Should Sir Joh be retried?

by Chris Griffith
Published 21 February 1993 in The Sun-Herald


my face


The story of the political demise of Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen would be hailed as a master work of fiction had it been penned before it happened.

However no human author, however ingenious, could have conceived the epilogue -- the Joh trial with Luke Shaw's jury selection and his role as foreman, the tumultuous jury room deliberations, and Shaw's selection for jury service and foreman in a later, unrelated trial.

Last week's screening of the ABC's Joh's Jury proves yet again some supernatural force is orchestrating Queensland's political events to ensure they are material for ABC re-enactments and In Queensland, if there is a God, maybe He (or She) is a writer, and a member of the ABC board.

Of course, the screening's major impact was to alert the broader public to what many already know -- that this country's criminal justice system leaves much to be desired.

Unfortunately, the public and representatives of the legal profession have reacted differently to the program. While the public is outraged, some lawyers simply want to place the larges of Band-Aids over the problem.

Queensland Criminal Law Association president Michael Quinn and Bar Association president Bob Douglas, QC, are among those who believe Joh's Jury should precipitate a permanent ban on jurors talking to the media after their deliberations.

As for the ABC -- it must be astounded that its program has apparently converted former Queensland premier Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen to an outspoken opponent of capital punishment, and an advocate of those aggrieved by miscarriages of justice.

Unfortunately, this is 25 years too late. Bjelke-Petersen is still Australia's most devise political figure, even five years after his resignation as Queensland's Premier.

Reform of the jury system, the major imperative prompted by Joh's Jury, is being considered by the Litigation Reform Commission. Attorney-General Dean Wells expects their report before June.

Tightening the jury selection process, requiring jurors on oath to declare potential biases and conflicts of interest, and informing jurors are obvious remedies.

An issue for many Queenslanders, however, remains whether Bjelke-Petersen should be retried.

It may be revenge, the tall-poppy syndrome, or simply a concern that justice apply equally to all. It may be that many Australians are increasingly fed-up with a system that catches the little guy yet more often that not misses the big players, for example Christopher Skase.

In Bjelke-Petersen's case, the Special Prosecutor, Doug Drummond, QC, proposed three charges - two of perjury, and one of corruption. Shortly before the trial, Drummond dropped the other two charges because he believed the perjury trial would address the serious corruption issue.

Yet in a statement issued after the trial, Drummond said Bjelke-Petersen would not be retried.

"The accused is well known as a former Premier of the State who has often been at the centre of public controversy," Drummond said.

"In such a case, the fact that the trial of such a person ended with a deadlocked jury would probably be accepted as a proper conclusion to the prosecution, because it could be seen as a reflection of the fact that there remains in the community people of strong views both for and against the accused."

Drummond said Bjelke-Petersen's age, the uncertainty of overseas witnesses returning for a retrial, and the fact he no longer wielded power as other reasons for abandonment.

Most would concede it would be difficult to stage a retrial given the cost, the publicity surrounding Joh's Jury, and the fact it would be portrayed as a witch-hunt and vendetta.

However the Special Prosecutor should reconsider his position if the Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) inquiry headed by Bill Carter, QC, finds Bjelke-Petersen's lawyers had contributed to the jury room debacle.

The Carter Inquiry has six matters before it. Included are whether the lawyers approached potential jurors on the first (dismissed) panel, whether they provided misleading information about that panel, and whether they misled the court about Shaw when the prosecution moved to have the jury discharged.

Carter also must decide if there is a prima facie case for charges of official misconduct against anyone involved with the trial.