Justice for Lisa

20 / 03 / 2014

In 2012, Georgie Proud began work at the Victorian Women’s Trust (publisher of Sheilas) on student placement, where she undertook a research project looking at the media coverage of intimate partner homicides. Included in that research was the case of Lisa Harnum, which was finally resolved in the NSW courts recently with the murder conviction of Simon Gittany. Georgie is now employed with us at the Dugdale Trust for Women & Girls. Following Gittany’s conviction, it seemed fitting that Georgie write a follow-up piece, examining the trial and some of the media attention it generated. As with her initial research report, she highlights how the victim’s voice is often lost in such tragic cases, when it should remain paramount to  the proceedings.

By Georgie Proud

Trigger Warning: The following article contains descriptions of domestic violence.

On the 27th of November Simon Gittany was found guilty of the murder of his fiancé Lisa Harnum. In a fit of rage he threw her off their 15th floor balcony. During the verdict Justice Lucy McCallum detailed the extent of Gittany’s controlling and abusive behaviour throughout their relationship.

Unfortunately Lisa’s story is not an uncommon one, in Australia one woman is killed every week by a partner or ex-partner. The most dangerous time for a woman in an abusive relationship is when she tries to leave. This is what Lisa Harnum was attempting on the morning of the 31st of July 2011.

Justice Lucy McCallum’s four and a half hour long verdict is a harrowing account of the surveillance and control Simon Gittany exercised in their relationship, showing patterns of abuse recognisable to anyone familiar with intimate partner violence.  

Gittany installed CCTV cameras inside their apartment and front door, which Lisa was aware of. He was also, without her knowledge, monitoring her email and SMS using spyware installed on her phone and computer. He would not allow her to wear certain clothing or her hair down. He pressured her into quitting her job, and when she tried to get back into hairdressing he found her a job with a friend for which she was not paid. He threatened to have her deported if she left him. (Harnum was Canadian and applying for permanent residency in Australia) He isolated her from her friends and family. Justice Lucy McCallum states:

I do not think there can be any doubt that the accused was controlling, dominating and at times abusive. The force of his jealous and controlling personality met mixed resistance from Lisa Harnum, who was at times defiant, at times submissive to an inexplicable degree. I am satisfied that, by the end of July 2011, those tensions have reached a point of crisis. The accused’s sense of right to control Lisa Harnum was itself sliding out of control and she in turn was galvanising herself for a resolution of some kind.

In the reporting of such a high profile case, the victim’s voice is often lost through the hyperbole used to tantalise the public. Reading the verdict, however, Lisa’s voice is present and gives a chilling view of the fear and confusion she felt living through the cycle of violence. In a text message to her mother she said:

I feel trapped, like I have to watch everything I say do feel, everything. I got in trouble yesterday because I said I felt cold.

Lisa was well aware of the danger she faced in trying to leave, this is heartbreakingly clear in the last conversation she had with her mother. She told her mother during that call that if anything happened to her to contact Michelle Richmond, a counsellor she had been seeing. Michelle was attempting to assist Lisa in leaving safely.

This case has been highly sensationalised in the media. Lisa Harnum has been continually referred to as a ballerina, despite the fact she was a hairdresser by profession. Although Lisa was a keen dancer in her adolescence, the 30-year old stopped dancing when she was sixteen. This did not seem relevant to Gittany’s defence lawyers who argued, during his bail hearing, that Lisa may have may have taken a “ballerina-like leap” over the balustrade as an explanation of how she could have climbed over it without leaving any fingerprints. (This was not even in keeping with Gittany’s own version of events) Following these remarks the media ran away with the notion of a tormented ballerina gracefully leaping off the balcony to her death. Lisa Harnum’s identity was reduced to a romanticised one-dimensional character, simply “the ballerina”. This denies the complexity of her individuality, her strength and resilience that was so clear in her determination to leave that morning.

The case was also unique in that it was a trial by judge alone, rather than a trial by jury. This is a more transparent process than trial by jury, with the judge clearly stating the basis for their verdict. (A jury’s decision is made in secrecy, with no reasoning for their verdict.) Trial by judge allows a decision to be made by someone who is trained to analyse and give weight to evidence, to assess the reliability of witnesses, and test theories of counsel. One can’t help but wonder if the outcome would have been different if it were a trial by jury, especially considering the victim blaming tactics of the defence. These include using the victim’s struggle with an eating disorder (both anorexia nervosa and bulimia are mentioned in the verdict) to argue that she was mentally unstable, overly emotional and suicidal.

There has also been a large focus on Simon Gittany’s new girlfriend in the press, aspiring actress and model Rachel Louise, who staunchly defends his innocence. Ms Louise has been largely unsympathetic towards the victim and her family in her media appearances throughout the case and launching of the Free Simon Gittany website. She is reported to have received upwards of $150,000, by channel Seven’s Sunday Night program, for her story. This included an exclusive of her reaction to the sentencing. She did not attend the sentencing hearing, after being in court every day of the trial, and was instead at home being filmed for the interview. There were also several questionable journalistic tactics used during the two part interview, including the interviewer attempting to lift a limp Rachel Louise off the ground.

Ms Louise has received widespread public criticism for her presence in the media, including online harassment and threats of violence. Regardless of her motivations for such media presence, this harassment constitutes a form of the violence in itself, violence meant to silence women and keep them ‘in their place’.

With such intense focus on Rachel Louise, her motivations for speaking to the media, her shocking comments during interviews, the striking similarity between her and Lisa Harnum and her bizarre “silent protest” outside the court, focus is again shifted away from the victim and the wider problem of violence against women in our society. Ms Louise’s uncompassionate presence in the media drowned out the person whose experience should remain front and centre of such cases – Lisa Harnum’s.

Lisa’s mother has spoken out in the hope that her daughter’s experience will help other women suffering in abusive relationships to seek help:

We will always mourn the loss of our beautiful Lisa Cecelia and are working towards making her legacy a powerful wake up call to young women, parents and siblings of these young women to be aware of the warning signs of a controlling relationship.

 

On the 11th of February this year Simon Gittany was sentenced to twenty-six years in prison, with a non-parole period of eighteen years. This strong sentencing sends a clear message- that violence against women is unacceptable. Despite the sensationalism, the high profile of this case in the media has sparked a broader conversation about domestic violence in Australia. It has even caused more women to report their experiences of violence. It is crucial we continue this conversation, and commit to cultural change, so that not one more woman dies at the hands of her partner.

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship please call 1800 Respect for support.

FacebookTwitter