Content warning: The following contains descriptions of violence against a child, which may be distressing for some readers.
Working for more than a decade as a court reporter, Jamelle Wells bore witness to the judicial process in some of Australia’s most notorious criminal cases. But the ones that linger most vividly in the journalist’s memory are those involving the harm or death children. In this extract from her book, The Court Reporter, she shares one of the most affecting.
When the prison van arrived at the Supreme Court on 18 July 2013 for the sentencing of Kristi Abrahams for murder, a group of women carrying placards ran after it shouting abuse at her. I watched them from where I was waiting outside the court in King Street and wondered what the 30-year-old sitting inside the van was thinking.
That day came almost three years after Abrahams and her de facto partner Robert Smith buried her six-year-old daughter Keisha’s body in bushland in Sydney’s west. The little girl had died after years of physical abuse.
At first, her family captured public sympathy when they called triple 0 and reported Keisha missing from their Mount Druitt home in western Sydney in August 2010. They joined police in a public appeal for help to find her and made statements on television sobbing and holding tissues to their faces.
Kristi Abrahams said, “If anyone has seen her, can they please contact the police.”
“Last time I saw her was, we were watching a movie together, you know?” Robert Smith said. “Anyone, someone must know something. Please come forward. She’s beautiful, you know? Funny, always happy.”
But former neighbours alleged Kristi Abrahams lied to them even though they tried to help her find her daughter. It would later be revealed that about a fortnight before the public appeal, Keisha had been physically harmed by Abrahams who did not bother to call an ambulance or get medical help for her daughter’s serious injuries. Robert Smith knew the child was injured but also failed to get medical help.
A few days after she died, Abrahams and Smith had put her body in a suitcase and left it there for several days before burning it and burying the remains in bushland near Shalvey in Sydney’s west. The couple then tried to destroy evidence that would link them to her death by throwing away their clothes, shoes and mobile phone SIM cards. They bought children’s toys that included a Tinkerbell poster to make it look as though the little girl was still alive.
Eight months after Kiesha disappeared, Kristi Abrahams told an undercover police officer a story about her death.
Abrahams sat in the dock, hunched over with her head down, when the video of her conversation with the officer was played to the Supreme Court on 27 June 2013. The video was not released by the court until the day she was sentenced a month later. In the video, in which she broke down at times, she told the officer that on 18 July 2010 she ‘nudged’ her daughter who was lying on the floor, with her foot, to try to get her to put on her pyjamas. Abrahams said Kiesha then jumped and hit her head on the bed. She said the child went ‘funny’ and ‘like jelly’ but was still breathing so she put her in the shower to try to wake her up. Abrahams said Kiesha kept making strange noises which she thought would go away.
“When we woke up in the morning … she wasn’t breathing,” she told the undercover officer. Abrahams then told him she later went with Smith to bury Kiesha’s body.
“He put petrol on her … and branches on her,” she said in the video.
Abrahams and Smith were arrested soon after they took the undercover officer to the bush grave where Keisha’s body lay buried.
An autopsy later revealed that Kiesha had in fact sustained numerous injuries including teeth fractures and ten separate head injuries in the days leading up to her death. There was evidence she was physically abused throughout her short life, but no proof that it was her mother who had inflicted all of those injuries.
In June 2013, Abrahams pleaded guilty to murder, two years after she was charged and the day her murder trial was due to start. Did she lose her nerve or listen to advice from her lawyers? Inside the courtroom the day she was sentenced on 18 July 2013, it was no surprise she sat with her back to the public gallery. She showed no emotion at all but I could see her clenching her fists tightly and running her hands down the side of her neck. The verbal stoning in court reached fever pitch as she was led away.
“Rot in hell!” someone in the public gallery screamed.
Many in court thought that a minimum of sixteen years and a maximum of twenty-two for charges of murder and interfering with the child’s body simply wasn’t long enough.
Some of the police officers who were in court that day looked at each other when Justice Ian Harrison said Abrahams had shown remorse. They obviously did not agree. Justice Ian Harrison had his reasons. He found that the crime ranked in the mid-range of seriousness, because it was an impulsive and uncontrolled act of violence. The judge said while Abrahams had intended to cause ‘serious injury’ to Kiesha, there was not enough evidence to find that she intended to kill her. Justice Harrison took Kristi Abrahams’ experiences growing up into account, noting that her anger and resentment about her childhood affected her parenting.
He said her childhood was frightening and tragic because she was around domestic violence. At the age of just ten, she found her own mother dead and she was sent to various foster and group homes. The judge said she was also the subject of anti-Aboriginal comments as a child, had an intellectual disability and was unlikely to re-offend.
"The death of the deceased is the foreseeable and predictable consequence of preventable, cyclic abuse," he said. "The offenders’ failings are mirrored in the failings of others."
Outside, former neighbour Alison Anderson said she thought Kristi Abrahams knew exactly what she was doing and there was no excuse for what she did to her daughter. The officer in charge of the investigation into Kiesha’s death, Russell Oxford, was emotional.
"If nothing else comes out of today, we should all take stock of where we are in this world and go home and hug our kids," he said.
Robert Smith was dealt with by the courts separately. He was jailed for at least twelve years after pleading guilty to manslaughter and being an accessory to murder for knowing Keisha was injured but not doing anything to help her. In sentencing him on 3 May 2013 Justice Megan Latham said his actions after the little girl’s death were ‘particularly heinous’ because he put her body in a suitcase, took it to a bushland grave and set her body on fire.
"These were not spontaneous, ill-considered acts carried out in panic," Justice Latham said.
Outside court that day his father, Gordon Smith, said he hoped his son would use his time in jail to think about the crime he had committed.
"She was a lovely little girl, lovely," Gordon Smith said. "Too bad she didn’t have parents who loved her as much as everybody else did."
This is an edited extract from Jamelle Wells' book, The Court Reporter, published by ABC Books.