On Writers

Address to launch Gun Alley

by Kevin Morgan,
Simon& Schuster, 2005,
At the Old Melbourne Gaol 11 July 2005.

In his last earthly task before hanging on government order in Australia Ronald Ryan wrote to his QC confessing guilt. This was the last execution, 1966. The most recent innocent accused executed in the English speaking world, outside of the USA, was Timothy Evans, in the UK in 1950 for a murder in fact committed by John Christie, and pardoned 16 years after hanging. Did the removal then of his remains for burial in a Christian cemetery sufficiently comfort his family?

Edward Splatt’s 1978 sentence for murder in South Australia was commuted to lifetime gaol of which he served 6 ½ years before cleared by a Royal Commission, and was paid compensation.

Rupert Max Stuart, an aboriginal boy in South Australia, survived 7 stays of execution after 1959 each stay forced upon Sir Thomas Playford’s government which was determined to execute him, but lived largely to the credit of Rupert Murdoch and a loud band of Adelaide voters.

In 1982 Mrs Lindy Chamberlain was convicted of the killing of her baby daughter, in fact carried out by one or more dingoes at an Uluru campsite, she served 2 ½ years before cleared in a Royal Commission, and paid compensation.

Occasions on which a criminal justice system has found wrongly against the innocent seems to me to run at around 2 to 4 percent, with the Celebrity Trials higher. And now Kevin Morgan has added, to the list of the executed innocent, the name Colin Ross, and has added his work Gun Alley to the list of book-solved mysteries.

The world of Melbourne’s backstreets in the 1920s is of ruffians, fraudsters, drunks, thieves and prostitutes. The women had quick eyes and sharp tongues. The men had pistols and gonnhoroea.

Into this seedy air ran a frightened little girl, from a different class altogether, Alma Tirtschke, sent on an errand by Grandma Murdoch. This was New Year’s Eve 1921, early afternoon. Witnesses not produced at trial watched her approach to this grubby precinct. One saw a man, not the accused, stalk her. Others watched her retracing her steps, scared of something, not sure where to go. Then she passed Colin Ross’s wine bar, Ross saw her in the lane outside, and consistently swore he saw no more of her.

Yet the prosecution’s Chief of Intelligence, whoever that really was, presented the case against Ross, in the news as well as in the courts, as if the transaction of terror surrounding little Alma began at the instant Colin Ross saw her, and not before.

This is one of the triumphs of Kevin Morgan’s fine book. He brings to us the entire transaction, from the man stalking Alma along the way, until the time of death in those alleys, 3.15, when two witnesses, in different parts of the precinct, heard screams of a young and terrified girl, which came from the Adam and Eve Hotel, not near Ross’s wine shop.

With the discovery of Almas’s naked body in Gun Alley, public interest was in tumult. Gun Alley became a tourist attraction and was crowded out.Day after day newspresses jeered at police and at government in their banners. But police found no evidence against Ross while the reward remained at 250 pounds. When the Melbourne Herald also put in 250 pounds, still nothing. Then government offered 1,000 pounds, so 1,250 pounds aggregate, and there was a clamour.

The two highest paid claimants offered evidence that Ross had confessed to them. Sydney John Harding was the usual prison stooge whom police put together with Ross after Ross’s arrest. After Ross’s conviction Harding was pardoned for the remainder of his sentence, was given his money, and released.

The highest earner was barmaid Ivy Matthews, sacked by Ross from the wine bar, and a plaintiff against Ross in a claim for damages.

Both confessions were based on facts of which the police already knew, and then were marvelously elaborated upon, so to end as spectacularly contradictory. Ivy Matthews also gave evidence of Ross’s claim to be a pedophile, of which no evidence was ever found. She earned nearly double Harding’s reward.

Not enough to clear the bar of Beyond Reasonable Doubt, you’d think? But then there was the forensic science. Hair from little Alma, cut by police before burial, were compared with hairs on Ross’s blankets by Crown analyst CA Taylor, whose opinion was they all came from Alma. And here’s where Mr Morgan’s research is most wonderful: he found the hair samples in the archives, submitted them to the Australian Federal Police Forensic Service, where Dr James Robertson showed the hair from Ross’s blanket had nothing to do with little Alma Tirtschke.

I’d like to note that the Ross defence had applied to the Crown to arrange an independent analysis of the hair, but was refused, and to note the 1982 Chamberlain defence made a similar application, the Crown resorting to the same trick.

The mystery which this book solves is: Was Alma’s killer Colin Ross? The mysteryremaining is: Who killed her? Here Mr Morgan puts out the available evidence and some arresting conclusions. Although not Beyond Reasonable Doubt, reasonable suspicion now falls on a male family member.

So not all the convicted are guilty, a small proportion is not. A Cabinet which holds to a death penalty takes two positions:The best safeguards are in place, so irregularities are not its fault, andA small number of innocents executed is the price to be paid for the protection of the vast majority.

The fact that, since abolition of death penalties, the murder rate has fallen, makes those arguments disgusting.

The Cabinet which carried out the last execution in Victoria was headed by Sir Henry Bolte and Sir Arthur Rylah, the same team which had attempted to execute the insane Hawthorn Vicarage murderer, Peter Tait but was thwarted by government Mental Health psychiatrists who certified Tait insane,

Now, in South Australia, Liberal parliamentarian Dorothy Kotz and 14 colleagues are calling for reintroduction of the death penalty. I shall be pleased to send Mrs Kotz a copy of Mr Morgan’s book.

A prosecution’s Head of Intelligence is often appointed by government soon after a Celebrity Case shows legitimate evidence is scarce. Often this is a lawyer. Later, when the destruction of evidence, or the management of news, might lead to a lawyer being disbarred, a bureaucrat takes the reins. I believe this happened in the Chamberlain Case.

I have identified here the Cabinet leaders executing, or in favour of death, in this state and in South Australia, in order to justly besmirch their names. Those who hold to its abolition should be admired.

I knew a hangman once, a detective in homicide, later gaoled for corruption. Were we to bring him back from his grave to stand alongside executing politicians, I’m sure he would feel among colleagues.

This book has more work to perform than clearing Colin Ross. We send it off now to begin its subversive task.