38. R. v. Francis T. Murphy: Part two – The facts of the case

Paul Quinlivan’s Snapshots

There are several levels of ‘facts’ in this case. The first is that, on 3 January 1952, Murphy deliberately threw a plate at a Native; the plate hit him in the face and Murphy admitted the assault to the police and offered to pay compensation. Since it was all so simple the police had no cause to do anything more than collect a few witnesses who had seen what happened. Murphy also admitted the assault to the Committing Magistrate the following day and he was committed for trial. The papers were sent to the senior law lecturer in Sydney but a copy of the depositions was kept in Moresby. A copy of the police report was also kept and it mentioned that Murphy was an elderly Commonwealth public servant who had been seconded to the Territory for a year preparatory to his retirement, and that he should have returned to Australia some months before the date of the offence. And that, if he did not get back there soon, he might lose his retirement benefits. 
It was not until I was actually prosecuting the case in Court that I discovered the second level of facts. These were that, after being committed for trial, Murphy panicked about his pension so he saw Mr Foy, one of the solicitors in Rabaul. After listening to his client, Foy wrote off to three doctors in various parts of the Territory and as a result of their replies he then wrote to the Prosecuting Authorities (who, as I have said, were not the Crown Law Officer but the Sydney lawyer), disclosing his full defence and suggesting that the prosecution be stopped immediately by the Crown entering a nolle prosequi. The Sydney lawyer refused this and placed the letter on his own file. But he added the names of the three doctors to the back of the Indictment which Wally signed and this meant that those three doctors had to be physically present at the courthouse when the trial came on. This meant – apart altogether from the expense of returning the two who had left Rabaul – that hospitals in distant towns had to do without their doctor for at least a week and, if someone had an accident or became gravely ill, it would be a case of ‘Stiff Cheese: Canberra wants this man potted so that’s all that matters’!

And why did they want him potted? The first thing to note is that ‘Canberra’ was a pejorative word which, in those days, covered many things and I have no idea who was meant. But the facts were that Murphy, although due for retirement, had been seconded to the Territory for a year because he was the only expert available to solve a particular need. He served his allotted term and did wonderful work, facts which are vitally important because, in April 1951, he had been bitten by a rat as he slept in the single officers quarters and had suffered from fever for most of his working period. In the three months before the assault, he lost over 20 pounds (roughly 10 kilos)! Dr Wilson, who treated him for the fever certified, in his letter to Foy, that ‘uncontrollable irritability’ would be a symptom of his condition, even long after the fever had passed. Then came the Christmas festive season which, for many people living in single quarters in the Territory, was a time of heightened loneliness. This was quickly followed by the plate-throwing incident which was by no means as simple as previously portrayed. The facts were that a bread-and-butter plate was missing from the place Murphy was seated at in the Administration Mess so, in accordance with local custom, he called for one to be brought. Instead of placing the plate gently in its proper place the steward, who was named Kawas, dumped it there and, quick as a flash, Murphy grabbed it up and flung it back. It was not a deliberate, cold-blooded action but a reflex one and, as soon as he saw that it had hit Kawas, Murphy jumped up and rushed over to him calling out ‘Sorry! Sorry!’ And when he saw that he had drawn blood he told him that he would take him to the hospital for treatment. He drove Kawas to hospital and, instead of letting an Orderly treat him, he himself sought out and obtained the services of Dr Con. Salemann who examined Kawas, dressed the wound and assured them both, Kawas and Murphy, that there was no permanent damage. As they were leaving the hospital Murphy discovered that Dr Loschdorfer, the Territory’s only eye specialist, was in Rabaul so he sought him out and pleaded with him to examine Kawas, which Loschhdorfer did, certifying that there was no damage to the eye. Murphy then drove Kawas back to the Admin Mess.

I formed the distinct impression that we (the Court, Murphy, the Sydney lawyer and I) had all been ‘used’ and that someone, somewhere, had decided to keep Murphy ‘on the job, at all costs’. Monte’s lengthy judgment included these passages:

the power to indict puts the Courts themselves on trial … the only justification I can see for this case coming before this Court … is the fact that the plate which was thrown was capable of breaking into sharp pieces which could inflict far greater damage than was, in fact, the case. … I also express the opinion that … the facts of this case would not warrant him being deported from a Trusteeship Territory as an undesirable person.


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