October 2011

Arts & Letters

Line of appeal

By Jack Marx
Andrew Fraser. Image courtesy of Lindy Allen.
Meeting Andrew Fraser

There is perhaps no justice quite so poetic as when an errant lawyer goes to jail. Like the image of a prancing matador being hoist to the heavens on the horns of a bull, the barrister trading his cape for prison garb somehow tells of a world where justice knows no bounds and is at long last driven right up the arse of those who get rich on the sport of it.

Andrew Fraser was one such player, in the last decades of the twentieth century, when greed and corruption made Melbourne a cosy gentlemen’s club for bent cops, organised crooks and coke-snorting silks with more money than scruples. As a clever and high-profile criminal defence lawyer, Fraser was a one-man get-out-of-jail-free card for those pursued by the law; but this card wasn’t free – only such people as Alan Bond, crime patriarch Lewis Moran and the Hells Angels were able to afford it. The rest of us had to roll the dice like the mug punters we are.

In the new century, the curtains closed on Fraser’s good fortune, his arrest for drugs in 1999 seeing him sentenced two years later to seven years in prison with a minimum of five, most of which were served in maximum security. Since his release on 11 September 2006 (“The irony of that date was not lost on me, let me tell you!”), Fraser has written three autobiographical books: Court in the Middle, Lunatic Soup and Snouts in the Trough. The first, published in 2007, forms the basis of a television drama series, Killing Time, starring David Wenham as Andrew Fraser, which premieres on the pay TV channel TV1 on 2 November (it was scheduled to air in September 2010 but has been delayed for legal reasons). Dark, slick and with a credibility not seen since the celebrated miniseries Blue Murder in 1995, Killing Time tells the tale of a lawyer out of control, up to his elbows in the crimes of his clients while shouldering a coke habit worth $1000 – “7 grams, or 70 lines” – per day.

You could say Fraser was strung up for the lesser of his sins: for being “knowingly concerned” with the importation of cocaine (police bugs in his legal chambers recorded him giving advice to a client who was importing the stuff), as if knowledge of criminal activity is somehow a novelty among defence lawyers. But, like so much of the law, Fraser’s charge was just a technicality. He went to prison because he wasn’t liked, because he was a pain in the arse to cops, both the corrupt and those earnestly doing their bit for society.

We meet in the modest home he shares with his partner in Abbotsford, an inner suburb of Melbourne, a stone’s throw from where thousands of dollars of the late Dennis Allen’s drug money allegedly remain buried beneath the streets of Richmond. There is little evidence in this house of the life Fraser once lived – in fact, there is little evidence of Fraser at all, the decor and books on the shelves (mostly art and culture) probably belonging to Lindy Allen, director and CEO of Regional Arts Victoria, who owns the house and to whom Fraser was introduced after his release in 2006.

As for evidence of incarceration – the prison-yard swagger, the stoop of a solitary – it’s hard to work out what’s new and what’s old. A diminutive guy, perhaps 5’9” in the old money, Fraser moves briskly and lightly as he busybodies about while we speak, mopping up drips of coffee before they’ve had time to cool on the bench. He has a fastidious obsession with cleanliness, learned in the “filthy” cells of Fulham and Port Phillip prisons, where he was forever scrubbing, “conscious of bacteria … I think that helped me stay relatively well, physically”.

 There is also the unmentionable twitch of the former addict, a slight tremble that seems to come and go as if driven by waves of frosty air, or perhaps bad memories, and an index finger that wipes the side of the nose as punctuation for each utterance.

“I suffer a recurring dream,” he says, “where I get run over by a bus, and they do an autopsy on me and find cocaine in my system. I’m sort of there – I’m dead but I’m not, if you know what I’m saying – and I’m screaming, ‘That’s complete and utter bullshit! I haven’t had anything for 12 years!’ Even now, it’s embarrassing because I’ve got a bit of hayfever at the moment and I’m worried people might be thinking, ‘Aw, he’s back on the gear.’”

It’s a far cry from the smooth arrogance of David Wenham’s portrayal; Wenham’s Andrew Fraser evaporated along with the coke and the career. But I suspect prison hasn’t erased all that was obnoxious about the old Fraser – by his own account, prison doesn’t rehabilitate, doesn’t re-educate, is “nothing more than a human warehouse” from which people emerge more damaged and bitter than when they entered. It’s his life as a defence lawyer that has made the greatest mark on the man.

When Fraser’s on a roll, his language, riding on an upper-suburban Melbourne accent (a slightly more cultured Alf Stewart or Kath Day-Night, with a touch of fair-suck-of-the-sav tonal dynamism), is littered with the sorts of archaic metaphors and shibboleths so commonly prefaced by the words “If I may” in a court of law: the Victorian police were “running with the hare and hunting with the hounds”; his revised opinion of the legal system is not a case of “poacher turned gamekeeper”; so much political correctness these days is “the tail wagging the dog”. Little wonder Andrew Fraser has been an easy fit for the public speaking circuit.

Moreover, Fraser’s social conscience appears to have been engineered by committee; a little bit Left, a little bit Right, and frequently contradictory. He speaks at length on our “absolutely shameful” treatment of refugees, then, just minutes later, suggests a Lebanese community leader who has dared to criticise Australia be deported (“Let’s pass the hat around for your ticket home, if you don’t like it here”). He holds firm to the traditional defence lawyer’s view that “everyone is entitled to representation” but proudly admits he “never acted for paedophiles”, as if Dennis Allen, who Fraser is certain murdered at least ten people and was “just as likely to run up the street and shoot somebody for no reason”, was somehow a better class of client. He professes to being a libertarian, yet believes “every individual’s right must be subservient to society’s right as a whole.” It’s as if the suspension of personal morals so necessary for the lucrative practice of criminal law has emptied Andrew Fraser of any social conscience to really call his own.

There is a telling moment in Killing Time when an innocent commuter appears in court charging a member of an outlaw motorcycle club with bashing him for perceived disrespect in traffic. Fraser, acting for the motorcycle club, fills the court with members in full riding dress, complete with sunglasses and facial scarves, and invites the victim to identify the accused, which of course he can’t. It’s a win for Fraser and the club, and a terrifying loss for the victim, who is then left by the system to dangle at the mercy of those he dared to indict. Fraser insists the scene is exactly as it occurred, referring with gleeful reverie to “the look on the judge’s face when I pulled that trick”.

When I ask him whether he thought the victim was lying about the fact he was assaulted, he responds: “I’m not paid to judge the facts.” I tell him I’m not asking what he was paid to do but merely what he thought.

“Well, I can tell you,” he says, “as a policy, I never turned my mind to whether they did it or not.” At the same time, he swears that if he ever thought a potential client was manifestly guilty, he’d direct them elsewhere, but with a parting whisper: “Don’t forget me for the appeal.”

This is the classic labyrinthine stuff of law, where principle is impossible to disentangle from the commercial transactions attending it, and it’s why some find it difficult to feel sympathy for Fraser, or to trust him.

Irrespective of whether you like Fraser or not, his case deserves more scrutiny. There can be little doubt that Fraser is right in his insistence it was his decision to contact the National Crime Authority over corruption within the Victoria Police drug squad in 1999 that led to his undoing. Three of the four detectives who were instrumental in Fraser’s prosecution – Wayne Strawhorn, Malcolm Rosenes and Steve Paton – were later convicted of drug trafficking offences. (The fourth, Paul Firth, resigned from the police force following Fraser’s conviction.) Fraser’s sentence – seven years for knowledge of an importation, a few grams sold to a mate and a couple of ecstasy tablets in his pocket – seems extreme when you consider that Strawhorn, a detective senior sergeant, received but four years for using his position as head of the former drug squad’s ‘controlled chemical delivery’ scheme to traffic 2 kilograms of drugs to Mark Moran for $12,000 in May 2000.

For Fraser, this inequity has implications beyond the mere trafficking of drugs. “The Melbourne underworld killings happened not because the police were doing them, but because the police allowed it to happen,” he says. “The corrupt coppers in Melbourne boxed themselves into more than one corner. Through the so-called controlled delivery scheme, they were supplying pseudoephedrine to Carl Williams, the Morans, Nick Radev and a host of others, who all became squillionaires and decided they were going to take over Melbourne. That’s what it was all about. The police made it happen. And if they’d jumped on the Wayne Strawhorns of this world a lot sooner, none of it would have happened. And, by the way, the Ceja Task Force report said that more than 87% of the drugs that went through the controlled delivery scheme are still unaccounted for. There’s hundreds of millions of dollars worth of drugs that went missing, and nobody wants to know about it.”

Meanwhile, it’s Fraser who can’t seem to shake the scrutiny of the authorities or the public. Victoria Police made efforts to suppress the publication of his books and later to seize the profits, while Fraser’s request for his share in the $1 million reward for evidence that led to the conviction of Melbourne serial killer Peter Dupas in 2007 (Dupas’ jailhouse confession to Fraser was instrumental in the Crown case) was met with media condemnation.

“You come out and you have supposedly paid your debt to society,” he says. “But, if that’s the case, why can a doctor, an architect, a dentist, or an engineer all go back to practising their professions, but I can’t? Every time I turn around, I get called ‘disgraced’. How long does that last for?”

Later, we repair to the Town Hall Hotel in Fitzroy, where the theatrics seem to disappear. Leaning forward from his stool, his forearms flattened on the bench in front of us, Fraser gazes out the window as he laments he “can’t forgive myself for what I put my former wife and my kids through” (Denise and he separated just before his release, though his children, Lachlan, 20, and Olivia, 18, spend time with him regularly.)

“I’m not glad I went to prison,” he says, “because prison’s appalling. But in retrospect I’m glad I was pinched. I would have kept going until I killed myself, had an aneurysm or a heart attack or something. I know I can’t be trusted, I have an addictive personality – that’s fairly obvious. My dad was an alcoholic, so it runs in the family.”

What also runs in his blood is law (his maternal grandfather was a lawyer), and it’s Fraser’s inability to practise that seems to rankle him more than time lost or relationships cut asunder.

“When you’re in there,” he recalls, “and your entire existence revolves around being in there – and the further in you are, the better you’re perceived – you really do lose sight of reality. But I was initially drawn to law through altruistic motives. I only ever wanted to be a criminal defence lawyer. That’s all I ever wanted to be.”

All that’s left for Fraser to do is practise law not in court but in the public forum, as he did for a controversial episode of Channel Seven’s Sunday Night in July. He went public with his belief that Bradley John Murdoch, in prison for the murder of British backpacker Peter Falconio, is the victim of events that unfolded on the Stuart Highway near Barrow Creek, Northern Territory, on 14 July 2001. And it’s on this topic that the old Andrew Fraser rises from the dead.

“Bradley Murdoch is not guilty,” he insists. “I’m tired of people arguing that a jury has already convicted him so it’s done and dusted. I mean, so what? Are you going to say that about the Guildford Four, or the Birmingham Six? Imagine if they’d stuck to that rule regarding Lindy Chamberlain? And let’s not forget where the railroading of Lindy Chamberlain occurred, either. The fact is, they needed somebody to go to jail for this because it was buggering up the tourist industry. Now they’re able to say: ‘It’s alright, everybody; business is back to normal, the lunatic’s in prison.’”

Reminded of the DNA evidence that convicted Murdoch, Fraser is resolute. “When you see what I’ve got to show you, you will understand that the DNA evidence is absolutely irrelevant, but that’s all I’ll say right now.” Unfortunately, for the rest of Fraser’s argument, we must wait for the two one-hour documentaries he is producing, in which he will – so he claims, with a courtroom flourish – “demolish the Crown case”.

There are those who say this is nothing more than the shameless chutzpah of a former lawyer turned raconteur, a man whose greed for the limelight will not abate. A more sympathetic view might suggest this is the wrestling of a man denied the right to do the one thing at which he knows he is the best. It’s as sad as the sight of a matador with no bull.

As afternoon turns to evening, we step out onto the street and I overhear Fraser on his mobile phone telling someone (Lindy, I suspect) that he’s “fallen off the wagon” – a reference, no doubt, to the two glasses of red he slowly consumed, each of which came for the price most of us would pay for a whole bottle (old habits die hard). I ask him if he misses being a lawyer.

“You know what?” he says. “When we signed the deal for the TV series, I’m sitting there in a boardroom with the head of TV1, the head of FremantleMedia, signing contracts. We’re all sitting there in jeans and T-shirts. I thought to myself: ‘This is nearly $1 million an episode, and there’s not a suit in sight.’ It suddenly occurred to me …” (and for a moment, you can almost believe him) “… that there is life beyond the horizon of William Street.”

Jack Marx

Jack Marx is a journalist, blogger and author, who has won the Walkley Award for his feature I Was Russell Crowe's Stooge'. His books include Australian Tragic: Gripping Tales from the Dark Side of our History and Sorry: The Wretched Tale of Little Stevie Wright.

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