David Bain on Stage

Telling the truth in Perth.

At the International Justice Conference in Perth, a symposium organised by Justice W.A., an Australian lawyer joked, "I've never been in the room with so many convicted killers." Exonorees Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton and Rubin "Hurricane" Carter mingled with Betty Anne Waters and legendary U.S. lawyer Barry Scheck. Outside there were palm trees, exotic birds. There were dolphins in the river, Aborigines living along the riverbank and a heat wave, 43 degrees. Inside, in the air-conditioned chill, I was talking to David Bain.

He was to be a keynote speaker. He was polite, well-spoken and intelligent. We shook hands; we talked about various things. Was he pleased with the recent interview he'd given to TV3? In some ways, he said, but there was the problem that it had attracted more attention. What he wanted was to be able to lead a normal life. He'd even thought of moving overseas. Would he be anxious, I asked him, before making his speech? He didn't think he'd be nervous, he said, because he'd done some work on the stage.

Across the room Bain's campaigner, Joe Karam, was all energy, with his roguish winks, his anecdotes. He told me that he'd like to write his memoirs, also that he'd thought of writing fiction. "I've gathered a lot of material over the years," he said, perhaps referring to the numerous characters he's encountered while taking on the justice system. He said he strongly believed David would get compensation, and strong belief is what he still radiates, tirelessly, so much so that you wonder what will happen to all that energy if Bain succeeds in his compensation claim, and there's no more campaigning to be done.
At noon, in the astonishing heat, I walked into the city. I was thinking about crime, fiction, what lies beneath. The sky was hard blue, there was a burning rim around the sun. Below the bridge the dolphins surfaced; at the river's edge brown toddlers were wading while older children squatted on the sand. The city is built on sand; it drifts along the road edges, through the parks. Two ragged, tattooed men came up from the river and began approaching fast, eyes fixed on me. There were no other pedestrians. I took out my phone, pretended to talk. I thought of holding up one finger and saying brightly, "One moment. Saw you coming, and I'm just cancelling my credit card." I laughed at my own joke, they paused, and I hurried away, through the baking parkland, the unbelievable oven of the air. I went back to thinking about crime, corruption, about the kind of person who would knowingly allow an innocent to rot in jail. I thought of a story, a recently divorced woman say, preoccupied with lurid crime and with more mundane family questions: corruption, innocence and guilt.
The speakers were survivors, and they were extraordinarily impressive: Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton, Rubin Carter, John Artis, Betty Anne Waters, John Ochoa. All told horror stories. Through police corruption, judicial malpractice, forced confessions and suppression of evidence, they ended up victims of the justice system. These people are the tough ones, who didn't succumb to despair, or commit suicide, or slump into drug abuse when all hope seemed lost. They set about extracting themselves, with determination and self-belief, and, in some cases with the help of Barry Scheck's Innocence Project, a non-profit organisation that investigates criminal convictions, and has exonerated 290 people through DNA. The speakers, the exonorees, took us through their cases, telling us exactly what the evidence was, how they came to be wrongly convicted and how they eventually proved their innocence.
When it was his turn, Bain chose not to focus on the evidence in his case, instead preferring to portray his idyllic childhood, his talented family, his busy productive life before he was arrested, and the years he spent in prison. After Bain's speech I talked to Barry Scheck. He told me he was about to go to New Zealand to meet Peter Jackson, who has made a documentary about an Innocence Project cause. Barry Scheck didn't know any details about Bain's case, since Bain had been invited to Perth by the Western Australian organisation, Justice W.A. So I told him all about it. He listened with great attention, asking questions, making the odd sharp observation, expressing surprise, "the killer wore gloves?" Scheck is not only worthy in his championing of victims of injustice, he is dynamic, benign, and inordinately intelligent. Speaking to him, you have the feeling that every nuance and detail is being minutely received and understood. It's a good feeling.
"So that's David Bain," I finished up. Mr Scheck shook my hand.
"Thank you for letting me know," he said.