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Hunting the truth in life and in death

John Hutton at his Highgate Hill home.

Hunting the truth in life and in death

News Corp Australia

THE LAST time he'll walk into the courtroom this way. Just a few steps.

One step. It's tempting to think of odious cases flashing through his mind.

Two steps. That time his secret was exposed and his mother told him to never live a lie.

Three steps. The dilemmas when families ask him not to say their loved one died by suicide.

Four. Forget all that. A man treated as human roadkill, left to die in a ditch, is why Coroner John Hutton is here.

In August 2012, Shui Ki Chan lives alone in Gatton Caravan Park, works at McDonald's in College View, east of town. The 25-year-old from Hong Kong had been here four months.

After work one cool, dry night, he rides his 18-speed mountain bike on the dual-carriageway Warrego Highway.

Joanne Marie McCauley, a mother with a drug habit, strikes him about 1km into his journey.

The injuries are survivable, but McCauley does not stop to help. Not till 9.40am is he found in the ditch by the grass, dead from hypothermia. Fourteen hours.

Fourteen witnesses say McCauley admits deliberately hitting Chan. Some claim she admits reversing over Chan after the first strike.

Gatton woman Joanne Marie McCauley has been named as the prime suspect in a hit-and-run that claimed the life of Hong Kong national Shui Ki Chan on August 22, 2012.
Gatton woman Joanne Marie McCauley has been named as the prime suspect in a hit-and-run that claimed the life of Hong Kong national Shui Ki Chan on August 22, 2012.

Five years on, carrying out the inquest's obligatory parts, Hutton sounds tired. Some words taper off. He seems to omit a determiner from sentences. "Medical cause of death was..."

But when delivering comments, each syllable infuses the dark, carpeted courtroom. The former defence lawyer and prosecutor eschews jargon. On police, he says he's duty-bound "to call them out" when they fail.

He calls on the police commissioner to investigate. He machine-guns condemnation: "The. Police. Have. Not Done. Their Job. One. Bit."

"The OFF-icer in charge," he emphasises.

Empha-soize is how Hutton would say it. The Yeppoon-born coroner's accent is often broader than the clipped dialect of some other judicial officers.

Hutton looks ahead. His sky-blue gaze is powerful, unnerving. The room is silent, tense.

The most intimate targets of criticism are not here. With no visible culprit, it feels like a classroom where an absent student has done something terrible and all pupils sit nervously, hoping Teacher's wrath won't fall on them.

Time slows. Eyes look down or dart around the courtroom, perhaps past Hutton, to the state coat of arms with its incongruous, imported red deer.

Hutton hopes his findings are of some help to Mr Chan's family. He makes no speech about decades in the law. He stands up, walks off. He tells a clerk "My cousin's sitting in the back of the courtroom ... the man with the beard. Can you bring him up?"

A few people turn around. The cousin has a big, proud smile.

MIDDAY. Criminals to be sentenced absorb freedom's last moments during lunch at the coffee shop.

Face busy George Street, and to the right, black-gowned barristers stride to the formidable $570 million supreme and district courts building. There, high ceilings cut big egos down to size but hard surface courtroom acoustics make any high-heeled lawyer's footstep deafening.

To the left, Brisbane Magistrates Court is more intimate, but big enough to escape the claustrophobia, staggering stench of BO, and atmosphere of relentless human wreckage some smaller courts experience.

Inside again, upstairs, Hutton's cousin with the beard must have come and gone. The coroner is in his chambers, an unpretentious office.

He likes the law - calling it "the ultimate blood sport" - but order seems less revered. Newspapers, emails, a bank statement, all facing different directions on his desk. No baubles of power, no elaborately framed portraits of legal hot-shots.

John Hutton at his Highgate Hill home.
John Hutton at his Highgate Hill home. Peter Wallis

The coroner has one day to retirement, three to his 70th birthday. Hutton's hearing is not great after years firing guns without ear protection.

Hutton was an army cadet at age 14. He still likes guns, and these days has 14 of them.

Good thing the former Queensland University Regiment machine-gunner likes talking. Seconds after sitting behind his desk, he's asked about an inquest held a few months earlier but mishears.

"Am I married? I'm not married, no. I'm gay."

Half a lifetime ago, his Catholic mother learned it might be time to stop wondering what sort of wife the young lawyer might settle down with.

"My brother told my mother I was gay, and told her to leave me alone because she was wanting me to get married. She said: 'What do you mean by that'?"

Younger brother Bruce had a PhD in chemical engineering and a master's degree in law. It fell to him to explain what gay meant.

Hutton, then 34, went to his brother's place in Brisbane, where his mum was staying. "I'll always remember. She was ironing. And she said: 'I've got something to say to you'. And I thought: 'Oh f---, I know what this is all about'."

By now, he'd been an articled clerk at Cannon & Peterson, graduated university, worked in Rockhampton and had a memorable legal win in his mother's hometown, Longreach. He adored Yeppoon as a child, but as an adult found the region stifling, so returned to Brisbane in 1976, worked for the Public Trustee, was admitted as a barrister, and became a Crown Prosecutor. He was ready for a fight.

"I said: 'What is it, Mary'?"

He addressed his mother by her first name only when something "really serious" was afoot.

"She said: 'Listen to me. Life's too short to live a lie. Don't you ever live a lie'."

He said he wouldn't. She said "Good." She kept ironing.

He wondered what his father, World War II veteran David might make of it. But whatever Irish Catholic dogma his mother might have sublimated was put aside.

"If your father attacks you, I will attack him," Mrs Hutton told her son. But his father, it seems, was a peaceful man. There had never been domestic violence in the Hutton home, and none was about to start now.

WITH HIS mother's support, Hutton felt he could take on the world.

Some other powerful Queenslanders had no problems with Hutton's sexuality. Then-Premier Wayne Goss once recommended Hutton see 1992 "gay movie" The Crying Game, which Hutton says was the Premier's way of saying "he knows I'm gay and it doesn't worry him".

But just a few years earlier, Hutton was turned down for a Crown Law promotion and says he asked a senior Crown prosecutor about it.

"He said: 'Do you really want to know'? He said: 'Because you're a filthy homosexual'."

Hutton recalls looking out the senior prosecutor's window in Brisbane towards City Hall. "I feel so sick I just want to vomit," he replied.


John Hutton at the Southport courts where he was once southern coroner.
John Hutton at the Southport courts where he was once southern coroner. Paul Riley

Hutton voices no desire for patriarchal family life anyway. Mentioning mid-century American author Norman Mailer, who scathingly painted 1950s suburbia as beige and shapeless mediocrity, Hutton derides "Cape Cod curtains" and turkeys in the kitchen.

He cites American Beauty, where a brutal, homophobic ex-marine ends up kissing the middle-aged male protagonist in a suburban garage. "There are a lot of American Beauty dads around."

He says some men, regardless of sexuality, are "too gutless" to stand up to social conventions, so continue with miserable marriages, have affairs while keeping up appearances, or keep wives as accessories. Hutton rejects any notion his take on domestic cliches makes him a subversive.

"I don't have a contrary view. I don't like violence of any kind - physical, emotional, sexual abuse. I think they're all the same now."

RHONDA ZIEBELL'S sister Noelene Beutel died in Buderim on June 29, 2011, at the hands of a man who bashed her head in, then chucked her in a Holden Commodore boot before setting the car alight.

The fire didn't kill Ms Beutel because she was already dead from the head injury, and her lungs when examined had no soot. Abusive partner Wayn Edward Raymond McClutchie was jailed for life in 2013.

Ms Ziebell, who lives near Toowoomba, says the inquest and subsequent publicity changed attitudes to domestic abuse. So did watershed domestic violence taskforce report, Not Now Not Ever, for which the inquest was pivotal.

Ms Beutel had contact with police, hospitals and other agencies weeks and months before her death.


Sunshine Coast murder victim Noelene Beutel.
Sunshine Coast murder victim Noelene Beutel. Contributed

Identifying information-sharing failures between agencies in Ms Beutel's case, Hutton called for a more unified approach to helping domestic violence victims.

"People are more aware of it and they're not closing their eyes to it anymore," Ms Ziebell says. "I talk about it every chance I get, instead of shutting it away."

She says this includes an understanding of domestic abuse's nuanced forms. Emotional abuse has been found to be a good predictor for physical abuse, and someone Ms Ziebell knows left an abusive relationship recently. It hadn't turned violent, but warning signs were there.

A GOOD THING about being a coroner is the ability to jump in and ask questions, Hutton says.

"I do that for two reasons. One is to satisfy myself and the other one is to stop going to sleep."

Hutton says some coroners have confused findings of law with findings of fact.

Mentioning Shui Ki Chan's case, Hutton says he did not accuse McCauley of murder. He illustrates the concept with long-time friend and coroner's counsel Peter De Waard.

"If Peter came running at me with an axe saying: F--- you, I'll kill you John Hutton, and I shot him, well, you can say: 'Whereupon John Hutton drew his gun and shot Peter De Waard'. But I can't say: John Hutton drew his gun and shot [him] in self-defence, because the words 'in self-defence' is a legal finding."

He says if coroners make mistakes, the reason can be simple. "Some coroners just can't understand the law."

SOME COPS have had similar trouble.

After a few drinks one day at Longreach's Commercial Hotel, cops ordered Arthur Walton to drive his car to the police station about 230m away.

Walton was a 64-year-old Aboriginal man from Ilfracombe. It was 1974.

"It was outrageous. He said to the police officer: 'I'm too drunk to drive.' And the cop said: 'I don't care, drive your car'."

Hutton says former Rockhampton magistrate Ted Loane urged him to take the case. He describes Loane as a great and compassionate man, who sometimes paid the fines for people he'd convicted in his court.

Hutton took the train from Rockhampton to Longreach, won the Walton case and still has the Longreach Leader's page 3 lead story from Friday, March 29 that year. He says it's a rare memento, kept to commemorate his first big courtroom win.

"The police had been treating Aboriginals with complete contempt".

Longreach Leader article from 1974 featuring John Hutton's legal victory after police allegedly ordered an Aboriginal man to drive drunk.
Longreach Leader article from 1974 featuring John Hutton's legal victory after police allegedly ordered an Aboriginal man to drive drunk. Longreach Leader

Why do police often seem to be antagonist in his broader story? Hutton leans back, takes a breath, makes a show of choosing his words.

"When dining with the police, one should always use a long spoon. Do you know what I mean by that? As a Crown prosecutor, I never let myself become inveigled with the police."

For a prosecutor, cops were witnesses, and for a coroner, they are servants, he says. Hutton recalls a saying from officer training in the Queensland University Regiment.

"You are fair, firm, friendly, but not familiar.

"You're a judicial officer and you must be seen to be separate."

ANOTHER case that has stayed with Hutton is the plight of four-year-old Summer Steer, who died after swallowing a 2cm lithium button battery.

The batteries are common in children's toys, watches and birthday cards. When ingested, saliva can trigger the battery to generate electrical current, causing chemical burns. Kidsafe CEO Susan Teerds says the inquest after the Tewantin girl's death led to far-reaching debates.

"We know that the awareness of the dangers of button batteries has increased quite a lot," she said.

Summer Steer.
Summer Steer. Contributed

Hutton urged manufacturers to fund and develop safer designs, and cheap battery disposal containers. In 2015, retail giant Wesfarmers pledged to investigate how to improve button battery safety in its stores, which include Coles, Target and Kmart.

Less common machines have come under Hutton's microscope too. Low-tech terrorism, like a lunatic driving a truck into crowds, is a big concern nowadays. But one potential risk to innocent people has no ideological or malicious origins.

Sam Leonardi and her six-year-old son Samuel were killed in 2013 when an out-of-control Franna AT20 crane ploughed into their car near Toowoomba.

"Could you imagine one of those bloody things getting out of control in George Street?" Hutton asks.

In October, he recommended articulated-steering cranes be speed limited to 60km/h and taken off high speed roads and highways.

Hutton showed empathy for Sam's husband John Leonardi, even appearing protective at times.


John Leonardi, who lost his wife and son in the fatal crash, welcomed Coroner Hutton's findings and recommendations.
John Leonardi, who lost his wife and son in the fatal crash, welcomed Coroner Hutton's findings and recommendations. John Weekes

Families spoken to since Hutton's retirement seem to appreciate that compassion.

But some families can ask a lot of a coroner.

SUICIDE CASES can make navigating the waters between empathy and objectivity especially tough.

Hutton says he would never easily deem a death suicide without good evidence. Some people have asked Hutton to change findings of suicide to "death by misadventure" but when evidence is overwhelming, that's not an option.

Dr Kairi Kolves, researcher at the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention, says shame is still influential in how families absorb suspected suicides.

"Understandably, people are scared of social stigma from outside and how other people may react to them if they found out it was suicide," she says.

And while we may have made progress addressing domestic abuse, we are nowhere with suicide, UQ psychiatrist Professor Graham Martin says. "It's not easy but I think it's better to live with an unacceptable truth than an unacceptable lie."

Still, he says it's unsurprising when families want details of a loved one's suicide to be secret. Martin believes these wishes should be respected, even if it means withholding data from the National Coronial Information System database.

While closure is a word often used for inquests, it can be elusive for loved ones left behind in cases where the cause of death is suicide - or a person's body has never been found.

SEAN SARGENT was an intelligent, handsome young soldier from Mackay who disappeared after a Brisbane house party on Saturday, March 20, 1999.

As years passed, ghost-like in the absence of facts, wild theories circulated. Some claimed Mr Sargent, 24, joined the Foreign Legion. But the most logical conclusion, Hutton found, was that Sean died after crashing into the Brisbane River.

A tragedy for Mr Sargent's loved ones is that his body was never found. His stepmother Ruth says while at some level, Sean's loved ones do believe he's dead, nobody wants to "close the door" on hope. But she is grateful "a whole load of rubbish" was dispensed with during the inquest.

Sean's dad Tom admires Hutton. 'He didn't take any crap off anybody and he seemed to know where he was going."


Sean Sargent's father Tom Sargent.
Sean Sargent's father Tom Sargent.

CLEAR LINES also apply to clients Hutton defended, at least to one loathsome customer.

The man needed a defence lawyer after "reducing a normal child to blind, deaf, mentally retarded and locked in her own body".

The repellent case could not be avoided. Hutton says lawyers call it the Cab Rule.

"You don't reject a case because you don't like it. You do it because you're first cab off the rank. I hated my client. And it was very easy, because I didn't like my client but I had to do a good job. So you don't have that emotional overlay of sympathy for your client."

Anybody observing criminal courts over time learns how child abuse can push people into quagmires of dysfunction years later.

"Our criminals tomorrow are being abused as children today," Hutton says.

The baby-basher once phoned Hutton to say he was going to kill himself.

"I said: 'Mate, I'm a lawyer, technician. Go and talk to a f---in' social worker. I don't do that. I just do my job'."

He compares the job to being a pilot, navigating "the shallows and the shoals".

"Sometimes you can be brutally frank, and say: 'Mate, you're f---ed. You're finished. Now, let's look at it. If you run a trial I think that at the end you will go down. If you do a plea of guilty you will get a well-constructed plea better than the f---ed-up trial'."

Such dragged-out trials only end up with everybody despising the accused person even more, he says.

The child abuser went to trial, and got a hung jury. At the retrial, with a different lawyer, the client was not so lucky.

Hutton says the jury got it right the second time.

YOU CAN be sure Hutton has vanquished no crisis by consulting the ancient books with hickory covers on the top shelf of his office.

They are the only things remotely upholding any stereotypical image of a judicial officer's chambers. They are useless - but they have, on his last day, at least inspired some laughter.

"They're just rubbish. They've been sitting up there for years. I don't even know what they are. I could get my photograph taken in front of them, holding one open, but I bloody well won't."

He says any law he wants has moved from books to cyberspace. Now it's time for Hutton to move too, and he says it's time to give younger barristers a chance.

"I would like to become a screenwriter because as a criminal lawyer, you're an actor, and you act for a paid, select jury. You do your best to convince them of your cause according to strict rules. Your job is to win them over to your cause. If you f--- up, your client goes to jail, and you don't get an Oscar."

"It's the ultimate blood sport. You play for the terms of a man's life. But you play according to very strict rules."

Hutton likes hunting - but to eat what you hunt, not simply for the thrill of the kill. He likes travelling, history, fishing, and after these years as defence lawyer, prosecutor, coroner, he seems to like people too.

What did he feel when walking into court that last time? Relief at a job done, he says. - NewsRegional