told him that Brown was in Melbourne for most of September 1989. They could not pin him down for every day, but a banking record had Brown there on the 14th, and medical records placed him in St Kilda on the 18th, the day after the fire. Brown seems to have first come to Sydney in October 1989. However, these witnesses were ignored by the judge because one was not "an accurate historian on dates" and the other was "vague and unsatisfactory".

McInerney speculated that Brown could have travelled by bus or even by plane to return to Melbourne after the Downunder fire. And in the face of powerful evidence, he refused to concede that Brown had a history of "confabulation".

With police, Brown had confessed to some 500 fires and had been charged with 158. However, seven of these 158 occurred in Sydney between July 19 and September 2, 1988, when Brown was in prison in Melbourne. McInerney tried to avoid this problem by saying, "I would not expect him to have a detailed knowledge of all the minor fires he has lit ... I am impressed as to his accuracy in relation to the major fires".

One of the fires that apparently impressed McInerney was a fire at Sydney's Restaurant on the Park. This occurred at 1.40 a.m. on January 12, 1989, yet Brown was with a doctor in Melbourne at 4.30 p.m. the previous afternoon. McInerney at first said this was "difficult to find an answer for", but later said he was "satisfied" that Brown was present at the fire. As with the backpackers fire, the problem was apparently solved, not by evidence, but by rhetoric: "Why would he have mentioned that fire had occurred ... if he had had nothing to do with it?"

Later this year Gregory Alan Brown will plead guilty to a few of the fires that he has lit in Sydney. But he is in need of medical treatment, not prison. And it is false comfort to the families and friends of those who died in the 1989 fire to pretend that a crime has been solved by wrongly convicting and jailing a disturbed young man.