Inside the mind of a mass murderer
Lawyer John Avery, at his desk with a Bryant sketch, which he cannot release to the public.
Photo: Andrew Meares
March 29, 2006
TEN years after the Port Arthur massacre, a childlike sketch may offer the first glimpse inside the mind of the mass murderer Martin Bryant.
The lawyer who convinced Bryant to plead guilty, John Avery, now wants to release the contents of his case files, including drawings and 20 hours of interview tapes he believes will finally shed light on why Bryant shot and killed 35 people in Tasmania on April 28, 1996.
And the chief defence psychiatrist, Paul Mullen, has revealed that the trigger point for the killings was the massacre a month earlier of 16 schoolchildren in the Scottish township of Dunblane. Professor Mullen, the chief of forensic psychiatry at Monash University, says Bryant was inspired by the killings. "He followed Dunblane. His planning started with Dunblane. Before that he was thinking about suicide but Dunblane and the early portrayal of the killer, Thomas Hamilton, changed everything."
Both Professor Mullen and Mr Avery say that client privilege stands in the way of revealing the full story of Bryant, who never gave a courtroom explanation.
A decade after Bryant committed the world's worst massacre by a lone gunman, he is refusing to even see Mr Avery, the man he sacked soon after pleading guilty and being jailed for life.
At the desk of his Hobart office, Mr Avery holds Bryant's childish sketch. He believes it is a crucial part of the puzzle but cannot release it for public view.
He describes the work as abstract. It is one of six drawn by Bryant - as he maintained his innocence in the months after the murders - in his cell in Risdon Prison on the north-eastern outskirts of the Tasmanian capital. There is a second abstract work as well as four chilling drawings of the murders that Mr Avery, himself a noted art collector, describes as dramatic.
Bryant's rights to privacy, he says, should be waived for the greater good of survivors and families of the victims.
"I don't think there is any mystery left about what happened," Mr Avery told the Herald. "Why he did it is another matter … there just isn't anything out in the public domain beyond bits and pieces and rumour. I think there is a case where the rights of the community may have to be considered to be more important than the rights of an individual. That could well be argued in the case of Martin Bryant.
"There is some argument that the community probably demands some closure to all this, which, [it] seems to me, they might get if what he [Bryant] had to say could get public disclosure. If I wasn't bound by client confidentiality then I would, even if only as a historical record, release the files. I'm not suggesting there is any big secret … but it is evident that the whole story hasn't been told."
Mr Avery, who is credited with convincing Bryant to change his plea to guilty to avoid a farcical court case, says he gave Bryant a drawing pad as a means of helping communication between the pair.
"I may have said that if you would rather draw about what happened then do it. He handed over the book the next time I saw him. There were a couple of what you would call abstract drawings, but there were others he did about what happened that day - of the killings. They were pretty dramatic.
"I was trying to do whatever I could to keep him on an even keel. I needed to establish some sort of rapport with this person. I needed to go out on a limb, offer an olive branch if you will, to this monster to try and show that there was some communication between us. It seemed to me that given the type of person he was … I needed to establish a line of communication at a level that he could understand in which he could see that whatever decision he made about a course of action that we would take it together."
Mr Avery rejects any notion that Bryant was insane and says he showed no remorse. The main reason he changed his plea was to avoid being seen as a simpleton.
"It was obvious to anyone who had anything to do with him that Martin Bryant did not present as someone with normal intellect. He had funny ways, he had juvenile tendencies. He had a whole series of personality defects," he said. "But I don't think that if he had been examined by 100 psychiatrists the day before the Port Arthur massacre that any one of them would have locked him up.
"He wasn't legally insane … but, given the gravity of his conduct, people wanted to pigeonhole him; they wanted to find a condition that would more readily explain this gross conduct. People wanted to justify, or at least understand, what has happened; to be able to say, 'Ah yes, but that poor fellow was made or suffered from Asperger's or some other medical condition.' The truth is that he was just one of those people who was always going to fall through the cracks. There wasn't anything about him beforehand that would have been enough to lock him up."
Professor Mullen agrees: "Martin Bryant was not mentally ill, and time has only proved that."
Refusing to comment further, he said: "There is no simple explanation to what he did."
Mr Avery was asked to take the case by the Legal Aid Commission. Soon after he learned that Bryant had lived a few hundred metres from his home.
"It turned out that he had been coming to my home years before as a young boy selling things like vegetables and rabbits," Mr Avery said. "My wife reminded me that he was never allowed in the house but that he would just peer around in a weird looking way. He reminded me that he had obviously observed me and my family. … At the time it was chilling but it did give us some commonality."
Mr Avery said much of their conversation "bordered on mundane" but it helped give a detailed insight into his personality.
"I remember saying to him at one stage that he was the most hated man in Australia. He probably saw me as his only conduit to the outside world. We spent a lot of time just talking about the most banal things because even though the magnitude of the crime was huge, there was nothing complicated about the case.
"We talked about how he liked to travel, how he liked a tie I was wearing one day and how he bought a suit from Henry Bucks and liked going to the zoo in Melbourne. He had once bought a grey talking parrot in South Australia. I was a bit like the passenger on an overseas plane trip who couldn't get away from talking to him until the journey ended."
"I had nothing to offer in the legal sense. I never let him think I had anything to offer. There was no chance of a deal in the real sense; it was never put to him. I regularly said to him, 'You are going to jail for life and you are never going to get out'. In answer to your question, what did I have to offer Bryant? Sweet FA."
So why did he change his plea?
"It was never quite as simple as asking, 'Did you do it, mate?' We talked at length about what he said he did. It was through a process of talking, not grabbing him by the throat and forcing him, to bring him around the changing his plea.
"I wanted him to come to the decision. The evidence was absolutely overwhelming. He was entitled … to have his guilt proved so it was my job to explain to him the implications - on himself and the families of the victims - of pursuing the not-guilty. He certainly recognised that pleading guilty would be seen to be a better outcome for everyone, including himself, but I would not go so far as to say that it was out of any remorse. He didn't have the ability to show any remorse."
Mr Avery said Bryant changed his plea only two weeks before the trial. His file notes contain a handwritten request by Bryant because "I wanted it in his own hand … I suppose I never thought it would get to trial. It would have been a circus. It was probably the only case I've had where community interest had a real impact on the decisions I took. Normally the community's interests are served by the accused person being ably represented legally.
"Here, because of the isolation and size of Tasmania, as well as the horrific impact on the community, you can't close your eyes and you have that aspect sitting on your shoulder."