Ex-Herald legend Phil Taylor reviews a book on the Bain killings by ace reporter Martin van Beynen
The most striking photo in Martin van Beynen’s book Black Hands is of the Bain family home on fire. It was a controlled burn of the scene of the crimes, apparently carried out due to security concerns. There’s both a surreal beauty and an awfulness to the image. Yellow-brown flames lick at the remains of the two-storey house at 65 Every St as though it’s a sore to be cleansed.
The leaves of the eucalyptus trees, soon to be blackened, seem to quiver in anticipation. The lawn at the edge of the spreading ash is as green as grass should be in every suburban street. It’s disconcerting to ponder whether this tragedy could have happened anywhere, to any family; it’s natural to want a neat explanation.
Burning down the house never could tidy away what transpired on the chill morning of June 20, 1994. The fiery image is an allegory: a path leads towards two prominent chimneys, virtually untouched by the flames, which stand like questions – father or son?
Stephen was 14, Laniet, 18, Arawa, 19, their parents, Margaret and Robin, 50 and 58. David, who was charged with their murders four days later, was 22. The crimes remain our most unsatisfactory conclusion to mass murder. In the quarter century that has passed, the case has been solved and then unsolved: David was convicted in 1995 and then acquitted in 2009 after the Privy Council quashed his convictions.
By my count, Black Hands is the eighth book about the Bain case. What can another one add? A lot, in my view. Four of the books were advocacy by David’s indefatigable and pugnacious “white knight” campaigner, Joe Karam, who deserves the credit for winning a retrial.
Just as Karam is firm in his belief that Robin killed his family and himself, van Beynen is solid in his opinion that David did it. Van Beynen is among this country’s best journalists. He reached his view after reporting on each of the 58 days of the second trial. He declared his position afterwards in a column published in the Christchurch Press, in which he set out why he thought the jury was wrong to acquit.
His motivation, he writes in the introduction, was in part “to work through all the material to check whether I might have got it wrong with my prognostications about David’s guilt”. Spoiler alert, he concludes that he didn’t – although not until the final chapter, titled “The Big Question”.
The book is split into two large sections. The first gives a picture of Bain family life and lays out what happened. The second discusses the evidence: bloody fingerprints, bloody footprints, bloody washing, bloody gloves, the timeline, flaws in the police investigation, Laniet’s apparent gurgling, and a lens found by Stephen’s body that matched a pair of damaged spectacle frames in David’s room.
I was interested to see what the author made of Laniet. There have been claims that she and her father had a secret incestouous relationship. I wondered how thoroughly that was investigated, given David was charged four days after the murders. The theory was that Laniet was about to out her father to the family, triggering Robin to murder all of his family but David. Perhaps that would have been sufficient to raise a reasonable doubt at David’s first trial, but it was ruled inadmissible by the judge, who decided the source – Laniet’s pimp – was an unreliable witness.
There is plenty to show Laniet was troubled. Others came forward to say she had told them things that suggested abuse by her father. But she also claimed she was raped when the family lived in Papua New Guinea, and that she’d given birth to a black or a white baby – the colour apparently differing between tellings.
There’s been no corroboration of the rape claim and there never was a child, says van Beynen, who, reasonably in my opinion, concludes that Robin deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt regarding the alleged incestuous relationship.
He quotes from Janet Malcolm: “No one flaunts bad behaviour … every villain wears a mask of goodness.”
No such neat motive is offered for David. “I certainly don’t have a pet theory about why David would kill his family,” writes van Beynen, but that it likely had to do with David “losing power and control” in the family. His “unhealthy closeness” to his devil-seeing mother, “unnatural’’ competition with his father, the mother and son’s doomed dream to build a sanctuary where the family would live without Robin, are all offered as clues. “A murderer’s mind is a riddle, but these are the red flags.”
Psychologists failed to detect either a personality disorder or a mental illness in David Bain. This is irrelevant to determining guilt, van Beynen argues. Rather, it appeals to the public because it spares us from addressing the nature of human evil and how disturbingly relatable a killer may be. He quotes from New York author Janet Malcolm’s book, The Journalist and the Murderer: “No one flaunts bad behaviour … every villain wears a mask of goodness.” American Ted Bundy, van Beynen notes, was regarded as “kind, solicitous and empathetic” when he was a volunteer on a suicide prevention hotline and yet he murdered 30 women.
Van Beynen has not interviewed David and, in line with Malcolm’s view, seems to see no value in it when it comes to determining guilt or innocence, particularly 17 years after the crimes, which is when Judge Ian Binnie’s interview took place. Binnie, a Canadian, was asked by the Government to review the case and give an opinion about whether David was innocent on the balance of probabilities (a standard lower than beyond reasonable doubt, it can unlock compensation for wrongful conviction).
Binnie found him to be innocent on that basis but a subsequent review by retired Australian judge Ian Callinan decided David had not met that standard. In the event the Government paid David $925,000, not as compensation but an ex gratia payment on condition he stop further legal action.
Whereas Binnie found David credible, van Beynen details where he sees David’s utterances have evolved, self-servingly, to the point of describing family life as almost perfect.
Were David’s bloody fingerprints on his rifle in human or rabbit’s blood? Were the sock prints David’s or Robin’s? How did the lens get beside Stephen’s body? How did Stephen’s blood get on David’s clothes – including on the crotch of his shorts? Did David hearing Laniet gurgle mean he was the killer?
I agree with van Beynen that the best evidence was in or related to Stephen’s room where there was a desperate fight before the killer literally squeezed the life out of the teenager. Hard to imagine the cadaver-like Robin, as one witness described him, was capable of this. Robin didn’t have injuries consistent with a fight whereas David had bruises on his head and scratches on his chest.
Another way of looking at it is, who framed who? Put aside that Robin hadn’t emptied his fairly full bladder that morning. It doesn’t make sense for Robin to have worn David’s gloves. Why avoid leaving his fingerprints when he was about to confess in a computer-written suicide note: “You were the only one who deserved to stay.”
Van Beynen clearly believes that the objectivity of David’s white knight, the inexhaustible Karam, was affected by the closeness of their relationship. Karam put years of huge emotional and financial investment into this. He took up the case in 1997 when he made the first of 200 visits to David in prison. At their first meeting Karam, believing himself to be a good judge of character, found David to be “guileless” and wondered how anyone could think he was the killer.
More than a champion, Karam was a mentor and friend to David. It’s natural to ponder what impact this affinity, together with his determination, so valuable on a rugby field, may have had on his objectivity.
Van Beynen, too, may be invested in clinging to a view he formed 11 years ago. It’s not how his book read to me.
Black Hands: Inside the Bain family murders by Martin van Beynen (Penguin Random Hosue, $38) is available in bookstores nationwide.
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