Taking a Chance by Deborah Burrows – Extract

Taking a Chance

One

Thursday, 1 July 1943
Perth, Western Australia

The jury had just shuffled out, looking any­where but at the dock and the stunned woman standing there. Next to me was the handsome American I had been ignoring all day. The court was hushed and expectant, waiting for the sentence to be passed. And I was thinking about a hat . . .

Mr Chief Justice Stonehurst looked very imposing, seated high above us, dressed in scarlet robes. His face was set and hard and unforgiving as he slowly picked up a square of black material and placed it carefully on top of his full white wig. This was called the black cap, and I knew that judges wore it when they were about to pronounce the sentence of death.

It created an interesting effect, sitting on the top of his head like that, and because I was a fashion writer, my first thought was to consider whether I could, in my newspaper column, suggest using such a small square of material as a hat. It would look quite nice, I thought. You’d have to ensure that it was good material, hem it, starch it and fix it firmly with hairpins. A small spray of artificial flowers or pearls could be used as a feature. Hats were increasingly hard to come by as the war dragged on, and my readers eagerly adopted my sug­gestions about redesigning old hats or creating new ones.

‘Lena Olga Mitrovic, you have been found guilty by a ver­dict of the jury of the crime of murder.’

I was shocked back to the present as the words were said and I froze, pencil poised above my notebook.

‘The law leaves me but one duty to perform – to pass sen­tence upon you.’

I wrote in my notebook, In his precise, rather high-pitched voice, the Chief Justice spoke the prescribed form of words coldly, inexorably. Around me, the gentlemen of the press – I was the only woman in the press gallery – were also scribbling in their notebooks. To my right, Ennis Trahern from the Daily News was sketching the judge. I thought that he had made the nose a bit beaky, but the haughty expression was dead to rights.

On the wall behind the judge was a large plaque bearing the lion and the unicorn of the English coat of arms. Honi soit qui mal y pense: Evil be to him who evil thinks. Dieu et mon droit: God and my right. But it wasn’t God; it was our system of jus­tice that gave this man the right to sentence a person to death.

When I looked back to the judge, he was adjusting the black cap. Only when he was satisfied it was secure, did he continue. I made a note of that, too. With enormous dignity, the Chief Justice adjusted the black cap, making sure it sat firmly on top of his bewigged head. I thought about it. Bewigged. Not a good word to use. I scribbled it out. I also replaced firmly with squarely.

‘The sentence provided by the Criminal Code for the crime – the sentence now passed upon you – is that you be returned to your place of former custody and that, at a time and place to be appointed by the Governor, you be hanged by the neck until you are dead. And may the Lord have mercy on your soul.’

With those words, the horror of the situation unfolding in the courtroom became painfully real. The man sitting high above us, dressed in a ridiculous outfit of scarlet robes, white lacy bib and curled white wig, had told another human being that she was going to be killed. I knew that it was not going to happen – the jury had recommended mercy, which made it almost certain that she would not be hanged. The words the judge had uttered were merely a formality, but knowing that in my head didn’t lessen their impact.

The woman in the dock stood perfectly still, as if dazed. As I suppose anyone would be, to hear that they were to be judicially murdered. She shook her head slightly and looked towards someone in the gallery. There was an attempt to smile. It was heart-rending and I looked away, ashamed that I’d been musing about hats.

I took a deep breath. I had a job to do. So I wrote, The beautiful blonde defendant heard the words as if in a daze, but rallied and gallantly attempted to smile at a loved one in the gallery. The readership of the Marvel, my newspaper – scandal rag, the men sitting around me would say – liked beautiful defendants and lots of hyperbole.

My eyes were drawn again to the blonde girl in the dock, who had fallen in love with a cad and been betrayed by him. But that didn’t excuse murder. Lena said it wasn’t her who had put the rat poison in her lover’s tea and, looking at her, I found it hard to believe that she had done it. But if not her, who? She had an obvious motive: Rick Henzell had been living with her for almost a year, but had told her a few days previously he was leaving her for another woman – a girl, actually, who was pregnant with his child. Lena had immediately moved out of the cottage they shared, but she had asked Rick if she could speak to him on the morning he died. She had come to his cottage and she had made the pot of tea. They had been heard arguing bitterly just before Rick drank the tea. Mr Williams, for the defence, had had little to work with. The verdict was a foregone conclusion.

On the final day of the trial all that remained was the judge’s summing-up. It was a fair summary, but there wasn’t much to say, really, other than that Lena Mitrovic’s guilt had to be proven by the prosecution beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury had left to consider its verdict just before lunch. No one expected it to take long, and it hadn’t. They had returned at two thirty with a verdict of guilty of murder, but with a recommendation for mercy. That meant, ‘We think she did it, but please don’t hang her.’

‘This is the only sentence provided in a case such as this,’ the Chief Justice continued primly. ‘Whether the sentence will be carried out rests with other authorities. The recommenda­tion to mercy will be forwarded to the Governor-in-Council for consideration.’

The press gallery was next to the witness box and it faced the jury box, which was now empty. Lena Mitrovic stood in the dock in the centre of the court. She was a silvery blonde with a broad face, slightly tilted blue eyes and a pretty mouth. I had exaggerated when I described her as beautiful. Her face was attractive – perhaps I would consider it beautiful if the circumstances were different, because, even in the dock and facing a charge of murder, she was a woman you would look at twice. I had a feeling that her smile would be stunning, but I had never seen her really smile. All day she had sat quietly, eyes downcast, body drooping with fatigue, hair unwashed and lank. On the rare occasions when she raised her head to look around, her face was blank.

That would not have endeared her to a xenophobic Perth jury. It was bad enough that she was foreign-looking with an unpronounceable name, worse that she was a communist and an artist who had been living ‘in sin’ with the victim, but to be unemotional was almost a death knell. It was common knowledge among the press that Perth juries liked their female defendants to be feminine, contrite and very, very afraid.

As the only woman in the press gallery and not ‘one of them’, I had put up with petty jibes from the ‘gentlemen’ of the press throughout the day. My newspaper was a scan­dal rag, that was true, but I was trying to report the trial, just as they were. I didn’t want to be there – I was no crime reporter – but the Marvel’s ‘bloodhound’ was ill and there was no one else to cover the final day. The editor, Dave Gled­dings, had stormed up to me at nine thirty that morning as I sat at my desk answering readers’ letters and bellowed, ‘Nell, there’s no one to cover the Mitrovic trial. Get down there now. Court resumes in half an hour and she’ll be sentenced to death. I need someone there.’

When I’d pointed out that I was a fashion and beauty columnist, not a crime reporter, his face became a mottled purple.

‘You’ve got a BA in English, haven’t you?’

I nodded.

‘You write this damned women’s column, don’t you?’

I nodded.

‘Then get down there now,’ he barked. ‘This is big news. Just write down what is said, and take especial note of any­thing interesting that happens – crying, screaming, that sort of thing. I’ll turn it into copy when you get back.’

What he meant was that he would ‘Marvelise’ whatever I wrote, in order to make it sensational enough for the paper. We were a weekly journal, and I’d seen some of the stuff he had already written about the trial. He’d give it three or maybe even four pages of purple prose, pictures and quotes. The death sentence would be the cherry on top of a saga of love betrayed and murder in a bohemian artists’ colony in the little community of Richmond, which was located in the hills above Perth. The story had enthralled the city, so much so that in the daily papers even the war news had been pushed aside for the latest revelations of free love and jealousy.

I was still watching Lena when, to my horror, she turned her head in my direction and I felt the alarm that always comes when someone you’ve been watching intently and cov­ertly suddenly looks at you. I felt my cheeks grow hot, until I realised her gaze was on the American war correspondent who had sat beside me all day without so much as a word to me. The others in the press gallery all seemed to know him, and he had spent the lunch adjournment with them at the Palace Hotel. I thought he was attractive enough, in his smooth American army officer’s uniform with the US War Correspondent badges on his shoulders, but I wasn’t used to being ignored by men, so I had been steadfastly ignoring him back.

At present he was staring fixedly at Lena, who seemed to be mouthing something to him. I couldn’t make out what it was. His expression didn’t alter and he didn’t seem to pay any heed.

The usher instructed us loudly to ‘All rise’ and as one we rose: Lena, me, the silent war correspondent, other report­ers, lawyers, court staff and people in the public gallery. As one we bowed to the judge. He returned the favour gravely, turned and disappeared through a little door that had opened like magic in one of the wooden panels in the wall behind him. The door closed. A policeman standing next to the woman in the dock touched her shoulder, and Lena rose in a quick, jerky movement, as if unsure what to do with her limbs. Turning abruptly, she disappeared down the steps that led from the dock to the holding cells underneath the court. Her departure lightened the atmosphere perceptibly. Muted conversations started and from the public gallery above me came clumping sounds as the crowd made its way out.

In the press gallery there was a general cacophony of shoes on bare floorboards, quiet laughter and conversation. And coughing. These were men who relied on cigarettes to get them through a day, but there was no smoking in court. I knew most of the crime reporters there. They were a cynical, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed (not in my presence) bunch, and a lot of fun. They didn’t approve of me reporting a murder trial, but as none of them took the Marvel seriously anyway, they weren’t too concerned.

‘Don’t look so miserable, Nell. She won’t hang,’ said Percy Hewitt of the Daily News, smiling as he went past. ‘The jury recommended mercy, and the government won’t hang a woman in those circumstances.’

It was nice of him to want to reassure me, so I returned his smile warmly and nodded.

George O’Leary, who was short and plump with a tonsure-like ring of fluffy hair around his bald head, chuckled as he left the press gallery. ‘Did you get all that, Nell? Be sure to describe her outfit properly. Shame she didn’t weep or become hysteri­cal – that would have made good copy for the Marvel.’

I closed my notebook. ‘Good afternoon, Mr O’Leary.’

He winked at me before turning to the American.

‘We’re off to the Palace for a drink once we’ve put in our stories. Coming, Johnno?’

There was a vague smile from the American. ‘I’ll try to get along there later,’ he said, before bowing his head over his notepad and scribbling something.

Gradually the courtroom emptied. An empty courtroom seems particularly empty. The panelled walls and carved bal­ustrades are somehow ominous, and the silence seems touched with fear. There is the smell of fear also in the odour of wood, hair oil and sweat that seems to linger in the air. Maybe it’s the accumulated terror of countless defendants who have spent long hours in the dock, listening to their lives being dryly dissected by men in black robes and curled white wigs. I sat quietly, thinking of Lena in a small holding cell under the building. What was going through her mind? Was she relieved it was all over? Or was she sick with horror at the words the Chief Justice had pronounced? I opened my note­book and made a few notes of my musings.

When almost everyone had left, I got up and walked over to the bar table to say hello to Lena’s lawyer, Mr Williams. He was Rob Sinclair’s boss at the firm JB Williams & Partners. Rob was my fiancé. Well, not officially, but we had an under­standing. He understood that if he didn’t properly propose when he was next in Perth then he’d be in big trouble. He had joined the Australian Army, the AIF, eighteen months ago, in December 1941, when Japan entered the war and it appeared that Australia itself was facing Japanese invasion. Because he was a lawyer he had been immediately appointed a lieuten­ant and posted to the Intelligence Corps. After a tough few months in New Guinea on the Kokoda Track, he was now in Melbourne. I wrote to him every week and knitted socks for him and worried about him in quiet moments when I couldn’t distract myself with something else.

Mr Goodley, the crown prosecutor, was leaning against the bar table, talking to Mr Williams in a low voice.

‘Thank God that’s over,’ Mr Goodley was saying as I arrived. He flicked a speck of dust off his bar jacket. ‘I hate prosecuting women. Looks like the jury stayed long enough to get their lunch, then delivered their verdict.’

‘G’day, Nell,’ said Mr Williams. ‘Heard from Rob lately?’

I smiled. ‘A few days ago. He’s in Melbourne now, away from the front line, which is a relief.’

‘Nice boy, Rob,’ said Mr Goodley. Rob was thirty, an army lieutenant, and had been mentioned in dispatches; I wouldn’t have described him as a boy. ‘How’s the Marvel?’ There was a chuckle. ‘Are they trying for the feminine view of murder, now? What the well-dressed accused is wearing? How to fix up “that old hat” in gaol?’

My smile became fixed. ‘Mr Penny is ill and I was asked to cover the final day of the trial. There aren’t many left to run the paper, what with so many men away at the war.’

Which was a problem for the remaining staff, given how the circulation of the Marvel kept rising. The censorship problems that beset the more ‘serious’ newspapers caused no concerns to a newspaper such as the Marvel, which relied on salacious gossip and frivolous stories. If nothing much had happened that week, then it would make something up. Did anyone in Perth really believe that ‘Percy the Perving Parson’ existed? Or that a man in a nun’s habit roamed the streets of Perth waiting to jump out and terrify unsuspecting women? Apparently truth didn’t matter to the people of Perth – the reading public lapped it all up.

Nor was good taste a barrier to the Marvel. Our editor’s close ties to the anti-vice squad meant we had lots of informa­tion about the thousand or more Perth girls on its ‘black list’ and what they got up to. And, of course, the divorce courts were always fertile ground for spicy tales, because you could only get a divorce if you proved adultery, cruelty or desertion.

Things had got even better for the paper since the Americans arrived in February last year; the divorce courts were now full of cases where an American serviceman was the co-respondent. The Marvel printed the scandalous stories in great detail, and its circulation skyrocketed.

I had started work at the Marvel as the beauty and fashion columnist just over two years earlier, six months after I gradu­ated from university. Not that a degree in English was an advantage, far from it. I was the only employee with a degree and came in for snide comments as a result. I didn’t care; that I’d gone to university at all was a triumph of determination over adversity for a penniless Irish orphan like me.

I took my column very seriously and thoroughly checked whatever I recommended to my readers, usually by trying it myself. I had a willing helper in my Aunty May, who was a sprightly sixty-five-year-old widow. Together we brewed face lotions, deodorants, shampoos and freckle removers. A popular feature each week was ‘This Old Hat’, where I showed how to dress up an existing hat to make it look new, or at least different. I had used ribbons, dried flowers, beads, twisted home-dyed straw, small shells, painted leaves – Aunty May had never failed to think of something every week that actually looked reasonably good. Another popular feature was when I put up my hair into a variety of styles that could be ‘easily tried at home’. My readership had started with working-class women who wanted to look their best on a very small budget, but as the wartime austerity measures bit harder, I found that I was now as likely to get a letter from a posh riverside suburb as from a working-class one.

It wasn’t what I had imagined myself doing when I started my career in journalism, but bills had to be paid, and the col­umn was steady, full-time work. Yet, as the war dragged on, increasingly I ached to write something more interesting or topical, something that would really touch people’s lives. The world was tearing itself apart and I was writing about fashion and make-up.

After spending the day in court I wished I’d been able to look at the Mitrovic case more closely, because there were some things about it that just didn’t add up, in my opinion. I’d written to Rob about the case when it happened and again when Lena was charged. He thought that the circumstantial evidence was strong, and he wrote that unless the defence could come up with a good alternative theory as to who put the poison in the tea, then it looked like Lena would be con­victed, because she was the only one with the means, motive and opportunity. What worried me was that it seemed to be a stupid, reckless crime, much like the Luca murder that had enthralled Perth earlier in the year, but Lena Mitrovic did not appear to be stupid or reckless. Looking at her today, I had found it hard to believe that she had done it, although I sup­posed that a woman could do just about anything if she had been driven nearly mad with despair.

Mr Williams sighed loudly and I was jolted back to the present.

‘Well, I’d better go and speak to the poor girl,’ he said. ‘It’s one of the worst duties of defence counsel, the talk with your client after a conviction. Then it’s back to Fremantle Prison for her.’

You shall be returned to your place of former custody . . .

Built by convicts in the middle of the nineteenth century, Fremantle Prison was, according to Rob, a bleak and terrible place. Life imprisonment meant at least twenty years. Lena was only twenty-four, the same age as me.

I walked out of the courtroom wondering about Lena Mitrovic, shackled in a holding cell, soon to be heading off in the windowless wagon for the twelve-mile journey back to prison. She denied the crime, and that denial had never wavered throughout the trial. Still, as Rob said, Fremantle Prison was full of men and women who swore black and blue that they were innocent. I shuddered. Some probably were innocent.

 


Excerpted from Taking a Chance by Deborah Burrows. Copyright © 2013 by Deborah Burrows.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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