A murder in the family


Silent Death
Karen Kissane, Hodder Australia, 2006, ISBN 0733620094, $35.00

Karen KissaneAs I was reading Karen Kissane’s Silent Death a long-buried memory came back to me. I was about 13 years old, when my mother spoke of family dysfunction as normal. All through my childhood and adolescence I had  longed to be part of a normal family and here was my mother telling me, to my horror, that tension, power struggles, abuse and violence were, in fact, normal after all.
On the surface Julie and Jamie Ramage’s marriage was the embodiment of normalcy. They had an enviable lifestyle and two high-achieving teenage children. But one day in June 2003 Julie decided to leave her husband, moving to a townhouse in Toorak with her daughter, and, soon after, starting up a new romance. When she told her husband six weeks later that their marriage was over and she wasn’t coming back, he punched her in the face, strangled her to death and buried her in a shallow grave. The public was interested in the case:  they saw a high-status family, who seemingly had it all, fall apart so dramatically. When Jamie Ramage pleaded not guilty to manslaughter rather than murder, citing provocation as a mitigating circumstance, or partial excuse, and the jury eventually agreed, the case provoked heated public debate.

Karen Kissane has written a thoughtful, involving account of the case and the difficult questions it raises. Kissane, who initially wrote a feature article in The Age, begins by describing the murder, tells of the Ramages’ relationship, and then takes us compellingly through the trial and its aftermath. She elicits the opinions and insights of those involved -friends and family members, counsellors and lawyers -to discover what led to the killing of Julie Ramage and whether justice was served.
In the core of her book she discusses the defence of provocation, long used in Australian courts as a partial excuse for murder. In the Ramage case defence attorney Philip Dunn argued that Jamie Ramage’s actions in killing his wife were understandable, and in effect partially excusable, as his wife had provoked him during their final meeting by saying that their sex life repulsed her, she was much happier with the new man in her life and the marriage was over. This claim was enough for the jury to convict Ramage of manslaughter instead of murder, which would have attracted a much harsher sentence. 

Kissane’s careful day-by-day account of the trial is riveting. She guides us through the weeks leading up to the crime. Although Jamie Ramage was on trial, the two weeks were largely spent in questioning and often vilifying Julie Ramage’s actions and character. The details of the case, particularly Dunn’s discussion with Kissane of his tactics, are at times shocking and even offensive. (Dunn fought to include a particular autopsy photo. Its purpose was to give the jury a glimpse of the victim’s pubic region. It suggested that she was a 'fast woman', part of the 'evidence' that proved that Julie provoked her husband to kill her). The interviews with  professionals involved in such cases substantiate Kissane’s damning critique of the provocation defence. The Ramage case (amongst many others), ultimately led to an overhaul of  Victoria’s homicide laws.

Recent legislation has removed provocation as a defence and introduced a new crime of defensive homicide to assist women who kill their abusers. This group has legitimately used provocation as a defence in the past.
After discussing the trial and its aftermath, Kissane interviews the various players (with the notable exception of Jamie Ramage himself) in an attempt to answer the broader question of how such a crime could have happened and how it might have been prevented.  The courts might have failed Julie Ramage, Kissane argues. She goes on to ask whether the community could have saved her?  She interviews four of the five counsellors Jamie Ramage dragged his wife along to see in the weeks following their separation. It’s hard to imagine how a counsellor in one 50 minute session could have accurately predicted the danger Julie Ramage was in, but it’s even harder to imagine how the Ramages could have consistently maintained the façade of a happily married couple for over 23 years. The chapter entitled ‘What the Jurors Didn’t Know’ is illuminating.

Those who knew the Ramages recount various incidents of violence over the years, including a broken nose, and more subtle yet unmistakable bullying and controlling behaviour on the part of Jamie Ramage. None of these incidents were heard in court, because friends’ and family members’ accounts were deemed hearsay, not admissible as evidence.  This chapter offers a particularly unsettling, but in no way voyeuristic, glimpse into someone else’s marriage.  When a business partner of Jamie Ramage expressed surprise at a separation, Julie is quoted as saying, ‘no-one knows what went on behind closed doors’. And yet this was obviously not true. The Ramages’ acquaintances regularly observed incidents at dinner parties, separations, black eyes, public put-downs, and more.
The reason close friends failed to speak of his abusive behaviour may have been that  it is extremely difficult to comment on other peoples’ relationships, even those you’re close to. One fears to offend, to overstep personal boundaries. But is the need to observe privacy really an adequate reason not to challenge, or at least to discuss, attitudes and behaviours, when these can lead, as they did in the Ramage case, to tragedy? 

In 2003, when arguing for the need to review the provocation defence, Victorian  attorney-general Rob Hulls argued that it was developed in the 16th and 17th centuries, ‘an era in which assumptions about male and female behaviour were steeped in misogyny’, when women were treated within marriage as goods and chattels. He argued that the law had failed women in many ways and it was time to bring it into the twenty-first century. Thankfully the law has been changed, although the changes came too late for Julie Ramage. 

Karen Kissane’s book makes us ask ourselves whether the private attitudes that allowed men to claim provocation as a defence for killing their partners have really changed. Do they also need to be overhauled? Maybe we owe it to Julie Ramage and countless women like her to break the taboo of privacy, and to talk openly about these issues not only in our own relationships but also in those of the people we care about. Maybe then in the future fewer and fewer mothers may have to tell their children that the kinds of emotional and physical violence so many of grow up with is 'normal.' 




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Existing comments

This was a heartbreaking case, no doubt. The idea that provocation can be a defence is abhorent. Good article, chilling book.

andrew johnson | 12 July 2006  

This is an apt breakdown of the core issues of this book, Trent. I love your work. I'd love to read more by you.

Rachel | 05 December 2018  

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