Real Life

Real life: I was wrongfully convicted of manslaughter

When I quarrelled with my girlfriend over fish ’n’ chips, I had no idea it would lead to a horrific nightmare.

John Button, 75, from Orange, NSW.

I gave myself one last glance in the mirror before wandering out to the kitchen where my parents were having a cuppa.
"Happy birthday, darling," Mum smiled, giving me a hug.
"Thanks," I chuckled, kissing her cheek. "I'll be home late."
It was my 19th birthday and I was going to see my girlfriend.
Rosemary Anderson and I had only been dating six months but I was keen to propose in a year, when she turned 18.
That day, we hung out at her house, washing my car and having lunch with her folks.
"Let's take a drive down the beach," I suggested in the early evening. It'd been a scorcher and the sea breeze would be cooling.
"You haven't spent any time with your parents today, we should go see them," Rosemary insisted.
Reluctantly, we went to mine and found Mum and Dad heading out for dinner. They hadn't been expecting us home.
Instead, we joined my little brother, Jim, and played cards with him in the lounge room. Then I went and got us some fish and chips for tea.
Me at 19 years old. (Image: Supplied)
We were watching telly when I saw a hand dart in and pinch my fish.
"Oi!" I yelled, assuming it was Jim. "Bloody leave it alone!"
"If you're gonna be like that, I'm leaving," Rosemary huffed, jumping to her feet and storming out the front door.
Crap! I'd really put my foot in it.
I grabbed my car keys and drove alongside her as she stormed down the street.
"Come on, Rosie, hop in," I pleaded, but she refused.
I decided to let her cool off and pulled over to have a cigarette.
A few minutes later, I drove on, hoping she'd blown off enough steam to hop in the car and come home.
But 30 metres down, I saw her lying crumpled on the side of the road.
My foot hit the brake. Rosemary!
"What's happened?" I shouted, bolting towards her. There was blood everywhere and a big gash on her forehead.
Rosemary AndersonPhoto credit: SBS Insight
She was unconscious so I scooped her up and drove to her family doctor, who I knew had a medical practice attached to his house.
"There's been an accident," I told the doc.
He called emergency, while I carried Rosemary into his surgery.
When the ambulance arrived, she and the doc were driven to hospital.
"Wait here for police," he told me before they zoomed off.
I paced back and forth in a panic. I had no idea what had happened but was desperate to be by Rosemary's side.
Officers arrived shortly after.
"My girlfriend and I had an argument and she took off, I found her on the side of the road," I explained.
One started closely inspecting my car.
"What's this dent from?" he asked, crouching down near my front bumper.
I explained I'd had a small prang a few weeks earlier, which I'd reported to cops.
After that I showed them where I'd found Rosemary. There was a big pool of her blood about four metres off the road.
The cops found her bag and shoes.
"Please let me see her," I begged them, but they took me to the police station for questioning instead.
My parents and me, aged 19. (Image: Supplied)
In the interview room, everything changed.
"Come on, son, we know you did this, tell us what really happened," the detective urged.
I recoiled in shock. How could they think I'd hurt the woman I loved and planned to spend my entire life with?
Eventually the detectives grew impatient with my version of events, and one of them punched me in the guts a few times to help convince me to confess.
After five hours, I was told Rosemary had died.
Suddenly, my breathing got heavy and the room started to spin. I felt like I was going to throw up.
All I wanted was to be alone so I could scream and cry.
"Look, I'll say whatever you want me to," I told them in a haze of grief.
Without Rosemary, my life was over anyway.
Soon afterwards, they gave me a statement confessing to hitting Rosemary with my car after we had a fight.
I knew I hadn't hurt her and figured investigators would soon figure that out when they looked at the evidence.
Then they'd find who actually did it.
Desperate for the nightmare to be over and to get a chance to grieve, I signed the confession.
"Good boy, doesn't that feel better?" one officer said, draping a jacket over my shoulders.
Mum and Dad came in. They'd been waiting hours to see me.
My Simca. (Image: Supplied)
"Did you really do this?" Mum asked, rushing forward to hug me with tears streaming down her face.
"It's my fault," I sobbed.
I explained that although I hadn't hurt Rosemary, she was out there at night because I'd accidentally told her off.
"We'll sort this out, mate," Dad reassured me.
After that I was formally charged with wilful murder and taken to the holding cells.
All I could think of was Rosemary and how our hopes and dreams for the future were gone. I didn't know how I'd carry on.
I was remanded in custody until the trial, set for three months' time.
As the initial shock of Rosemary's death became reality, I regretted signing the confession.
Whoever had really hurt her was walking around free and no one was looking for them because I'd said it was me. What the hell was I thinking?
Those cops had pressured me into it when I was at my most vulnerable, but the damage was done.
I was transferred to Fremantle Prison's death row wing, where convicted murderers waited to be hanged, as the death penalty still existed in WA at that point.
It was a small cell with a mattress and a bucket as a toilet.
I was only ever allowed out to see my parents or legal representatives.
When I told my lawyer the cops had coerced me into confessing, he shook his head.
The dent on the bumper. It wasn't caused by hitting a person. (Image: Supplied)
"If you get up on the stand and say a cop hit you, they'll hang you, John," he said sternly. "No one'll believe the police are in the wrong here."
Shocked, I started to understand the consequences of signing the confession, but surely if I kept telling the truth now, someone would believe me.
Poor Mum and Dad had to sell their home to pay my legal fees. I felt terrible.
The trial lasted a week, where the prosecutor claimed I'd deliberately run down Rosemary.
As I waited for the verdict, I couldn't see Mum or Dad in the gallery.
The jury came back within just two hours, much quicker than anyone had expected.
My parents hadn't made it back in time.
The judge asked the jury for the result for the charge of wilful murder.
"Not guilty," the foreman announced.
Thank God!
Then, on the findings for the lesser charge of manslaughter…
"Not guilty, your honour," the jury member said again.
Relief flowed through me.
Finally this torturous chapter of my life was over and the cops could finally focus on what really happened to Rosemary.
"Wait," the foreman said, interrupting my thoughts. "I made a mistake. Guilty, we find him guilty."
My mind spun.
This couldn't be happening. I wanted to shake my lawyer and shout "do something!" but I was frozen.
Eric Cooke pointing to the spot at which he confessed to killing Rosemary. Photo credit: ABC
I was sentenced to 10 years' hard labour, meaning I had to perform manual labour during my sentence, and moved in with the general population of the prison.
I couldn't believe my life had turned out this way but life in jail became routine.
Porridge of a morning, carpentry workshop in the afternoon and soup for dinner.
When the lights went off in my cell at 9pm, I always felt the startling reality of this nightmare – my darling Rosemary was killed and I was an innocent man paying the price for it.
How had it come to this?
I'd pace back and forth, wondering what had happened that terrible night.
I was so angry with myself for causing Rosemary to storm off to begin with, and then not staying with her until she calmed down.
But then I also stupidly falsely confessed, bringing huge shame on my family.
But what could I do about it? This was my life now.
There was a guy on the prison carpentry crew I worked with named Darryl Beamish.
He was deaf and had been in prison for two years by the time I arrived.
"He's innocent like you, John," one bloke told me.
Darryl was doing time for the murder of Jillian Brewer, who'd been alone in her flat one night when someone broke in and stabbed her to death with an axe and a pair of scissors.
I started learning sign language so I could talk to Darryl and suss out for myself whether he was innocent and if he was, why he'd confessed.
Eric Edgar CookePhoto credit: The West Australian
Police wanted someone to pin it on and they beat me, he'd signed.
I believed him and he became my mate after that.
One day, six months into my sentence, the news came over the radio.
"Perth man Eric Edgar Cooke is in police custody tonight after confessing to seven murders, including the hit and run murder of Rosemary Anderson and the axe murder of Jillian Brewer…" the announcer said.
My heart almost stopped with shock. Finally we had an answer to what really happened to Rosemary and I'd soon be free.
The next morning, after barely sleeping a wink, I approached Darryl.
He'd heard about Cooke and how he'd confessed to the crimes we were doing time for, but like me, no one official had spoken to him about it.
Give it a few days, mate, I signed.
A week later, my solicitor wanted to launch an appeal on my behalf and use Eric Cooke's confession as evidence.
But the judge didn't allow it, explaining that since I'd been convicted, Cooke must have lied.
Eric Cooke was convicted of a different murder and hanged 13 months later.
My hopes of ever clearing my name died with him.
Five and a half years into my sentence, I was released on parole.
While I was happy to be free and hoped to start my life over, I was still a convicted man.
I didn't want people thinking I was capable of murdering the woman I loved.
Naomi, me, Helen and our son-in-law, Gordon. (Image: Supplied)
Since Darryl had been convicted of murder, he still had another eight years to serve.
"I'll tell everyone our story," I'd promised him.
I moved into a small flat above a shop with my parents.
That's all they could afford after paying my court fees.
I often went to the beach where Rosemary and I used to go.
It helped me feel close to her and I'd pretend the last six years hadn't happened.
A couple of weeks later, I dropped by the dance studio where I used to teach ballroom dancing lessons.
"Come in, John. You're always welcome," a young woman smiled.
Her name was Helen and she'd been one of my students. Now she was a teacher.
Three months later at a dance, she kissed me.
We started dating and after six months I took her hand.
"Helen, I never thought I'd be happy again, but I love you. Please marry me?" I asked.
It might've seemed quick but I couldn't waste any more of my life.
A year after marrying, we had our son, Gregory, then our daughter, Naomi, five years later.
Journalist Estelle Blackburn.Photo credit: MLC
My parents moved to England and when Mum became sick with cancer, my criminal record prevented me from visiting her.
She died while I was waiting for an exemption.
My life was a roller coaster.
I wrote to journalists and Parliament members about my story but no one was interested, because I'd been convicted.
Just as I was ready to give up hope of ever clearing my name, a journalist named Estelle Blackburn called.
I told her everything.
"I'm going to help you, John," she promised.
For six years she worked on a book about Eric Cooke, Darryl and me, titled Broken Lives.
It became a bestseller and renewed interest in our cases.
I appeared on ABC's Australian Story and the public were outraged with the injustice done to me.
More people started investigating Rosemary's death.
A crash test expert determined that the dent in my car couldn't have been caused by hitting a person.
He also proved Rosemary's injuries came from the Holden Eric Cooke had driven.
It was finally the evidence I needed.
John with Estelle after he was exonerated.Photo credit: WAToday
When the appeal went ahead, the vehicle examiner in my first trial, Trevor Condren, admitted on the stand that the damage on my car hadn't been caused by hitting a person.
He'd never said this at the initial trial, and claimed he was never asked.
"There has been a great miscarriage of justice here," the judge finally announced, overturning my conviction and finding that Cooke was the one responsible for Rosemary's death.
The courtroom erupted in cheers.
The state awarded me $460,000 in compensation, but that can't make up for the 39 years of pain I've suffered to clear my name.
Incredibly, Darryl's conviction was also overturned. He'd spent 15 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit.
I now work with the Innocence Project, where law students work on cases in which people have potentially been wrongfully convicted.
I help them navigate the legal system and provide support to inmates.
These days, Helen and I have moved to rural NSW to be closer to our grand kids and have a fresh start.
I'll spend every single day appreciating all the time I have with my family.
God knows enough of that time has already been cruelly taken from me.

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