Wild Dog River

Chapter Sixteen – The Trial

WILD DOG RIVER BY GREG BARRON

When the jury had settled and the judge taken his seat, the bailiff read the charges. ‘Peter Andrew Livermore. The Crown alleges that on the tenth day of September, nineteen-seventy-three, you did wilfully and savagely murder Thomas Baines, the skipper of the Naika, which constitutes murder in the first degree.  The second charge alleges that you did then kill Owen Rainey, deckhand of the same vessel, also murder in the first degree. How do you plead?’

I was already standing as best I could in the tight space of the dock, and the bailiff’s words cut through the air like arrows and knives. Oh I knew that murder had been done, for I had seen it with my own eyes, but the guilt was not mine. These people – this court – were collectively mistaken. They had been duped by the perpetrators of an injustice that made me reel. I looked to one of the small windows, and its square of blue outside, and I felt a moment of wistful yearning so strong that my legs all but buckled.

The judge’s voice cracked across the courtroom. ‘Will the prisoner please respond?’

I looked back at him. He was a man in his mid-fifties, with red marks on the skin of his face that might have been heat rash or burst blood vessels. His eyes sat in deep pits, but his gaze was more curiosity than animosity.  

I cleared my throat. ‘Not guilty to the first and second charges, your honour.’

The crown prosecutor stood a ramrod-straight six feet two or three with broad shoulders and long, wiry limbs. A build such as his, I had learned on the football field, often hides immense strength, and his face was more bone than flesh.

‘The accused,’ he said, ‘was found on the deck of a professional fishing boat, with two dead men nearby, and a handgun lying on the deck. Several spent cartridges of the same calibre were found, and projectiles within the bodies of the accused have been matched to that weapon. Police, arriving on the scene after the killings, came upon the accused in an incoherent state, badly affected by drugs.’

The prosecutor made his eyes into guns and bored them into the jurors. ‘The accused has fabricated a story of bad men who tricked the Naika’s skipper into stopping. He does not know their names and can manage only the vaguest descriptions of these mystery people. Over the coming days the prosecution will show that Peter Livingstone is a troubled man, a soldier haunted by the spectre of war, who allowed himself to fall into the grip of evil and despicable drugs. We can only imagine the terrible nightmare he was acting out when he pulled the trigger three times on that day.’

When the prosecutor had finished, my barrister squared his heavy shoulders like a prize-fighter entering the ring, and stated that the evidence was circumstantial. He pointed out that the police had been remiss in not obtaining toxicology results after my arrest, which meant that there was no empirical evidence that I was under the influence of the same drug that had been found in my belongings.

‘The police say that Peter was found in a confused state.’ I liked the way he used my name, making it sound small and inoffensive, like I was a cuddly rabbit rather than a man on trial for murder. ‘But he had just seen two shipmates – comrades as it were – gunned down by tricksters and killers – far harder men than the accused you see before you. Of course he was confused … dazed! And by his own testimony he was forcibly injected with heroin or some similar substance by persons unknown, but apparently men linked to a place called the Wild Dog Camp.

‘The prosecution alleges that Peter Livingstone pulled the trigger and killed two men on that day, but there’s no empirical evidence that he did so,’ he said. ‘There is also no motive. Being in a confused state, or even on drugs is not a motive.’ He looked at the jury. ‘In order for you to find this man guilty of murder you must satisfy yourself that there was not only motive, weapon and opportunity, but that he actually pulled the trigger beyond any reasonable doubt.’

My sweating hands were balled into fists as my barrister took his seat and nothing seemed to happen for a few moments apart from low murmuring and the shuffling of paper. Finally, the prosecutor stood. ‘I call Sergeant Michael Green of the Cairns Water Police.’

The cop, who I recognised from my arrest, was sworn in and took the stand, playing nervously with his moustache and hair while he waited, for the prosecutor was drawing out time like bow strings across a violin, heightening the tension so that every eye was on him.

‘Sergeant Green,’ said the prosecutor at last, ‘would you please guide us through the events of September Twelfth at Hope Island?’

‘Of course,’ said the cop, and he launched into a speech that sounded as well-prepared as it was full of bulldust and lies. I realised that this cop was not only rattling off a fabricated story, but one that stretched the bounds of credulity.  ‘My crew and I were on patrol duties off Hope Island when we heard the sound of a gunshot …’

This man expected the court to believe that a fully equipped and manned police boat had been idling around out on the reef, within earshot of a double murder? Did the people of the jury understand the vastness of that offshore world to the north of here? Could anyone understand how ludicrous that sounded? Yet when I looked at the jury they appeared to be swallowing every word.

No one in that room was more interested in this moron’s testimony than I, and even though I’d read the gist of this testimony with my lawyer back in Stewart’s Creek, I was still shocked to hear it articulated.  There was no mention of the white Steber and the SOS that had been used to trick us. I’m sure the skin of my face must have turned shades of white and grey.

The cop droned on – recalling how the police vessel had rafted up to the Naika and found the two bloody bodies on deck. He showed slides of the dead men, then produced an autoloading handgun in a plastic sleeve.

‘The two victims, as a police ballistics expert will later testify, were shot with this handgun – a Type-59 automatic 7.62mm semi-automatic pistol of Russian design and Chinese manufacture, very similar to ones that were taken as souvenirs from North Vietnamese combatants by Australian and American servicemen – a weapon to which the accused would have had access.’

The Sergeant testified that I had been found, stupefied, obviously under the influence of drugs or alcohol or both, and that I was in a barely coherent state for some hours, at least until they had returned me to the mainland.

My barrister, when his turn came, started with a kindly, almost friendly manner. ‘Sergeant Green, you are a very experienced officer, with almost twenty years of service, correct?’

‘Yes, that’s true.’

‘And it’s fair to say that you have been involved in dozens of court cases, including some murder trials?’

‘I haven’t counted, but yes, I have given testimony at many trials.’

‘Then we can therefore make the assumption that you are familiar with the rigours of trial and the importance of following due process and diligence with all aspects of procedure and preparation?’

‘Absolutely,’ said the policeman. ‘In most instances I have been successful in ensuring that guilty men are …’ He stared at me: ‘… convicted.’

Ignoring this last statement, Hewitt questioned Sergeant Green about how and why he and his crew had appeared on the scene so quickly, but the cop was dumb enough to sound believable.

‘We were on patrol duties – and had spent the night at anchor behind one of the reefs,’ he said. ‘You’ll see from the base logs that it was a planned exercise.’ He smiled for the jury, ‘Being in the right place at the right time is what we are good at.’

My barrister shook his heavy shoulders like a bear. ‘Were you in line of sight with the Naika?’

‘No.’

‘So you heard gunshots and went looking. You found the bodies. How did you know that the accused was the man who committed the crimes?’

‘His fingerprints were on the pistol,’ said the cop.

‘Fair enough,’ said my barrister, ‘but you only learned that after forensics had dusted the weapon for prints, a few days later.  You detained him well in advance of that. What reason did you have to arrest the accused for not one but two murders, simply because he was on the same boat and appeared to be affected by drugs?’

The police sergeant’s face changed – becoming pugnacious and defiant, his lips turned down like those of a dying stingray.  ‘It was obvious – you weren’t there – you would have done the same.’

‘Did the accused admit to the crime?’

‘No.’

‘Exactly. He denied it. Isn’t it a fair leap of faith to arrest, handcuff and confine a man to an airless hatch, all on the mere possibility of having committed a crime?’

The crown prosecutor came to his feet. ‘I object to this, your honour.  The Defence is harrying the witness.’

The judge cleared his throat. ‘I agree to a point. No more of that Mr Hewitt, but I think that last question deserves an answer.’

‘There was no one else present,’ said the cop. ‘So it had to be him.’

My barrister looked at the jury when he said, ‘Did you search the Naika thoroughly to make sure there wasn’t someone else hidden there?’

‘Yes, of course we did.’

‘That wasn’t in your statement.’

Sergeant Green raised his chin, but he looked a tiny bit alarmed. ‘It was so obvious that I didn’t note it in my statement.’

My barrister’s voice changed, becoming a quiet roar. ‘The possible presence of another person on the boat is a crucial fact, but you didn’t bother to mention a search of the boat, and nor did any of your fellow officers? We established before that you are an experienced officer of the law, with many trials and convictions to your credit, yet you give such short shrift to due process?’

‘A mere oversight,’ said the cop. ‘I am adding it to my statement now.’

Hewitt was smart enough not to pursue the man further on this point, and instead his voice dropped back to a conversational level. ‘The accused man’s statement, which we will shortly hear in full, tells how there was another boat – a white commercial vessel, of fibreglass construction, which flashed a mayday. When the Naika investigated, the real killer jumped across and shot Baines and Rainey. After the murders another man wiped the gun and pressed it into the accused man’s hand so as to impress his fingerprints to it. They then motored off, without you or your men seeing them. Is that possible?’

‘It’s far-fetched. We were coming to investigate.’

‘You said that you were at anchor and we know that this is an area filled with islets and reefs. Getting the anchor up and preparing for departure would take some time. Is it possible that another boat could have slipped away?’

‘Possible, yes, but highly unlikely.’

‘So, you are saying that my client is possibly not guilty,’ said my barrister.

‘Objection!’ called the prosecutor.

‘I withdraw the question,’ said my barrister, but I was no longer listening. I had glanced up into the gallery, as I’d done many times, to draw comfort from the sight of my mother and Dave, sitting in the front row. As I watched, a new man entered the room by the back door. He was an old and wizened type, with a limp. The collar, tie and neatly combed hair threw me off, and for a moment I didn’t recognise him.

Then, like a flash it came to me. It was Nolan, the boss man from the Wild Dog River. He took a seat on the third row, and at that moment his eyes met mine. That glance communicated plenty. That he was untouchable. That he could do anything he wanted. That I was not safe, even now.

‘One or two more aspects of your testimony concerns me,’ my barrister said, and I reluctantly dragged my eyes back to the action. He seemed to be addressing the prosecutor rather than the witness.

‘Why was there no testing of the prisoner for firearm discharge residue if you believed that he had fired the shots? This would have proved, if it were indeed the case, that he was the shooter.’

Sergeant Green looked fully hostile now, but he kept it out of his voice. ‘We actually felt that after being in a compartment in which there was a small amount of seawater, the accused would no longer have the residue on his skin. So we made the decision not to test him. It’s not an easy test – it requires a paraffin wax cast to be made of the accused man’s arm and reagents used to identify the residue. We don’t do it unless there’s a good chance of success.’

I looked back at Nolan in the gallery again, and Nolan’s eyes bored into mine. Dave was looking at me too, concern on his face. He knew that something had rattled me.

‘Even so,’ said my barrister. ‘That was a very curious decision.’  Then, to the jury. ‘Very curious.’ He paused then, and I knew he had saved the best ‘til last. ‘Sergeant Green, can you please explain to the court how and why at 9:20 am the Cairns Volunteer Coast Guard, call sign QF9, received a call over HF radio from the skipper of the Naika, indicating that they were intending to head over to investigate a mayday signal from a possible vessel in distress. The Coast Guard log confirming this fact has been tendered as evidence.’

‘We believe that the accused himself made that call, to create some kind of alibi.’

The barrister shook his head, looking down, as if chickling to himself, then turned to glare at the policeman. ‘Really? The man who you allege was either drunk or on drugs or both, and in a “confused state” was, in the heat of the moment, smart enough to devise an elaborate cover story to deflect blame and act on it?’

Again, I looked at Nolan. I couldn’t help it. He made the shape of a pistol with his thumb and forefinger and pointed it towards me, his lips making a silent bang that seemed to me so loud that everyone in the court room should have heard it.

©2023 Greg Barron

Read the story up to this point here.

Continued next Saturday.

#wilddogriver #serialstory #booklover

More books and stories are available from the Ozbookstore