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This is why Jill Meagher's alleged killer has pleaded 'not guilty' to murder.

Jill Meagher

By AMY STOCKWELL

The killing of Jill Meagher last year was a tragedy for her family. Unfortunately for families and friends of victims of crime, the pain doesn’t end when someone is arrested. The court processes associated with our justice system can be extremely harrowing for families.

The Meagher case is no exception.

This week, Adrian Bayley was committed to stand trial for the rape and murder of Jill Meagher. These proceedings were heard in open court and the Deputy Chief Magistrate Felicity Broughton has allowed the media access to the police brief of evidence against Mr Bayley (a brief of evidence contains all of the evidence put together by the police, including all the statements from witnesses, medical reports and photographs that will be used to build a case against the accused).

This has meant that details of all of the evidence, including surveillance footage and the transcript of the police interview of Bayley, is in papers, news sites and TV newsrooms across the nation.

The transcript of the police interview reveals that Bayley told homicide detectives he had to take “responsibility” and that he had “already done it”. “I strangled her,” he told police, crying. Bayley said he thought the death penalty should be reintroduced “for people like me anyway”.

The brief of evidence reveals that Bayley took police to where Jill Meagher was buried and that the police allegedly found items belonging to Jill Meagher in Bayley’s house. During the proceedings, a pathologist, Dr Matthew Lynch, gave evidence that Jill was strangled with “sustained force”.

A committal hearing is held by a magistrate to determine whether a case should go to trial and be heard before a jury. Criminal trials are lengthy and expensive, so in serious cases (including sexual assault, manslaughter or murder) a committal hearing is held first to test the evidence that is available.

After hearing the evidence, the magistrate will decide whether the evidence is strong enough for a jury to convict the accused. If so, the magistrate will order that the matter proceed to trial in the Supreme Court at some point down the track.

A committal trial is also an opportunity for an accused to enter their plea.

Adrian Bayley

At his committal hearing this week, Bayley pleaded guilty to one count of rape. However, he pleaded not guilty to a second count of rape and not guilty to murder. Media reports indicate that Jill Meagher’s husband stormed out of the court after Bayley entered these not guilty pleas.

In light of the evidence in the police brief, the not guilty plea may seem confusing. How could a person appear to say that they killed someone and then plead not guilty to the murder? The answer lies in the finer points of the criminal law.

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In Victoria, the offence of murder applies when a person intentionally or recklessly kills another person. In simple terms, there are two elements to this – a mental element (the intention or recklessness in the mind of the accused to murder the victim) and the physical element (the killing of the victim).

An accused may plead not guilty to murder because they say either (a) there was no intention to murder, or (b) they did not kill the victim. Self-defence is a defence to murder because it means that the accused did not have the relevant mental element – the accused did not have the intention to murder, but they killed the victim because they feared for their own life or the life of another.

We won’t know until the trial what form Bayley’s defence will take. However, some of the evidence that was drawn out in cross-examination at the committal hearing (and the pleas themselves) may indicate that the defence plan to build a case that Bayley raped Jill Meagher, but did not intend to kill her.

When Bayley’s barrister cross-examined the pathologist who was at the scene where they found Jill Meagher’s body, Dr Lynch said that it was possible Ms Meagher could have died if the force of the neck compression had ceased when she was unconscious, lying on her back and her airway was blocked. Dr Lynch said if nothing was done to clear the airway then a person could die.

Criminal trials are by their nature distressing. The evidence that is led by the Crown prosecutor is often graphic for the casual observer – and unimaginable for friends and family of the victim. What is important is that, while trials are horrible for victims of crime, any and every accused deserves a fair trial.

A fair trial includes the right to plead not guilty and go to trial to test the evidence of the prosecution and put forward a case that explains the events from your perspective. The maximum penalty for murder in Victoria is imprisonment for life, so it is important that the best available argument goes to the judge and the best evidence goes to the jury.

The history books are replete with examples of people who have been wrongly accused – and the best way to prevent that kind of injustice is to ensure that trials are able to run their course free of prejudice and with the best legal defence available.

The Bayley’s case will be mentioned in the Supreme Court on 25 March (a mention is a brief hearing for the court to check up on how a case is proceeding and when the trial could start).

Amy Stockwell is a policy communicator, lawyer and writer, former ministerial adviser, public servant and NGO-junkie. You can follow her on Twitter

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