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Real Life

Stan's compelling new docuseries, After The Night, explores John Button's wrongful conviction for a crime he didn't commit

Convicted of a horrific crime he didn’t commit, John Button was determined to clear his name.

By Brigid Auchettl
The peaceful Perth community was shattered in the 
late '50s and 
early '60s when Eric Edgar Cooke committed a string 
of murders.
Known as the "Night Caller", Cooke was an opportunistic killer who used different methods to commit his crimes, including shooting, stabbing and strangling, as well as hit-and-run attacks.
But it wasn't just the people he murdered who became his victims. Nineteen-year old John Button was wrongfully convicted of one of Cooke's crimes in 1963.
Sentenced 
to 10 years in jail, John struggled to move on with his life after his release – until he met investigative journalist Estelle Blackburn, who vowed to help him clear his name...
Estelle's 
book, which was released in 1998, renewed public interest in John's case. (Image: Supplied)
After John was wrongfully convicted of the murder of his girlfriend Rosemary Anderson in 1963, he never imagined that he'd spend the rest of his life trying to prove he was an innocent man.
So when investigative journalist Estelle Blackburn called offering him help to share his story, he was overwhelmed with hope.
"I wouldn't have had a life without Estelle," says John, 76, from his home in Orange.
"There's no one else who could have done what she did for me... it means the world."
Together, they spent hours chatting about John's experiences to write a book that would eventually 
reopen his case and grant him a new appeal.
"Finally someone with a bit of influence, an investigative journalist, was able to help me," he says. "It was an amazing partnership."
Actors recreate John and Rosemary's final night together in Stan's upcoming documentary After The Night. (Image: Stan)
John's nightmare began in 1963, on his 19th birthday, when his girlfriend Rosemary, 17, was killed in a brutal hit-and-run.
After an argument over fish and chips, Rosemary had decided to walk home, refusing his apologies and offers for a ride.
"I kept saying, 'I'm so sorry, please forgive me.' She said 'no' each time. I watched her walk under the subway tunnel and she disappeared from view," he says.
When John finally caught up to her, he came across a horrifying scene. She was lying on the side of the road surrounded by a pool of blood.
Unbeknown to John, she'd been hit by notorious killer Eric Edgar Cooke. 

John panicked, picked up Rosemary's limp body and rushed to the family doctor.
Actors re-create the moment John was beaten into confessing. (Image: Stan)
The doctor called an ambulance and the police, who took the rattled teen to Perth Police Station to make 
a statement.
Questioned 
for hours, John remained adamant he didn't hit Rosemary with his car.
But the police weren't satisfied – punching John until he confessed to the crime.
"I didn't care what happened to me, I just wanted to get out of there," says John. "So at that stage everything they said, I just said 'yes'."
He signed a confession 
and was charged with wilful murder. For three months the teenager was locked up for 24 hours a day on death 
row, before finally being sentenced to 10 years' jail 
for manslaughter.
"My mum asked me, 'Was 
it your fault?'" recalls John. "And I said, 'Yes, it was my fault – because we'd had 
the argument, I'd let her 
walk away.'"
Spending each night pacing his cell, John constantly thought of Rosemary, reliving the argument, and the precious six months they 
had spent together.
The following year, before his death penalty was carried out, serial killer Cooke confessed to the hit-and-run murder of Rosemary – but police ignored his confession.
John spent years in jail for a crime he didn't commit. (Image: Stan)
Then, on Christmas Day in 1967, John was released early on parole.
Picking up the pieces of his life, he found love again. He married 
Helen, now 72, who never had any doubt over her husband's innocence.
But John was plagued with nightmares and guilt.
Shunned from his community, he struggled to find work or make friends.
"It was very hard," says John, who battled depression and suicidal thoughts for years. "Helen has been by my side all these years and backed me every step of the way."
John knew he needed to prove his innocence to truly be a free man. So when he met investigative journalist Estelle in 1991, through his brother Jim, the stars aligned.
Jim had met Estelle on a Perth dancefloor, and confided in her that his brother had been framed for 
a murder committed by Cooke.
"Just that name 'Cooke' had me shaken," says Estelle who was 13 when he began his reign of terror. "I asked Jim to tell me about everything."
Estelle dedicated years of her life to helping John clear his name. (Image: Stan)
Estelle agreed to meet John and listen to his story.
"He was a sweet, lovely guy," she says. "He struck me as someone who wouldn't kill a fly, let alone a human being, let alone the girl he loved. That night I promised him, 'John, I'll get the facts for you. I'll write a book, so your children will know the truth.'"
The following morning she quit her job, and for the next six years tenaciously researched John's case, tracking down victims and convincing them to reveal untold stories, to help clear John's name.
"Once I worked out the police misconduct – that they had never admitted to the public that Cooke was a hit-and-run killer – I felt we could prove the police had the wrong man in John," she says.
In 1998, Estelle published Broken Lives, prompting authorities to re-open 
John's case.
With the support of two top lawyers who worked pro bono, they appealed the case.
In 2002, after nearly 40 years of pleading his innocence, 
John was exonerated of manslaughter in the longest-standing overturn of a conviction in Australia.
Estelle and John worked hard to overturn his conviction for manslaughter which was quashed in 2002 (Supplied)
"Hearing the courtroom erupt in cheers... it's hard to describe the thrill, the joy, 
it was amazing," says Estelle.
"John walked out of court that day with his head held high. For the first time in 39 years he didn't have a sign over his head saying 'killer'."
Adds John, "It took a while to sink in but when it finally did it was tremendous. I was on a high for quite a while."
Eighteen years on, John dedicates his time to the WA Innocence Project, which helps exonerate people who have been wrongly convicted.
"I wanted to put [my life] to good use," he says.
Estelle and John tell their story a four-part Australian true crime docuseries After The Night, which streams from Stan on November 29.

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