John Bryan Kerr was a cause célèbre in 1950s Melbourne in two ways. Charged with strangling a typist on a city beach one summer night, the suave young radio compere, a Scotch College old boy, quickly became a dark celebrity. Onlookers, mostly young women, thronged the court hearings. The detail of the fatal encounter, including attempted “kissing on the privates” by the alleged attacker, fed tabloid sensation. Though Kerr’s death sentence was commuted within months to 20 years’ jail, his case became material for Victoria’s anti-capital punishment campaign.
Kerr’s defence was his word against that of four grizzled homicide squad detectives, confession being the mainstay of evidence before DNA, CCTV and mobile phone triangulation. Kerr agreed he’d met the victim, Beth Williams, by chance at Flinders Street Station. They had gone on to dinner, then a suburban party before being dropped off together near her lodgings. In unbreakable testimony, he insisted he’d then gone home.
The detectives produced what they said was a transcript of Kerr’s confession, made within two hours of arrest − the “certain admissions” of the title − but unsigned. Two juries failed to agree on a verdict. The language of the police statement, said to be verbatim, jarred with Kerr’s fluent performance in the dock. With prosecutor Henry Winneke elevated to solicitor-general, the third trial called in acting chief justice Sir Charles Lowe, known as “Cold Charlie”, to put aside judicial neutrality. Lowe disparaged expert defence witnesses and instructed the jury to consider: “Whether you think four police witnesses … are so wicked and so abandoned as to invent an untrue statement for the purpose of attempting to convict a man of murder?” By the 1990s such “verballing” was all too believable, but not in 1950. Evidence had built up, too, of Kerr’s arrogance and his uncontrolled, aggressive “neurasthenia” when drunk and offended. How had the police got that word, in the first interrogation, if not from him?
Haigh’s work is a mesmerising detective story itself, analysing trial transcripts and dusty files, tracking down the surviving connections, exploring the cultures of the police, the bar and judiciary of that time. Kerr served 14 years in Pentridge, a model prisoner, then under a false name became a successful salesman and a late-in-life father. He never budged from his testimony of innocence. But Haigh’s book, when it looks like petering out, finds a new twist in the archives. JF
Viking, 320pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 27, 2015 as "Gideon Haigh, Certain Admissions ". Subscribe here.