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 ....

Life & Style Weekend - - READ - WORDS: RAE WIL­SON

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.