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Lumen Winter 2006 Issue
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The Stuart case: still raising controversies

More than 500 people packed Elder Hall in April to listen to a who's who line-up from the legal and media worlds take part in an all-day review of South Australia's infamous Rupert Max Stuart trial.

When Geoffrey Robertson QC, internationally renowned human rights lawyer, broadcaster and author, stood at the podium and started to describe the night nine-year-old Mary Hattam was murdered, there was complete silence across the Hall.

"A town at nightfall, a child is reported missing," he started. "The men take lanterns and torches, holding them aloft, combing the countryside where the child last played."

After that vivid start, Geoffrey Robertson led a series of panellists through a discussion of the contemporary legal and social issues sparked by the case--all in his own inimitable style.

Earlier, University of Adelaide Chancellor, the Hon. John von Doussa, welcomed the large audience to the University and the seminar, 'Politics, Power, Justice and the Media: controversies from the Stuart Case', held on 1 April.

High Court Justice Michael Kirby then gave the keynote address, eloquently summarising the case and the complex legal and political issues--with barely a reference to his notes. He outlined the improvements to the legal system since the Stuart case days that should help prevent miscarriages of justice.

"Today we are reflecting on the errors of this case and problems that still remain and what we should do about them," he said.

The 1959 conviction of Rupert Max Stuart for the murder of Mary Hattam and the subsequent appeals and Royal Commission remain the most discussed criminal case in South Australia's history. The case is regarded as a turning point in South Australian politics and launched Rupert Murdoch's rise to international fame and prominence.

Rupert Max Stuart was an itinerant Aboriginal from Central Australia. His conviction was based on a typed confession in precise, educated English.

Geoffrey Robertson guided the panellists through the issues: the public pressure to locate and convict someone; preparation for the trial including legal aid and resources, language difficulties and representation; confessions and the use of forensic evidence; appeals, media campaigns and fresh evidence; the intrusion of politics into the legal arena; capital punishment, rehabilitation, probation and parole; and freedom of the press.

The debate was interspersed with extracts from the films and documentaries made on the case, including Craig Lahiff's feature film Black and White starring Robert Carlyle, which Lahiff and his director Helen Leake edited for the day. They also took part as panellists.

Other prominent participants included publishing legend Richard Walsh; high profile editor Alan Howe; criminologist Professor Paul Wilson; author of The Stuart Case Professor Ken Inglis; Walkley-Award investigative journalist Estelle Blackburn; capital punishment opponent and daughter of Sir Thomas Playford, Dr Margaret Fereday; and Helen Langley, first cousin of Mary Hattam.

The seminar was arranged by the University of Adelaide's John Bray Law Chapter, the Development and Alumni Office, the Law Society of SA and the University's Law School.

President of the John Bray Law Chapter, John Keeler, said: "The continuing interest of the Stuart case isn't just in the courtroom drama and whether the conviction was right.

"It lies in whether the criminal justice system treated--and treats--individuals and minorities fairly, and it's about relations between the Government and the press in controversies with powerful and emotional legal and political impacts. The Stuart case is symbolic of enduring issues of human rights and press freedoms.

"The Chapter aims to bring informed discussion of legal issues to the South Australian community. The seminar was very successful--producing debate about changes in the justice system, society and the nature of the media since the Stuart case, and the extent to which there are still deficiencies in the protection of fundamental freedoms, even after those changes." ■

Story Robyn Mills

Legal Associates Lisa Loechel and Kathryn Varlett with Geoffrey Robertson at the Stuart Case Hypothetical

Legal Associates Lisa Loechel and Kathryn Varlett with Geoffrey Robertson at the Stuart Case Hypothetical
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