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The death of Darcey Freeman

Nick Bryant | 11:05 UK time, Monday, 11 April 2011

Every few years or so a murder case grips the public mind and refuses to let go. So it is with the case of Darcey Freeman, the four-year-old girl thrown to her death from the West Gate Bridge in Melbourne in the midst of a busy rush hour. Today, more than two years after she was murdered, her father, Arthur Freeman, was sentenced to life imprisonment.

On the day of the killing in January 2009, Freeman had telephoned his former wife, Peta Barnes, and told her to say good-bye to her children because she would never see them again. Moments later, he parked his four-wheel-drive car in the emergency lane of Melbourne's highest bridge, pulled Darcey from the car, carried her in his arms and then hurled her over the edge. He did so not only in full view of dozens of commuters stuck in rush-hour traffic, but also in front of his two sons, then aged six and two. One eyewitness who experienced the horror of seeing Darcey plunge 58 metres to her death described how Freeman had returned to his car as if he had just posted a letter. As Freeman drove away, his then six-year-old son reportedly said: "Darcey can't swim."

The defence claimed that the 37-year-old was mentally impaired - "mad not bad" in the words of his barrister - but prosecutors argued that he acted out of revenge. The previous day he had had his access to his three children reduced, and his father said the news had put him in a trance-like state. After killing Darcey, he drove to the courts complex in central Melbourne, and handed his then two-year-old son to security staff. Then he broke down.

In delivering the life sentence, Judge Justice Paul Coghlan said that Freeman had tried to hurt his former wife as profoundly as possible, and had chosen a remarkably public place to have the most dramatic impact. What particularly rankled the judge was that Freeman had never said sorry for his actions, and that others had somehow felt culpable for his actions. Then he put four-year-old Darcey front and centre. "What Darcey's last thoughts might have been does not bear thinking about," he said, "and her death must have been a painful and protracted one." During my time here, I cannot recall a more awful murder.

DEFENCE SCANDAL: The comments section on the Defence Academy Skype sex scandal closed quickly - I don't have anything to do with moderating the comments or shutting the commentary, by the way - but today, Defence Minister Stephen Smith announced a probe into the culture of the military, and in particular its treatment of women. It will be carried out by the country's Sex Discrimination Commissioner, and will be a "far-reaching cultural appraisal", according to the defence minister. An over-reaction or an investigation that is long overdue?


  • Comment number 1.

    Hi Nick,
    A question for you (or anyone else), does life mean life down under? If not how many years imprisonment are likely?

  • Comment number 2.

    The_Ex_Engineer: We have minimum and maximum terms and usually with criminal sentences what is reported in the media is the maximum penalty one may serve. The minimum penalty is the amount of time one must serve, after that they could be reviewed for parole, if that's not granted then they serve out the full term. Although there are instances of people being sentenced to life in prison with no minimum term/chance of parole.

    In this case, Arthur Freeman was served a maximum life sentence with a minimum of 32 years, so he must spend at least 32 years in prison, after that he will be eligible to apply for parole. If it's not granted (i.e is found to not have been rehabilitated or is believed to still be a danger to the community) then he will stay in prison, although he can have his case reviewed every few years until either he is granted parole or dies.

  • Comment number 3.

    Nick, a much wider investigation is long overdue. In addition to the misogynist culture of the military, the Defence establishment has wasted huge amounts of taxpayers' funds on hare-brained equipment purchases and the Department's 'Sir Humpheys' are adept at avoiding accountability.
    I can't see how any progress can be made in the culture and financial responsibility of Defence without taking a broom to the bureaucrats as well.

  • Comment number 4.

    After reading about this this morning, I have been haunted by the plight of Darcey and her 6 year old brother. May be this is also because I have two beloved children myself. What did that little girl do to deserve this? And I wonder what state of mind that poor little boy is in, and how he will grow up with that horrible memory. May he be able to come to terms with it; may he have peace of mind!
    How do you come to terms with such appalling tragedies? Perhaps we have to become a bit callous, because otherwise we cannot move on. And we can resolve to treat children and each other with the love and respect we all deserve.

  • Comment number 5.

    I cannot understand why the tragic death of Darcey Freeman is presented as a subject for discussion. It does not appear that there were failures in the policing, justice or social service systems that may have contributed to or even predicted this outcome. Other than expressing grief and outrage over the suffering and death of an innocent child, what else is there to say?

    Following on from Treaclebeak’s comments on the ADFA affair and related matters. According to the 7:30 Report there are now EIGHT repeat EIGHT separate ongoing inquiries into this matter. Furthermore, Uhlmann reported that the Black Report from a previous separate inquiry has been gathering dust on the MFD’s desk for 7 months with no follow-up action. This should not be surprising since it was presented when Gillard and Co. were consumed with hanging on to power; something which continues to consume them.

    I’ve very little regard for Smith as a Minister. He seemed quite content to have Rudd treat him as a doormat while he was Foreign Minister. The last competent Minister for Defence was John Moore during the earlier years of Howard’s administration. He famously fired his Secretary of Defence for “reigning” rather than “ruling”.

    What’s the point of repeated inquiries when there are few follow-up corrective actions? The ADF supposedly has clear chains-of-command so inquiries into serious problems should be the exception rather than the rule. Imagine a Corps commander involved in combat operations having to ask for an outside authority to investigate a serious problem occurring at the Company level. If the command structure is functioning properly, then the problem would be dealt with expeditiously at the lowest level and internally within the Battalion, Brigade, Divisional or Corps hierarchy. If not, the Corps would soon be in full retreat or in a POW camp.

    Regarding administrative matters:

    -first, as general rule I support the practice of closing off threads whenever the quality and/or volume of posts are clearly in decline.

    -second, why can’t the BBC keep its main web pages up-to-date? The main page for Asia-Pacific is still not showing the latest thread “The Death of Darcey Freeman” under the heading “Bryant’s Australia” which means that most potential contributors would be unaware of it.

  • Comment number 6.

    I agree with PeterD. What exactly can you say about what that scumbag Freeman did ?

    In relation to the ADFA matter, I'd like to say that the only relevant inquiry should have been completed by now. After all, how long does it take to get those "cadets" in and ask them for a valid explanation for what they did. If they don't have one, which I expect they don't, they should have been thrown out by now. I find it disconcerting that we expect our soldiers to treat prisoners of war with respect but these cadets treat soldiers in the same uniform like dirt. Their behaviour is something you'd expect from someone wearing a Waffen SS uniform.

    I'd also like to know why these cadets are given the privilege of anonymity. They're all over eighteen so they can't be treated as minors. If I was a NRL or AFL footballer I'd be particularly dirty. If it was one of them they're names and photos would be plastered all over the front page of every newspaper in the country.

  • Comment number 7.

    Why are we still hearing about the ADF drama? Goodness me, so a few boys acted like boys and filmed some girl getting stooped by one of their own, broadcasting it to the select few perverts who were in on the act, it’s hardly earth shattering stuff. I don’t mean to lessen what they did, invasion of privacy and all that, but why does it have to be the focal point of the news for days and days and days and days? Couldn’t this have been dealt with by the respective powers that be? I mean, it’s hardly new, now is it? Dirty little boys doing stupid, ridiculous things, like they always have and probably always will.

    Then it dawned on me. Of course. I can almost guarantee that the minister Stephen Smith was told to go hard on this, by the upper echelons of the Labour Party to take all the heat off the governments unpopular Carbon Tax.

    It's the equivalent of the Tampa chugging into Labour's muddied political waters.

    It makes perfect sense.

    So, really, has this girl had her case taken up by govt ministers who really care, or is she being used further as a pawn in someone else's dirty game?

  • Comment number 8.

    There are no winners here but their is only one punishment that would have served justice here and that would be this man hanging from the end of a rope.

  • Comment number 9.

    Arthur Freeman`s worst punishment will not be life in prison but living with himself, whether behind bars or not.
    I am not sure that his life sentence will be much comfort to his ex wife or remaining children.
    Despite the appalling nature of this crime, unlike Crash I don`t believe this (or any crime) calls for a`string `im up` solution...


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