Australian politics, society & culture

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Killing time

A murderer’s plea

By Martin McKenzie-Murray 
Cover: February 2013February 2013Short read

A few weeks before Christmas, serial killer Paul Haigh was in Victoria’s Supreme Court representing himself. Sentenced to life without parole for six murders committed in the late ’70s (in 1991 he killed again in prison), Haigh wanted the possibility of release.

It was his last chance. In 2009 his lawyer had unsuccessfully argued that Haigh be entitled to the possibility of parole. Three years later, now without legal representation, he had been granted a final opportunity to have the certainty of dying in jail removed – hope springs eternal, even in prison for the few deemed too dangerous for parole.

Haigh shuffled into court, accompanied by two large guards who might have been brothers with their shaven heads and solemn manner. Haigh, though, looked like somebody’s dodgy uncle in his black cotton zip-up jumper and navy trackpants. He had cropped salt-and-pepper hair, a grey moustache, grey stubble and small spectacles. From his left sleeve sprawled a dense, dark constellation of tattoos. His right ear was incomplete, the result of a self-inflicted razor slash a few years ago.

The previous day, Haigh had read out essays he’d penned in prison – essays designed to convince the court of his reformation. There were pieces on honesty, sympathy and redemption. One compared his rehabilitation to the metamorphosis of a pupa into a butterfly. “While I don’t claim to be a perfectly formed butterfly, I am not a caterpillar either,” he said.

Honesty was manifestly a tactic. Honesty, he said in not so many words, was the incontestable evidence of his improved soul. At the beginning of the hearing’s second day, Haigh tendered his unpublished memoir, ‘The House of the Blue Light’, to the court on a disk; it was duly recorded as Exhibit A1. His large sheaf of philosophical – and, he prayed, redeeming – essays constituted Exhibit A2.

‘Blue Light’ recounts his seven murders, uninflected by retrospective horror. This on killing his girlfriend in 1979: “I experienced her as a kind-hearted and nice enough lass. Amazingly, it seems I stabbed her 157 times.” And on killing a ten-year-old boy, who had just watched Haigh shoot the child’s mother dead: “It made no sense for us to kill the woman [a witness to a prior crime] so she couldn’t get us arrested and then leave the kid alive so we could be arrested for his mother’s murder.”

On this day he was questioning four witnesses – a psychiatrist and three of his prison guards. He spoke almost in a whisper, and proceedings were frequently interrupted by Justice David Beach asking Haigh to speak up. Despite sitting just three metres from him, I had to lean forward to hear his questions.

Via video link, the psychiatrist explained he had previously examined Haigh a number of times, and testified to the prisoner’s ongoing drug use. No surprises there. In his essays Haigh described drugs as a “crutch” and amphetamines as providing “stamina of the mind”. Haigh’s drug-taking was “not the act of an impulsive man”, the psychiatrist said. “He’s considered it.”

Unapologetically highlighting his rampant drug use seemed a strange way to make his case, but it served Haigh’s Hail Mary strategy of brutal honesty. Then the three prison guards each testified that Haigh was a good prisoner, and that he had never abused or threatened any of them.

During an adjournment, the gentleman sitting next to me leant over and asked if I was a journalist. I told him I was writing a book about an unrelated murder. As we shuffled out of the courtroom into the hall, I asked him if he was a journalist.

“No,” he said. “I’m just interested. In how … extreme this guy is.” He said he liked to sit in on “one or two trials a year”. Two decades ago, he went on to say, he had been convicted of murder in this same courtroom.

He told me a little of his case – the charge had been reduced to manslaughter after appeal – and how he had contracted HIV shortly after his release. “I was partying too hard.”

He was curious about how well Haigh would represent himself. “Not many can do it,” he said. But he wasn’t impressed: “He lacks charisma.” And Haigh shouldn’t have emphasised his drug use, he said.

An older man ambled over to say hello. They knew each other from haunting the public gallery at murder trials, and, like trainspotters, exchanged a few grisly details. Soon, proceedings recommenced and we ebbed back in.

This time the public gallery was fuller – the families of some of the victims had taken their seats. Those victims included two shopkeepers Haigh shot dead in separate hold-ups 35 years ago, while on parole from a sentence for earlier armed robberies. But there was to be no chance of parole this Christmas. Just over a week later, Justice Beach surprised no one by ruling that Haigh would stay in Port Phillip Prison to his end.

About the author Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent and the author of A Murder Without Motive: The killing of Rebecca Ryle.