By Ben Pobjie
November 18, 2020
A chance meeting at a dance led journalist Estelle Blackburn into the case of serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke, who terrorised Perth in the 1960s, as well as two men who had been falsely convicted of Cooke’s crimes.
The case at the centre of the doco After The Night – you came to it by chance, didn’t you?
Yes, at the time I was a press secretary for the premier of Western Australia. I’d been a political journalist, and I was invited to join the government, so I went to the dark side of journalism. I was working for the premier when I went to a dance and an odd guy – he was a bit doubtful but he was a great dancer so I danced with this guy every Thursday for quite a while. And a friend of mine came over from England and he was wrongly charged with something. He rang me from the police lockup and said “Help, Estelle”. So I rang this dancing guy, Jim, and said I can’t come dancing tonight, a friend of mine’s been framed by the cops, I’ve got to help him. And Jim said don’t talk to me about the police framing people: they framed my brother for a murder Cooke did.
Did you remember the crimes of Eric Edgar Cooke?
I lived through Cooke’s terror, I was 13 at the time. It struck terror in my heart hearing the name again. I got my friend sorted out, and of course, [as a] nosy journo: “what’s all this about Cooke and your brother?” And that’s how it happened. A chance meeting at a dance, and a chance wrongful charge of a friend.
And before that, you weren’t a crime journalist at all.
No. There I was working for the premier, and suddenly this chance meeting happened and I realised I couldn’t re-investigate a 30-odd-year-old murder and work for a premier. So I gave it up, got myself a two-day-a-week little salaried job and started to look at the murders of 30 years previously. It took a lot of work, a lot of sleuthing, so clearly I couldn’t work full-time. I sold an investment house to fund myself. It cost me my financial security, but it’s enriched me in every other way.
What have those rewards been?
It’s been wonderful to have achieved this, not only for [falsely convicted] Button and Beamish, but for justice to have a look at itself, for people to realise that injustice does happen. There’s a stupid joke that “everyone in prison says they’re innocent”. Well, latest figures are there’s about 4 per cent [who are innocent]. I think people are more aware of it now. These [Button and Beamish] were the longest-standing convictions in Australia to be overturned at the time.
It shows you should never give up hope.
Yes, yes, yes. I’ve been to lots of innocence conferences, overseas, and I was so touched. One exoneree at a conference in Toronto said, the moment somebody put his hand on my shoulder in prison and said, “I believe you”, I started to live again”. I was so touched by that. These guys had given up hope. They were out of prison when I met them, they’d been paroled. They both came extremely close to being executed. They were out of prison physically, but not emotionally. They were living their lives with a big sign saying “murderer” over their heads.
What’s the message that you want people to take from After The Night?
I suppose the main message is that it is still happening. These were two particularly dreadful wrongful convictions. Coming across it by chance, 30 years ago, has got me now involved in wrongful conviction in other cases, and I think as much as we need to respect the justice system and our police force – they do a very hard job, long hours, underpaid, dangerous – when there’s corruption in our justice system and it goes wrong, there are long-term effects. And much as there have been changes since the ’60s, it is still happening.
How does it go wrong so often?
It’s generally police who get it wrong. Sometimes over-enthusiastic prosecutors, but generally most wrongful convictions are through police misconduct. I don’t want to be anti-police at all, but wrongful conviction is still happening too often.
You’re at pains to say that you’re not anti-police – so your work has not totally destroyed your faith in law and order?
No, not totally. It hasn’t destroyed my faith, and in fact the lawyer who worked for Beamish, one of the cases in the doco, who later became chief justice of Western Australia and governor of Western Australia: he said that the Beamish case totally destroyed HIS faith in the justice system. But my faith is improved by the fact that the justice system is now aware, that there are now people working on cases, they can’t get away with it, there have been royal commissions. Things have improved, but I am still working on cases. But it’s wonderful when it is remedied. The wonderful thing about this case, about Button and Beamish, is that it healed a lot of other people as well.
After The Night premieres on Stan on November 29.