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The murder of a 10-year-old girl by her teenage cousin has stunned a small-town community and torn apart a family. It has also exposed a system where extreme mental health issues have not been adequately prioritised. By Lane Sainty.

The murder of a 10-year-old girl

A screen grab from a police interview conducted with the then 14-year-old girl.
A screen grab from a police interview conducted with the then 14-year-old girl.
Credit: Supplied / NSW Supreme Court

The families were separated in court by an aisle. The parents of the accused were on the left, close to the bench where their 15-year-old daughter was flanked by prison guards. On the right, the father of the girl she had killed radiated fury and grief. The air was thick with it. It permeated every inch of the imposing 19th-century courtroom, enveloped the polished cedar interior, rose up to meet the ornate gilded ceiling. Overhead, a large skylight cast a soft sun across the bar table. It was a room designed to absorb the gravity of what unfolded within, to try to make sense of it. But nothing could contain the sorrow of this case.

“How do you explain the murder of a 10-year-old child, daughter and granddaughter to others, without imposing trauma?” the murdered girl’s grandmother asked no one in particular as she spoke at the hearing last week. “I don’t know. And so far no one has been able to tell me what justice for [her] is.”

About 8am on a cold July morning last year, the teenager, then 14, arrived on foot at a property in rural New South Wales and took a seat outside. She did not know the people who lived there. One of them, a woman, later took a note of the encounter: “She was sitting calm/detached and asked if we could get her a glass of water and take her to the police. She told me she had killed her cousin. 10 yrs old.”

The triple-0 call had come in at 7.09am, from a farmhouse some kilometres away. There, the teenager’s mother had returned after chores to discover the younger girl’s body. Her teenage daughter, who had been sleeping when she left, was nowhere to be seen. The 10-year-old had been subject to an incomprehensibly brutal attack. When paramedics arrived, they immediately saw she could not be revived. One of them mistook the teenager’s mother as the girl’s parent, telling her, “I’m so sorry, mum.” She said, “It’s my niece. My daughter, and I don’t know where she is … I think she did this.”

The teenager was perched on a garden chair, hugging her knees to her chest, when detectives arrived at the other property at 8.30am. “Yep,” she answered, when Detective Senior Constable Graham Goodwin asked her if she had anything to do with the girl’s death. “What did you do to her?” he asked. Her response, offered calmly and without hesitation, cannot be published due to a suppression order on the girl’s injuries. As she finished speaking, she cocked her head and looked the detective straight in the eye, awaiting his reaction. “Why did you do that?” he asked. The teenager shook her head and shrugged. She described her cousin as “annoying”. Just before she was taken away, Goodwin asked her: “Do you understand what you’ve done?”

“Yeah,” she said.

“How do you feel about it?”

“I don’t feel anything about it.”

 

The murdered girl’s grandmother described her as “loving, caring and sassy”. A budding artist who loved to draw and paint. A spirited girl who once finished a cross-country run in the hail. She was the world. “We want justice,” her grandmother told the NSW Supreme Court last week. “For the loss of her life, and the loss of her future.”

The law prohibits identifying children involved in criminal proceedings, to protect them from the stigma of crime and assist in rehabilitation. The grandmother said she understands this, but still, it has left her granddaughter “anonymous, and this indescribable crime hidden”.

She brought three large pictures of the girl to court and at the end of her statement held them up, speaking directly to the judge in a firm, imploring tone. “This is our beautiful granddaughter,” she said. “And she does remain nameless and hidden.”

The grandmother of both girls told the court she was angry. Angry that she is watching her two daughters “live through hell, knowing they may never repair their relationship”. Angry that despite being unqualified she was able to “predict a tragedy”; angry no one in the medical world could see the crisis she saw.

In NSW, certain defendants used to be found “not guilty by reason of mental illness”. In March, it was replaced with “act proven but not criminally responsible”, a change aimed at sparing traumatised victims from hearing the words “not guilty” when it is clear the defendant committed the physical act. The effect remains the same, however: the defendant is diverted from a criminal path to a clinical one. They are neither released nor sentenced, they are referred. The Mental Health Review Tribunal takes over, and the person is detained until it is declared safe for them to rejoin the community.

The teenager’s emerging psychosis is documented in a 41-page statement of agreed facts. It is desolate reading, beginning with her birth in 2006 and ending 203 paragraphs later with the post-mortem of the girl she killed. Statements from her family, teachers and friends, and her personal diary, offer insights ranging from mundane to fundamentally disturbing.

The teenager’s year 3 report said her “peaceful and caring nature shines through when she talks about her life on the farm and her love for animals”. Her year 4 teacher described “a strong sense of right and wrong”. In year 5, a teacher noticed she was self-harming, a behaviour that continued into high school. There, her friends said, she sometimes stabbed people with pens and was prone to sudden changes of mood. She wrote dark, graphically violent stories and had a fascination with knives. In 2019, halfway through year 8, she killed six of her mother’s chickens and took parts of a carcass to school. Her science teacher recalled her pulling a foot, leg and beak out of her bag and exclaiming, “Look at this! We killed them on the weekend.”

In the lead-up to the murder on July 8, 2020, she remarked to several people that things did not seem real to her. A month before, walking laps around the oval, she told a friend a voice in her head sometimes told her to hurt people. Two weeks before, she confessed to her mother: “I think about killing people all the time.”

She said she heard voices and in her head saw eyes like the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. Her concerned mother relayed her worries about this conversation and the teenager’s mood to a GP at an appointment on July 1. The doctor said some of it was “standard teenage behaviour” but it was “concerning” and the teenager should see a psychiatrist in Sydney. She said she would send through a referral and the mother would receive a call to make the appointment. At the time of the murder, the call had not come.

The teenager’s diary, seized by police, revealed she fantasised at length about killing. She spelled out a plan in entries dated July 6 and 7. The next morning, she woke up and killed. The evidence suggests her 10-year-old victim tried to run away more than once but could not escape.

Months later, as the teenager sat in a juvenile prison awaiting trial, she was interviewed by two psychiatrists. One was hired by the prosecution, the other for the defence. Their conclusions were identical: untreated schizophrenia. The teenager had been suffering delusions and hallucinations, and the verdict of “act proven but not criminally responsible” was open to her.

Her grandmother said: “She never received the help she needed … I hope to God the world will learn a valuable lesson from our loss and pain.”

And of her younger granddaughter: “On a cold July morning she faced a demon and died in terror and alone.”

 

In court, the teenager was entirely composed. She spoke sparingly when required and otherwise sat and listened, her face as impenetrable as it had been the morning she told the detective what she had done. Her grown-up attire – a white ruffled shirt and black pants with white trimming – jarred with her round, youthful face. She remained impassive as the murdered girl’s grandmother told her she “doesn’t deserve a name”. Her demeanour continued, unchanged, as the prosecutor read aloud a statement from the girl’s mother, her aunt, who said her family had been “split open”.

“My life was so filled up with my children,” the mother wrote. “School runs, homework, cooking, washing, tidying. A world noisy full of her laughter and her voice, asking questions. Now it is filled up with learning how to cope.

“Well-meaning people say things to try to bring comfort. ‘She’s in a better place. She’s with the angels. She’s always with me.’ But the fact is she is gone. She is no more. I’ll never see her again.”

When all statements were read and tendered, all legal knots ironed out, it was time for the verdict on which both sides agreed: act proven, but not criminally responsible. In all the complicated tragedy of this case, this was the justice available. The judge relayed in bare terms the events of that July morning. She referred the teenager to the tribunal. Then she adjourned the court and left.

There was no flurry of movement when the door swung shut behind her. Everyone remained in place, just for a moment, as if there had to be something more, anything, before it was time to gather up their things, step into the day outside, and keep on going.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 27, 2021 as "In cold blood".

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Lane Sainty is a journalist based in Sydney.

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