By Jack Morningwood © 2013
“You’re very brave being here,” Jerry said looking around the dingy café.
The customers here all seemed to be associated with the prison across the road somehow. Some were guards dressed in grey uniforms, and others looked like they might be administration. The rest of the patrons had that same air of discomfort that we did, the look of wishing they were somewhere else. Maybe they were here for the same reason as us. There was a quiet murmur of conversation that seemed cold and forced that made the atmosphere in the café unfriendly.
“I don’t feel brave. I feel like getting out of here to be honest.”
“I still think you should’ve told your friends about it,” Jerry said pushing the awful coffee away.
I shrugged saying, “I didn’t get much notice, besides ten years is a long time. People forget and move on with life don’t they?” Jerry just rolled his eyes and looked away out the window at the cars driving by.
When Tim was killed there was an outcry in the community due to manner in which he was killed. However I understand that life doesn’t stop for the dead, and so I always knew there’d come a time when it just came down to me. Jerry squeezed my hand reminding me I wasn’t alone so I gave him a smile to reassure him. However today was not about Jerry, it was about Tim.
“We’d better get going then. It’s nearly time for the hearing,” Jerry said motioning the waitress who ambled over and gave us the bill.
I slid out of my booth and went outside and waited while Jerry paid. As we crossed the road he suddenly asked me, “What will you do if they release him? A question I had grappled a lot with recently, and had no firm answer for.
“What can I do? It’s not my decision,” I said making Jerry just nod.
After all the security checks and searches we were eventually taken to a room in the prison where parole hearings were held. The room smelt like a mixture of sweat and tobacco. The fluorescent lighting gave the whole room a washed out, gloomy look. The guards stood around looking bored, like they’d seen it all before. The only other people in the visitors gallery were an old man and woman sitting on the opposite side to us. It was Hardings parents. I hadn’t seen them since the trial, and they looked like they had aged a lot in the last ten years. As we sat they didn’t turn to look at us but seemed to huddle closer.
A group of four men and two women dressed professionally sat at a table at the other end of the room facing us, talking quietly amongst themselves while looking at papers. They were the Parole Board. There was also a female stenographer in her fifties seated off to the side waiting for proceedings to begin. Once we were seated the guard that escorted us in went to one man in the middle and whispered in his ear. A grey-haired man sitting in the middle nodded and said something so the guard motioned to another on our right who opened a door.
In walked John Harding in a green prison uniform. I remembered him as a scary looking man, dark hair and complexion, really tall and solidly built. His hands were massive. During the court case I was horrified by the thought of what this brute had done to Tim whom physically was the opposite in every way. Now Harding seemed a bit fatter than he was back then, he was older, and in some ways didn’t seem as nasty as I remembered him. No, he wasn’t scary anymore, he was kind of common.
A man on the panel with grey hair spoke loudly saying, “This is the parole hearing of John Michael Harding whom was convicted on the 23rd of April 2001, for the first degree murder of Timothy John Bartel at the Supreme Court in Melbourne. Mr Harding has currently served the minimum parole period of ten years, out of a twenty year sentence. We have reviewed the prison records and reports on Mr Harding already, and find that overall he has been behaving in a satisfactory manner. We have heard statements from his parents. Several reports from prison staff are recommending him for parole. While a few others are more cautious which is understandable given the circumstances of the case. Does the applicant wish to address the panel?”
Harding had a lawyer present and he said, “He does wish to make a statement.”
“Then please stand Mr Harding and make your statement,” the grey-haired man said. Harding stood but he kept looking down at the table the whole time, not daring to look at the parole board. His hands shook and a bead of sweat appeared on his forehead.
Then he began in a deep voice saying quietly and without confidence, “I’m sorry for what I did, I never meant it to happen. Like I said in the trial it was an accident. Things just got outta hand is all and I was real drunk at the time. I promise if you parole me it’ll be different. I’ve been attending anger management classes, going to AA regular, and talking to the prison shrink. He says I’ve come a long way. I wont do it again, that I promise”
A female panel member cut in saying, “Your psychiatrist is Dr Smythe, right?”
“Yes Ma’am, I see him once a fortnight,” Harding replied.
“We’ve read his report, and while he does say that you’ve made progress, he doesn’t recommend your release. Do you know why he’d say that?” She asked.
“I think so Ma’am, but I swear I don’t think like that no more. Love thy neighbour like you love yourself. That’s what Reverend Watkins tells us in church, and AA.”
Another man on the panel who was sitting to the left the grey-haired man asked, “What about the man you killed? What have you to say about him?”
“Like I said it was an accident, Sir. A stupid drunken fight. I didn’t mean to kill him, just rough him up,” Harding said nervously scratching his nose.
The grey-haired man then asked with one eyebrow raised, “You do understand what First Degree Murder is, Mr Harding? According to a jury of your peers they think you premeditated the crime and set out to kill the victim on purpose. Are you saying they’re wrong?”
Harding stood silent for a moment in a deep frown looking down at the table. I realised then he was reading something on his lawyers legal pad. “I’m not saying anything Sir. I don’t really understand all that legal stuff,” Harding said never looking up at the panel.
“Is there anything else you want to say to us?” Harding shook his head so the grey-haired man told him to sit, so he did. During the whole exchange his lawyer sat still scribbling on his pad, not betraying what he thought of his client one iota.
I was shocked. After all this time he still had no idea of the immense damage he has caused in my life, and others. The grey-haired man spoke again saying, “Do we have any family members of the victim here?” I raised my hand, the only one in the room. “Ah yes,” the grey-haired man nodded at me, “Step up to the podium.” So I stood with all eyes on me, except Harding’s, who kept his head slumped forward; looking down at his hands.
The grey-haired man asked me to state my name and relationship to the victim, so I said, “Tracy Nash, I was the partner of Tim Bartel when he was murdered.”
The grey-haired man looked down his nose at me, “Aren’t there any family members of Mr Bartel present?”
I shook my head, “Tim had a difficult family life as a teen, and lived on the streets from sixteen onwards until he went to University. His family had little to do with him after that, and they didn’t attend the trial, or even his funeral. So they wont be coming today.”
The grey-haired man nodded like he’d heard it all before and said, “How long did you know the victim?”
“At the time of his murder I had known Tim for eight years, and been his partner for six. We lived together as a couple for five of those years. We hoped we could get married one day.”
“Can you tell us how the victim’s death has impacted your life?”
I closed my eyes hard for a moment and gripped the podium firmly with both hands. The victim. It made me sick inside how these bureaucrats have already diminished him. Letting out a sigh I said, “The pain of his loss is as raw to me today as it was when he was killed. Tim was my lover, my partner, and my best friend. I loved him more than anything in my life. He was my soul mate.
After the trial I went into a deep depression and required medication and psychiatric help myself. I couldn’t work and I nearly went broke. Not a day goes by I don’t think of Tim and what we had. What I lost. Sir, I ask that this man is not paroled. By his own words he thinks Tim’s death was an accident. He killed Tim by beating him with a crow bar to the head. That’s not an accident; that’s murder, and this brute has no remorse for what he’s done. His only remorse is in getting caught.”
“The Parole Board is well aware of the circumstances of Mr Bartel’s death, and I ask you refrain from such remarks in future…” the grey-haired man stopped abruptly as a guard walked up to the table the board sat at and leaned over whispering something to them. I heard the grey-haired man say, “But the hearing has begun…” Then after a little more heated whispering he said with a sigh, “Alright let them in.”
I was confused about what was happening but the guard turned and waved to another on the doors to the public gallery. He opened the doors and to my utter surprise familiar faces began walking inside. They were friends from back home. There was about twenty of them, and I couldn’t help myself, tears ran down my cheeks as I watched them enter and take seats. Giving me and Jerry a wave as they did.
One of my friends called Pat rushed up to me and kissed my cheek saying in a low voice, “Sorry Trace, but we didn’t know about this until a few hours ago. Why didn’t you tell us about it, we loved Tim too. He was like family to us.”
I must’ve blushed bright red which satisfied Pat’s immediate need for punishment for my omission. In my own grief I had thought nobody would care anymore, and I was so wrong. Here I was thinking others would forget about Tim, but it was me that had forgotten just how many lives he had touched. So I had let my friends down by not letting them show their support and outrage for what had happened to him. I felt so ashamed of myself at that moment, and sorry I didn’t get the hint from Jerry earlier.
“I’m sorry Pat, I should’ve told you, but how did you find out?” I said with a brief hug.
Pat looked over at Jerry who gave me a weak smile and I smiled broadly back at him. The grey-haired man suddenly shouted breaking our reverie, “Can we have some order here… Take your seats and quieten down!” The guard was whispering to the board again and I heard another annoyed sigh from the grey-haired man. Once the guard stepped aside the grey-haired man said, “It seems the prison switchboard is jammed with people ringing to voice their disapproval at the idea Mr Harding should be paroled.”
I smiled. We all smiled. All except the guards who looked bored, the members of the Parole Board, and of course Harding and his parents. The grey-haired man then barked, “Could a representative of the visitors now entered go and call off these well-meaning people. We’ve got the point.”
Pat motioned to a couple at the rear who left pulling mobile phones from their pockets. The grey-haired man then set his eyes on me asking, “Have you finished your statement to the Parole Board”
“Yes Sir,” I said.
“Is there anyone else who wants say something,” he said then sighed as eighteen hands went up. “Very well. Come forward one at a time and keep it brief.” I sat back and listened to my friends tell stories of Tim, and why they loved him. What he had done for them and how he had helped them in his job as a social worker. To hear their grief at his senseless death expressed so eloquently brought me to tears many times. They recalled where they were and what they were doing when they found out. Most of all they told the board the fear it made them feel to this day.
There was a quick recess where the Parole Board were left to decide if they would grant or deny Harding release from jail. Thankfully parole was denied. We were all quickly ushered out of the room so the next case could be heard. In fact, they didn’t stop ushering us until we were out the front gate feeling the cold wind blow through us.
It all kind of happened so quick, but the smiles on the faces around me confirmed we had won this time. Pat was effusive in his enthusiasm declaring loudly, “If they think we ambushed them this year, wait until next year when we’ll be far better organised.” He followed it with a dirty look in my direction and I blushed and apologised to my friends once again. I may never live it down. Here I was thinking I had to face this alone, and I learnt I was wrong. I needed my friends to help me through this.
As I was talking to Pat and Jerry I felt a tap on my shoulder and to my and everyone’s surprise it was Harding’s parents. We all fell silent as we’re not that rude to celebrate in the face of their loss. Despite what their son had done. His mother had been crying and his father looked like a ghost of a man. They both must’ve been in their seventies, they looked old.
“Can we speak, Mr Nash?” Harding’s father asked quietly.
“Sure, if you promise to keep it civil,” I said looking one to the other.
“We can, if you and your friends can as well,” he shot back, his eyes hard and I nodded in agreement.
“I’m Ken Harding, and this is my wife June,” he gestured to his wife.
“I’m Tracy, but people call me Trace. This is Jerry and Pat, oh and this is ‘the gang’.” To my surprise Ken shook all our hands in turn. The strong grip of a working man still evident.
Harding’s mother then said, “I always wanted to talk to you but during the trial it just never seemed right. It didn’t seem proper given what John had done. I’m sorry this is ten years too late.”
Jerry then said half-jokingly, “Better late than never I suppose.”
“What’s on your mind?” I asked seriously, hitting Jerry lightly in the ribs with my elbow.
Ken then said, “We just wanna say how sorry we are for what happened. We didn’t raise our son like that I assure you. We raised him to respect all people, like it says in the bible. There’s no haters for gays in our family… ‘cept for John.”
June then added, “You have to understand that his Aunt, my sister, is in fact a lesbian and has lived with her partner for twenty-five years now. No-one in our family has ever seen anything wrong with that. But when John was seventeen he fell in with the wrong crowd, and he changed. Became mean about a whole bunch of things I never heard him utter a word about before. Suddenly he hated foreigners, black people, and queers. I thought he’d grow out of it, but he never did.” She closed her eyes hard for a moment bowing her head, she was trying to catch herself. When she opened her eyes tears ran down her cheeks. With her voice faltering a little she said, “If there was something we could do to take it back we would. But we can’t. Please forgive us.”
That’s when I found myself hugging the parents of the man who murdered Tim. Strange day eh? I have to admit I never really thought of them much. However it brought it home to me again that I wasn’t the only one suffering over what had happened. The relief in their faces at just being able to apologise to me, one small act of love, filled me with hope for the first time in a long time.
Whenever I meet heterosexual people who treat me like a human being rather than a ‘gay man’, it always gives me a bit of a shock because it just isn’t that common. When that came from the parents of the man who committed the ultimate act of homophobia, it hit me like a sledge-hammer. So in some kind of weird group hug we all cried together. Not just for Tim, but for June and Ken, and maybe even for Harding too.
I learnt a lot today, but even then none of it will ever bring back the man I loved so deeply.