Workaholic accountant killed wife, then pleaded temporary insanity.
IN THE late evening of August 2, 2006, Robert Baxter sat in his Australian Red Cross work car in a dark suburban street and scrawled a note to his neighbourhood friends, Sharon and Mark Melvin.
As his two pyjama-clad children cried in the back seat, Baxter composed a confession. The 50-year-old accountant from Lara had just murdered his wife, the children's mother, Linda Baxter, in a jealous stabbing frenzy. Now he was planning to kill himself.
The note, to be delivered by the children, read: "Their mother I murdered for adultery and affair with Brian Stevens … Please take care of them. I love them but can't stand them being near Brian Stevens. The phone records of Linda tell it all. The house is open, the weapon at the door. I will soon be dead."
Baxter told his children to get out of the car. As they walked up the driveway, he called out: "This is the last time I will see you. I love you guys." His 12-year-old daughter had the note folded in her hands. The only word she could decipher was "murdered".
A man fond of planning, Baxter had already picked out a copse of eucalypt trees on the side of the Princes Highway towards Melbourne. But before he could drive there, he had two phone calls to make.
The first was to his brother-in-law, Geoff Palmer. "I am about to kill myself … I've already killed Linda," Baxter said. When a shocked Palmer passed the phone over to his wife, Joyce, Baxter told his sister that she was the executor of his will and was about to become the legal guardian of his daughter and his eight-year-old son.
His next call was to Brian Stevens, a man who had once been his friend and now was his wife's lover. "I know all about your sordid affair …" he started. Stevens hung up.
Baxter then sped out of Lara, ramming his blue Ford sedan into the trees he had selected for his suicide bid at 100 km/h. The plan failed. The airbags worked and saved his life.
It took a Supreme Court jury in Geelong less than four hours to find this ordinary man guilty of the murder of his wife of 21 years when the case concluded last month.
The trial, lasting 14 days, centred on one issue. Was Robert Baxter mentally impaired when he thrust a kitchen knife 30 times into his wife's body, leaving her sprawled face up in a walk-in wardrobe.
The defence case was that Baxter, a slight man with short brown hair, thin wire glasses and pale skin, who had no criminal convictions, was insane at the time of the killing. This means that he was not able to understand the nature and quality of his violent acts and didn't know that stabbing his wife's face, head, back, chest and stomach was wrong. The jury did not believe him.
But if he was not insane, how did an ordinary family man like Baxter wind up killing his wife?
THE unravelling of Robert Baxter began in June 2006, two months before the stabbing. Until then, he had been living a quiet, work-oriented life.
He had worked hard as secretary to the board of the Australian Red Cross, intent on paying off the mortgage on his modest brown brick home.
Working nearly every day and averaging about 100 hours a week, Baxter was hardly ever at home. When he was, he appeared to be a man of mild habits — not a heavy drinker or taker of recreational drugs.
In recent years, Linda Baxter, a 42-year-old production manager at an emergency equipment manufacturer in Lara, had learnt to work around the fact that she had a husband who was always at the office. She had a large network of friends. She enjoyed volunteering with a group that raised money for cancer research, using her engaging personality to wheedle money out of the locals.
But in 2006, Linda had begun telling family and friends that beneath her vivacious manner she was unhappy and had been dissatisfied with her marriage since the birth of their son in 1998.
Robert Baxter was not an easy man to live with. He was extremely dominating, controlling, obsessive and grumpy. He was jealous of Linda's social life and felt that his hard work as the main provider was unappreciated by his wife.
By June 2006, Linda had had enough. Not even an expensive family holiday to Europe and America earlier in the year could help save her marriage. With her husband often unavailable, Linda had turned to a local family friend, Brian Stevens — initially for help around the house, then companionship and, ultimately, intimacy.
Linda was persuaded it was time to leave her husband when Baxter did not call from an interstate work trip to wish their daughter a happy 12th birthday on June 9. She told her husband that the marriage was finished.
Baxter was shattered. He stopped going to work. Within the week he had been admitted to Geelong Clinic as an involuntary psychiatric patient being treated for an adjustment disorder and suicidal thoughts.
Dr Ajeet Singh, Baxter's treating psychiatrist at the clinic, looked after him during his two-week stay. He also saw him on the afternoon of August 2, just hours before the murder. Dr Singh gave evidence that at that time his patient was rational. Baxter had told him that he now had "steel in his back" and was focused on the future.
The day of the murder started out ordinarily. Baxter took the children to school because his wife went to work early. She stopped briefly to have breakfast with her lover, telling Stevens that she felt uneasy about the day ahead.
After finishing work, Linda dealt with the children — organising dinner and picking up her son from an activity. Her daughter helped her cook a meal of hamburgers and mash.
Baxter came home in a bad mood. He did not eat with the family and retreated to the study he had slept in since his release from the clinic. His day had not gone according to plan. He had heard from Dr Singh that a WorkCover claim against Red Cross for his breakdown had been rejected. His family lawyer had told him that the chances of him having equal shared custody of his children after the divorce were slim.
After the children had gone to bed, Linda went to see what was bothering him. She found him in the kitchen, where he produced what he called evidence that his wife was "stealing" family time by speaking to Brian Stevens. Using his accountancy skills he had spent hours compiling a spreadsheet of infidelity; records of his wife's mobile phone calls to her lover.
Earlier that day, Baxter had visited his friends, the Melvins. He had taken his spreadsheet to show them the extent of Linda's betrayal. "I should kill her," he told Sharon Melvin.
When Baxter confronted his wife with the documents, she refused to talk about them and walked towards her own bedroom. Baxter followed her. She asked him to leave. It was then that he went to the kitchen and took a large black-handled carving knife.
The couple's daughter later wrote in her flower-covered diary that she remembered her father yelling that night, calling her mother a slut and a bitch.
She said she was too frightened to leave her room and help her.
Baxter stabbed his wife 30 times in her face, back, chest, shoulder, arms and hands. The forensic pathologist, Dr David Ranson, found that the fatal injury was a stab wound so forceful that it punctured the right lung, tore through the heart and broke Linda Baxter's breastbone. He also found many cuts on her hands, signs that she had tried to defend herself.
In a police interview in his hospital bed after the accident, Baxter claimed that he had no memory of the killing. Later he told the Supreme Court jury that he did remember something. In her last moments, his wife had cried out "Robert, I am dying" and made a gurgling sound.
Prosecutor Raymond Gibson cross-examined Baxter for a day and a half. Not once did Baxter acknowledge that he had stabbed his wife. He hid behind answers like, "That is an after-the-fact supposition" and "I surmised that is what happened", as if the words could shield him from responsibility.
After leaving Linda's body, Robert Baxter put the murder weapon into a plastic bag and left it on the doormat at his open front door. He told the jury that he wanted the police to find it because that was "the right thing to do".
Baxter then roused his children from their beds and rushed them into his car.
Baxter's daughter gave evidence at the trial against her father. She told a crowded and silent courtroom that she remembered her parents fighting that night, had heard her mother screaming and then saying she was dying. Her father came to her bedroom with blood soaking the front of his shirt. When she asked him if her mother was OK, her father lied, saying that she was fine. The teenager told the court, from a remote witness television screen mounted on the wall, that her father was angry.
IN ANY trial for murder, it could be said that the prosecution has the hardest task. The prosecutor, usually an in-house barrister for the Office of Public Prosecutions, has to satisfy the jury beyond reasonable doubt that the accused had the intent to kill or cause serious injury to the victim. When the defence of mental impairment is raised, the defence barrister also has a difficult task, as he must satisfy the jury that his client was mentally impaired at the time he killed and should not be held criminally responsible for his actions.
O'Sullivan had to convince the jury of eight women and four men that his client was insane on the balance of probabilities. To a man used to working with numbers, like Baxter, the maths was easy.
If he could establish that he was insane at the time he stabbed his wife, then he would avoid jail. Instead, Baxter would be found not guilty of murder by reason of mental impairment and the trial judge, Justice Jack Forrest, would order that he be kept under psychiatric supervision either in a locked facility or at home. In a trial for murder, it is better to be found mad than bad.
To argue mental impairment, a rare defence in Victoria, is always a gamble. In Baxter's case, it was one he lost. The jury did not believe his story or the evidence of Professor Graham Burrows, whom Baxter paid for a private psychiatric report, that he was insane when he killed his wife.
Instead, it seems the jury was convinced by the evidence of two psychiatrists from The Alfred,, Dr Kym Jenkins and Dr Dianne Kirby, that Baxter was sane and rational during the killing.
Jenkins diagnosed Baxter as being filled with narcissistic rage against his wife. This meant that he could only focus on himself and could not tolerate things not being as he wanted them. A third psychiatrist, Dr Danny Sullivan, also assessed Baxter and told the court the killing was purposeful and not psychotic or random.
The jury agreed. On Tuesday, Justice Forrest will sentence Baxter. He is likely to get a long jail term. For him and those affected so tragically by his actions, an ordinary life is out of reach forever.
Hilary Bonney is the author of The Society Murders. She is married to prosecutor Raymond Gibson.
For help or information, call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251, Lifeline on 131 114 or visit beyondblue.org.au.
Commentary by the OttawaMensCentre
More probably, the jury felt obliged to “do something” and knew little of mental health.
This article does contain some clues, “he endlessly worked 100 hour weeks. Tell me of any sane person who does that?
He built up a spread sheet of all his wife’s calls to prove adultery… “is that normal behaviour?
Then there are the two government paid psychiatrists saying he was sane and one saying he was insane,
Yes, it sure looks like the killing was deliberate, he sounds like a narcissistic but his “severe personality disorder is not the question, the substantive question is was he insane at the time he did the narcissistic killing?
Again, mental health is a taboo subject and no doubt if the gender’s had been reversed, the odds of being found insane would probably have been a lot better.
Fact is, lots of women kill their husbands, claim all sorts of defenses and generally get off claiming they were victims.