Book review: Trial by Ambush: The Prosecutions of David Bain

by Fiona Rae / 10 March, 2012
Joe Karam's latest work of advocacy is at least mercifully free of literary pretensions, writes Peter Graham.


As everybody knows, Joe Karam – the well-known ex-All Black – is David Bain’s champion, friend, spokesman and minder. He has journeyed many miles and fought a long hard fight for Bain. Perseverance and devotion to a crusade could hardly go further. For years, Karam has been the driving force behind the Friends of David Bain, who doggedly pursued the cause of Bain after his conviction in June 1995 for the murders of his parents, Robin and Margaret, brother Stephen and sisters Arawa and Laniet.

After trips to the Court of Appeal in Wellington and the Privy Council in London, Bain was eventually granted a retrial in 2009 and, to the understandable jubilation of his supporters, acquitted. His photograph as the conquering hero is on the cover of Karam’s Trial by Ambush: The Prosecutions of David Bain.

Therein is the problem with this book. Karam cannot pretend to be an impartial commentator on the issues in question. His book is a polemic, dedicated to the proposition that Bain is not guilty. The book, plainly written and mercifully free of literary pretensions, is a work of advocacy, an attempt to persuade. The thematic approach means the reader frequently has to go backwards and forwards to work out the sequence of events.

As an advocate in court, you are not allowed to lie or wilfully misrepresent or misquote the evidence, but you are free to emphasise heavily, even at length, those parts of the evidence that support your case and skate over, skirt around or ignore altogether – if you can get away with it – items of evidence that weaken it. As a defence lawyer, that is what you are paid to do. And it is what, it seems to me, Karam is doing in this book.

The title Trial by Ambush is a strange choice, suggesting that the main focus is the defence being taken by surprise at the first trial. In my view, that complaint is pretty much unsustainable, for reasons I could easily explain if space permitted. The main problem with the first trial was that Justice Williamson, normally the fairest-minded of men, ruled inadmissible evidence in written form from a character called Dean Cottle, who suggested that Laniet Bain, aged 17, had been a prostitute and had told him her father had been having sex with her since she was 11 or 12. He said she had told him she was going home the very weekend before the murders to tell her mother everything. It was held inadmissible because Cottle had not turned up at court to be cross-examined about it.

What usually happens in these situations is that the evidence goes in with a stern warning to the jury that it may be unreliable. It was plainly relevant to the defence’s claim that Robin Bain had murdered all the family except David, then turned the gun on himself. A retrial should have been granted on that ground alone.

Karam certainly raises doubts about the value of some evidence relied on by the prosecution, such as the luminol bloody footprint, but some readers may feel there is still a strong case against David. Karam’s insistence that David could not have been at home when the computer was turned on in my view remains questionable. David was supposedly the only one who knew where the keys to the trigger guard were kept. He put the green jersey undoubtedly worn by the killer into the washing machine and washed it. I had to turn to paragraph 9 of Appendix B to learn David tried it on in court. It was tight fitting. Karam does not discuss the possibility it may have shrunk in the wash.

A thing I would very much like to know is why a young man who owns a .22 rifle used for shooting possums and rabbits, and perhaps occasional target shooting, possesses a silencer. How common is that?

Karam has certainly convinced me of one matter. This relates to the “Robin Bain had a full bladder at the time of his death and could not have walked around killing all these people without first relieving himself” thesis. Karam tears into this notion, calling it “arrant nonsense”. He reports that there are people, “many of whom are in the legal profession”, who find this the strongest evidence that Robin Bain was not the murderer. I confess I was among their number. Now I learn that Dr Grant Russell, a consultant urologist, demolished this argument with evidence that nothing can be concluded from the fact there was 400ml of urine in Robin Bain’s bladder. I stand disabused on that point.

Nonetheless, although someone some­day might persuade me David Bain is innocent, I don’t think Karam was the man for the job.

TRIAL BY AMBUSH: THE PROSECUTIONS OF DAVID BAIN, by Joe Karam (HarperCollins, $44.99).



Peter Graham is a former barrister whose books include, most recently, So Brilliantly Clever: Parker, Hulme and the Murder That Shocked the World. Click here for Rebecca Macfie's interview with Graham.
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

The troubling rise of Australia's new Attorney-General
85835 2018-01-17 00:00:00Z World

The troubling rise of Australia's new Attorney-Gen…

by Bernard Lagan

The relatively young Australian Attorney-General Christian Porter has a track record in law and order that unsettles many.

Read more
The film-maker who risked death by sugar is fighting fit again
85890 2018-01-17 00:00:00Z Health

The film-maker who risked death by sugar is fighti…

by Nicky Pellegrino

For his documentary That Sugar Film, Damon Gameau consumed 40 teaspoons of the sweet stuff a day.

Read more
Auckland's best cafes 2018
84457 2018-01-17 00:00:00Z Dining

Auckland's best cafes 2018

by Metro

A swarm of new entrants elbow their way onto Metro's annual list of outstanding places for coffee and so much more.

Read more
Does anyone really know how to cut the number of deaths on our roads?
85708 2018-01-16 00:00:00Z Social issues

Does anyone really know how to cut the number of d…

by The Listener

The road toll for 2017 was 380 – 53 more than for 2016 and the highest figure since 2009.

Read more
How trauma incident data can be used to prevent future injuries
85876 2018-01-16 00:00:00Z Social issues

How trauma incident data can be used to prevent fu…

by Donna Chisholm

On a map are hundreds of brightly coloured dots, each colour signifying a type of incident: red for assault, cyan for motorbike crashes.

Read more
Donald Trump appears to have the wits of Homer Simpson
85895 2018-01-16 00:00:00Z World

Donald Trump appears to have the wits of Homer Sim…

by Bill Ralston

Trump may be “stable” and “smart”, but Americans need to decide whether to fire their leader.

Read more
The often-windswept Neil Oliver is headed indoors for a live NZ show
85873 2018-01-16 00:00:00Z Culture

The often-windswept Neil Oliver is headed indoors …

by Russell Baillie

Neil Oliver's live shows are based on a prolific career of making the past come alive on television and in print.

Read more
Hilary Barry takes Mike Hosking’s spot on Seven Sharp
85857 2018-01-15 13:40:27Z Television

Hilary Barry takes Mike Hosking’s spot on Seven Sh…

by Katie Parker

Hilary Barry takes over Seven Sharp and ex-Green candidate Hayley Holt replaces her on Breakfast. But not all are happy at the seat shuffling.

Read more