I don’t know what I am doing here.
Call me a no good, sticky beak, nosey parker.
Do you feel better if you have a note pad to look down at and scribble in? Curiosity overwhelms shame. Something in me wants to dig deeper.
I should be at home doing my psychopharmacology assignment. Instead I’ve caught the train with the morning city workers. I’ve pushed through the city, contemplated a takeaway coffee, but been put off by the long queues at the supposed best places, and finally arrived at the Central Law Courts in the east part of town. There is airport type security to pass through, before the lifts, which lead to the courtrooms. I instinctively expect a pat down when my wheelchair makes the metal detectors go off, but they aren’t as officious as airport guards and, after asking if I have anything concealed, let me proceed.
It is a peaceful building. It is the opposite of the chaos and disorder that is the central discussion of most of the cases and events whose narratives are told before a judge.
It is supremely clean. Cleaner, I suspect, than most public buildings. Like it should be. Like it is saying to the public who enter it – see – this is how ordered and polite society behave. Look what you can do if you just clean yourselves up a bit. Peering out of the high windows, the road and alleyway beyond appear shabby, the concrete car park an eyesore. Cars even appear disheveled. Inside the carpet is striped and bold, the chairs are seventies chic. The bathrooms are white tiled with bleached porcelain sinks. Paper towels are provided. Soap dispensers have soap in them. There are sharps dispensers in the cubicles, an open acknowledgement that illicit drugs might be consumed here, but it is convenient to do the proper thing with your used needles.
I am looking for Court 51 to attend the Coroner’s Court to listen to the final day of the case of the toddler found dead inside the front load washer/dryer. Daily the story has captured my attention in the local paper. Washing Machine Inquest. And now I will hear the mother describe, in detail, the moment and the lead up to her discovery of her child – locked inside the closed machine, found dead with the stiff cadaver of a pet cat called Snowy. Call me ghoulish.
On the morning of the 20th September 2010 three people were alive in the Hilton home. The man rose early, did not have breakfast, and went to work. The mother, Ms. Murphy, twenty-seven, claimed to have overslept and when she woke to find her son, Sean, was not answering to her calls, she searched frantically, turning the house upset down. Then something awry caught her eye, as she stood in the hallway and looked into the laundry. What was that in the machine? She opened the front loader door – pulled out the stiff cat and then her hot, limp son, his head and hair wet. She carried him out to the hallway, lay him down and began CPR. She rang triple 0. When the paramedics arrived they took over the resuscitation of the already deceased boy whilst the mother phoned her partner to tell him Sean was critical and would be going to the hospital. When Ms. Murphy said she needed to lock the house before being able to accompany the paramedics, and began searching for her keys, the ambulance officers had the gut feeling that something was not right about the scene. It felt weird to them. She felt weird to them. They left the house without her. Later they informed the police.
So much of the story does not make sense. What active normal toddler allows his mother to sleep till 1.30pm without being fed, when it his habit to wake her early by jumping on her stomach? She talks of Sean’s Thomas the Tank Engine clock. It has a face that changes from asleep to awake. He knew not to get out of bed till the face changed at six o’clock. After that he was free to shake the house. I am reminded of my own son’s early mornings as a toddler. We took it in turns for the predawn shift, feeling as if a whole day had elapsed before the other parent got up to take over after seven.
There were photographs on the camera that showed Sean had been alive earlier in the day, in the same room where his mother slept, taking flash pictures, and yet she claims to not have woken till 1.30pm when her partner rang her on her mobile rang. She gives no reason for her sleeping-in that day.
She has strawberry blonde hair pulled back into ponytail. Her pale eyes are rimmed with pale lashes and even paler eyebrows. She wears no makeup. She could be dusted with flour. She looks drawn and annoyed to be here. She could be 17 or 37 – an ageless, unwrinkled face. She is sometimes curt and agitated with the questioning from the counsel assisting the coroner. And sometimes it is accusatory. But she is rarely visibly upset. She never sobs or breaks down on her descriptions of her son. She describes his love of Diego and Elmo and her voice is breaking, but she gets through it. It makes her seem hard.
I am reminded of the nation’s judgement of Lindy Chamberlain and how the portrayal of her inadequate emotional responses was labelled hard and callous. So incredulous was the nation to her story of a Dingo taking a baby that she was swiftly branded a child-killer? What was she really guilty of? Not seeming to be a good mother? It made her appear guilty – her inability to cry.
This mother is also unlikable. The pale blue high-necked sweater makes her look conservative. But the outfit feels like a lie, an attempt at manipulation. Has she been asked by her lawyer to wear this colour? Baby blue. Is it supposed to be a reminder of the lost child? She wears a black velvet jacket too. She has tight-fitting trousers and long grey boots with flat heels. I watch her feet as they jiggle constantly beneath her chair during questioning. Like someone sitting an exam. Some of her answers feel rehearsed.
At times the coroner, Mr. Alastair Hope, takes over the questioning, as if he can get to the bottom of this. There is a general feeling of disbelief at the possibility that the child could climb into the washing machine, with the cat, and then close the door, from the inside, and trap himself and the cat inside – and there – suffocate and later be found dead, virtually unmarked, with no scratches on him.
There remains the possibility of the dog of the house – Simba – being the one to have closed the machine door. As an active exuberant dog perhaps he was chasing the cat and the boy and they hid in the machine and the door closed behind them by the action of the dog jumping or knocking against the washer’s door? Possible perhaps?
How do you prove this? How do you prove you are innocent, if you are? You are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty, but there is a distinct feeling that there is a need to show innocence here. What can this mother do to demonstrate she didn’t do it? Would crying now help?
The coroner sits alone at an expansive desk. He is higher than everyone else. He enters from the innards of the building, almost as if he is joining us through a secret entrance. Does he come up from beneath the ground? His associate announces his arrival and asks us all to stand. Wheelchair bound I am unable to. When we re-enter after a short recess, he is not yet present. It is a bit like being in a school classroom before the teacher arrives. There is banal chatter amongst the legal teams. The coroner’s associate tells the lawyers that Mr. Hope is ready to resume. “Are you psychic?” a lawyer jokes. “I can hear the click of his door,” she answers. Then smiling adds – “one Powerball.” One lawyer asks the team behind, “Where’s your client?” We can’t begin without her. I imagine Mr. Hope standing in the back, like a thespian waiting to make his entrance from behind the curtain. “She’ll be having a cigarette, or two,” her counsel says. Another moment passes, “or an entire ashtray.”
The press has not returned and I feel privy to a strange camaraderie between the lawyers. They are just playing their roles. It is their room. They know what lies behind the wood paneling. As the families and journalists file in there is a straightening of jackets, pulling down of sleeves and the questioning picks up where it left off.
When Ms. Murphy is directly asked if she was the one to put Sean inside the machine, she denies it. She admits to having difficulty with the boy and his three-year-old ways. Don’t all mothers? Ms. Murphy is not unusual in describing her struggles to put a toddler to bed and for him to stay there. But she says she was more frustrated with her inability to cope as adequately as she saw other people than she was frustrated with Sean’s behaviour. She sometimes disciplined him with time outs and the occasional smack on the bottom and, for a time, some months before he died, she had tried to get his sleep more ordered by tying his bedroom door shut. She claimed this was the suggestion of her partner’s, but they had initially failed to tell the police because they felt it made them “look bad.”
It wasn’t the only thing that made them look bad. The lies began to pile up. There was the state supplied housing that they both lived in, but told the authorities only she lived in. There was a phone call from her partner (the one that woke her) in which she told him she was next door, rather than admit she was asleep till 1.30 in the afternoon. There was a video found on the partner’s phone that showed Ms. Murphy holding a frantic cat in a towel and then dropping it in front of Simba whilst gleeful laughter rings out from the collected audience, which includes children, as the dog chases the distressed cat around and tries to “play” with it. The cat strikes out at the thin, rangy dog. Ms. Murphy was subsequently charged with animal cruelty, pleaded guilty and fined $3000. She claimed to be an animal lover and seemed a little bemused by her conviction. The courtroom watched the phone video, periodically closing their eyes and covering their gaping mouths with their hands. Ms. Murphy dropped her head.
Her assertion was that she had been getting the cat acquainted with the dog so that she could look after the cat while her friend was away. Simba loved cats and would never hurt another animal. She however had been scratched in the event. The cat was fine. It was uninjured she assured the courtroom. The owner of the cat had been present. She had not objected. But the footage was damaging. Does it show a woman who just doesn’t know better? Or is she wantonly cruel? Do you make the leap from animal cruelty to human cruelty to killing your own child?
Then there were the pictures that showed the house – in a state of bedlam. Ms. Murphy claimed to have made the mess turning it upside down in her search for Sean. It made partial sense. But there was also other evidence that suggested it was always filthy and disordered. She said, “Stains do happen.” It suggested a life on a downwards spiral. She said the Homewest house was bent in the middle. It sloped towards the front and back. Maybe this was why the washing machine door would bang closed so easily.
There was the state of the kitchen, which included a chair in the middle of it, and on the chair sat a pair of hair clippers and the detritus of recent hair clipping on the floor. She apparently had stepped around this clutter whilst cleaning the dishes from the day before, yet failed to sort this other mess up. It was the source of an argument between Ms. Murphy and her defacto boyfriend. He went to bed and Ms. Murphy to her mattress in the lounge room. On the couch beside her lay clothes that needed to be put away and other dry items awaiting folding.
I think of my own washing machine – of the inside of its cool cylindrical metal drum and its sieve like holes. These dints left an imprint on the toddler’s skin as he pressed up inside it. Dimpled him. Later, I look at three-year olds in the street and measure them up in my mind. I imagine them climbing in and tucking themselves up to fit inside. With a cat.
I think of the clutter inside my own house and its own usual state of disarray. Too many books. A single son given too many toys. If tragedy were to befall my family or me what would the forensic photographs of my house reveal? Just because her house is filthy (she calls it “lived-in”) does not mean she killed her child. Just because she fails to put away the laundry does not mean she killed her son. Just because the usual storage for all the dirty washing is the laundry floor does not mean she killed her son. Just because she fights with her lazy defacto does not mean she killed her son.
What are we asking of the justice system here? We want to know the story. The truth. But that is not possible unless we can become a witness to what was unseen. We can only hope for an approximation. The counsel knows this already. Perhaps this is why the female counsel assisting the coroner has a slightly bored sound to her voice and is twining a vine of her lank hair around her index finger while she questions the mother. Making a tendril of her hair, her finger a twig. I imagine she has been a hair twirler since a young girl. I picture her doing it on the couch, a law student watching LA Law.
Does she know too well the futility of her questions? That there will be no satisfactory answers to this tragedy.
The mother’s counsel gets Ms. Murphy to reveal her diagnosis of Borderline personality disorder. She tells us sometimes she feels different from the rest of the population and when things are difficult she “shuts down.” Are we supposed to understand her now? Does this condition explain her unusual response to her son’s death and her lack of “normal” response just a symptom of her condition, as opposed as a sign of foul play. We hear of her adoption at age three from England by her Aunt and Uncle and her troubled behaviour as a child. Of her own accord she contacted child services, two years before Sean died, to ask for assistance with his difficult behaviours, only to be told by case workers that the toddler’s tantrums, which included kicking, biting and screaming, were age-appropriate. Were her pleas for someone to help her with her son ignored? Are these all bits of a jigsaw puzzle that add up to something or are they just more white noise, blurring an already impenetrable story?
I sit with a note pad, like the other reporters, although I am not one of them. They have deadlines and copy to complete. They will work late tonight. They report the facts. They keep themselves out of it. I am an imposter. I am an outsider to the courtroom experience. I still find the bowing to the judge odd. I bristle at the hand placed on the bible. I enter with a takeaway coffee, ignorant of the No food or drink rule. What am I hoping for? Answers?
I have my own questions and I can’t know if they have already been dealt with in the previous days, but simply not reported, because they are too mundane and not considered news worthy. I am no sleuth. I am just another mother, wondering how this might happen. A witness to a mother in pain, and yet removed from her pain. What she feels few can share. Even though she is not charged she sits as if accused. Mothers blame her. Fathers blame her. At the very least her neglectful over-sleeping while her child roamed the house resulted in her son’s death by misadventure.
I want to know when the cat died? Was the cat alive when it entered the washing machine? Surely it would have panicked as the air supply dwindled and it struggled to get a breath. How is it that there are no scratches on the body of the toddler? How would a toddler hold onto a cat and get it inside a washing machine in the first place? Normally Snowy didn’t even like to be held. Cats are not easy to grapple with for the best of wranglers. How do you close the door of a washing machine from the inside?
I want to know what course the mother was studying on-line at the time of her child’s death. I want to know if she has gone on to complete her study. What does her life consist of now? Where is the dog? If she believes the dog trapped the child inside the washing machine, how can she bear to have it around as a reminder?
I watch the families. A sister sits crying on and off for most of the day. It is the response you expect. She periodically wipes the tears from her cheeks. An elderly woman, perhaps a grandmother, makes it through the day too, dry-eyed, sitting staring forward, listening. The mother of the ex-partner shakes her head at the testimony being given that labels her son as “lazy” and as having “anger management” problems. I watch as her feet, pushed into black flat-heeled shoes, swell over the day.
And somewhere out in the world is the biological father of Sean. He isn’t mentioned on the day I attend. The paper says the boy was born out of a violent relationship and that the toddler had no association with his father. Perhaps he never even knew Sean existed.
When the questioning is over there is much looking at diaries to decide when Mr. Hope will deliver his findings. It appears that the eventual date, three weeks from now, isn’t much good for most of the lawyers and they make their excuses one after the other. Hair twirler has furniture removalists coming that day. Mr. Hope accepts all their apologies. He sincerely thanks them for their efforts thus far. They all have the look of needing a seriously stiff drink in a bar full of other wigs and pinstripes. But I will be back and find my spot again in his courtroom. I will finish my takeaway coffee outside. And I imagine the families will be there too. Searchers for truth will be interested to see how the experienced coroner finds a path through all that he’s been told. Will he step out into a vast open clearing and enlighten us, or, as I suspect, end up in a dank muddy swamp of indecision?
The court is shown a picture, discovered by detectives during the investigation into the boy’s death, taken about a year before. It shows the cheeky blonde boy with wonderful Shirley Temple curls smiling for the camera, his head poking out from a disused dryer without a door. It eerily predicts the event that results in his suffocating death. His mother says they did not warn him of the dangers of such a game at the time. She regrets this now.