HE’S SEEN THE FACE OF EVIL
JUDGE JOHN ROBERTSON HAS ONLY ONCE GIVEN A LIFE SENTENCE – TO A MAN YOU WOULD NOT NOTICE IN THE STREET, BUT WHEN THE MAN SAID WHAT HE DID ....
He has looked into the face of evil too many times to count. But John Robertson says what stares back is rarely the monster we conjure in our minds when we hear about heinous crimes in our communities.
Instead, they are oft good-looking and charming – the very traits that aid in perpetrating unspeakable acts.
Or terribly damaged humans, a tragic product of their unfortunate childhoods.
As the retiring Queensland judge easily summons minute detail, it’s clear the harrowing cases stay with him.
Judge Robertson has only ordered life imprisonment once, in 1998, and he can still picture that man in Ipswich District Court.
He describes a handsome man you would walk past in the street without ever suspecting the evil within. Until he spoke.
Detailing what he did to a six-year-old girl, after having already done inconceivable things to children aged two and 15, was chilling in its lack of empathy and human feeling, Robertson recalls.
“There are undoubtedly a small group of people who are so damaged they are dangerous and anti-social and should be shut away,” he says.
But the Sunshine Coast judge believes the depraved ones are a minority in our society. He has more often encountered tales of woe.
One girl was treated so appallingly through her formative years that her subsequent misbehaviour made her all too familiar with the revolving door of his courtroom.
With a promising future at age 15, the girl became “reviled as a monster; a violent, dangerous person full of hate and bitterness” for what she ultimately did to her case worker a few years later, he says.
“It is a story of a justice system and a health system simply unable to cope. It is a story about those sad souls who fall through the cracks of our ... societal structure,” Robertson says.
Once president of Queensland Children’s Court, he has been a great agitator for change during his 24 years on the bench – fighting for both child victims and troublemakers.
“I just happened to land in a family that cared for me, loved me and supported me,” he says.
“These kids are doomed from conception and if that happened to me, I reckon I’d be antisocial too.”
Robertson is softly spoken, reflective and speaks with great intellect about everything from the legal system to classical music to the women he credits with shaping the man he became.
He is the youngest of three brothers born in Townsville to his mother Gwen and his father Mervyn.
“Mum was a housewife. She was an extremely intelligent woman but in those days that’s what was done. Dad was a shipping agent,” he says.
The family moved to Bowen and then Mackay to follow his father’s port work with the Adelaide Steamship Company.
Robertson went to state school in Bowen until Year 6 and then Mackay until Year 8 but then, at age 12, went on a scholarship to Anglican Church Grammar School (Churchie) in Brisbane.
While he began his legal career in Queensland’s capital, he has done most of his judiciary work in the regions, mostly Ipswich and the Sunshine Coast. In 1998 he was the first District Court judge to conduct circuits to the Gulf communities of Normanton, Mornington Island and Doomadgee.
He has conducted about 500 jury trials, more than 3000 sentence hearings, hundreds of civil trials and chamber hearings and countless appeals.
“If what you expect in a judge is someone who is fair between the prosecution and the defence, someone who tries to fashion sentences that meet the expectation of
“THESE KIDS ARE DOOMED FROM CONCEPTION AND IF THAT HAPPENED TO ME, I RECKON I’D BE ANTISOCIAL TOO.”
punishment and retribution, while at the same time giving the person being sentenced a chance to be rehabilitated, well he walks that tightrope exceedingly well,” long-time friend Terry O’gorman says.
Robertson jests he became the victim of “statutory senility” last month. The law won’t allow judges to sit past age 70.
“When I first started as a judge, small children were actually expected to come into court and give their evidence before a room full of strangers,” he says.
“I am proud to this day of my role in a Four Corners program dealing with this issue which in large part led Queensland to adopt WA laws designed to protect children by having them give evidence in advance of the trial and not in the court room and where they cannot see (their abuser).
“Everyone thought ... we’d lose that fundamental principle of the accuser faces the accused. But when the accuser is six and the accused is her father ... come on.”
The work can be stressful, demanding and sad. Robertson admits he has adjourned the court more than once because he was “about to lose it”. Swimming and yoga every week help him through. Choir is his other great escape.
Robertson is confident law will remain firmly in his life in retirement – just more as a public service. Just last week, he was appointed chair of the Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council.
He plans to play much golf and, a crime novel buff, he also will indulge in plenty of Kindle time. At least those protagonists, evil or otherwise, will be imagined through an author’s words and no longer be metres away.