Many observers in the LGBTIQ community were stunned by the recent acquittal of two young men in the murder trial of 56 year old gay man, Peter Keeley.
Trigger Warning: This story discusses killings of LGBTQI people, which might be distressing to some readers. For 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For Australia-wide LGBTQI peer support call QLife on 1800 184 527 or webchat.
It was a shocking crime where the perpetrators allegedly lured him to a coastal NSW town using the gay dating app Grindr. They bound, gagged and assaulted him, then left him severely injured in bushland. He later died.
An autopsy by Forensic Pathologist Dr Bernard I’Ons found that Keeley had multiple blunt force injuries and lacerations to his head, including a fractured nose, as well as a mild brain injury that would likely have resulted in a concussion.
Bernard I’Ons said that Keeley died from suffocation and a brain injury sustained during the attack.
It was a savage assault, but there was some debate around the cause of death as Peter Keeley had 0.42 grams of methamphetamine in his blood. While experts including Dr I’Ons said this was unlikely to be relevant, the two perpetrators were acquitted by a judge-only trial and will now be sentenced for the crime of aggravated kidnapping instead.
The lack of justice for Peter Keeley has left the LGBTIQ community wondering if much has changed when it comes to the prosecution of gay hate crimes.
It’s not the only death that left us full of questions in recent years.
The Murder Of Mhelody Bruno
In 2021, a man was convicted for the manslaughter of a Filipina transgender woman in Wagga Wagga, NSW. Mhelody Bruno was a 25-year-old transgender woman from the Philippines who had come to Australia six weeks earlier.
Rian Toyer, a man she was dating, told police he accidentally killed her in an act of consensual strangulation during sex. Toyer was sentenced to jail with a non-parole period of 12 months, but the judge expressed ‘considerable regret’ that he was not permitted to spare Toyer jail time.
Following her death, paramedics and doctors noted trauma to Mhelody’s teeth and gums, and bruising to the lower third of her neck. A nurse who cared for Mhelody also saw marks near her spine, and an autopsy showed a fracture to cartilage in Mhelody’s thyroid.
The police also withheld vital phone calls and text messages that revealed Toyer’s hostile nature, and the abuse in the relationship. None of it was considered by the judge.
Although Superintendent Bob Noble of the Wagga Wagga police said they carried out a ‘thorough investigation’, former Supreme Court Judge Anthony Whealy disagreed. He said, “There is certainly an argument to say that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred here. I have not struck anything where so much evidence has been excluded.”
NSW MP Alex Greenwich asked the Attorney-General Mark Speakman to review the case, citing widespread “community outrage.”
“We don’t want a situation in New South Wales where crimes against the trans community are treated more lightly than crimes against other people,” he said.
Gay Panic Defence
Also in 2021, a Hunter Valley slaughterhouse worker who knifed a friend to death was found guilty of manslaughter, but not murder. Jamie Cust stabbed Filipino man, Jesus Bebita 49 times in a Scone unit after an unwanted sexual advance.
Cust used the gay panic defence and said he had ‘freaked out’ and lost self-control before repeatedly stabbing Bebita in the bedroom and chasing him down the hall as Bebita tried to escape. Cust then made an unsuccessful attempt to burn the unit down.
Bebita’s body was found in a pool of blood in the bathroom the next morning with a large laceration from his left ear to his chest, a stab wound that punctured his chest cavity and multiple cuts to his back, hands and arms.
While the sexuality of Jesus Bebita is unclear, the case brought to mind the spurious ‘gay panic defence’ not long ago outlawed in Australia. It was often used by the killers of gay men to justify their actions.
Crown Prosecutor Brendan Queenan told the court in regards to Bebita’s sexual advance, “You might think an appropriate response is, ‘I am not interested, get off me’, or there might be outrage and yelling. It wouldn’t be stabbing him 49 times.”
Justice Helen Wilson was more sympathetic. She sentenced Cust to jail for manslaughter with a non-parole period of four and a half years.
The Murder Of Scott Johnson
In another high-profile case in 2022, Justice Helen Wilson also convicted Scott White for the 1988 murder of American man, Scott Johnson in Sydney. She ordered White to serve a minimum of eight years and three months for the murder.
Many people in the LGBTIQ community were astounded by the lenient sentence, after the perpetrator had eluded police for three decades. Of particular concern was the claim by Helen Wilson that, ‘there was not enough evidence to prove the killing was a gay hate crime.’
The killing of Scott Johnson was just one of several gay hate crimes in Sydney in the 1980s and 1990s that remain unsolved, mostly due to flawed investigations and prejudice within the NSW police force.
Prejudice Against LGBTQI Community Exists
These horrific murders have made the LGBTIQ community question the progress we’ve really made in how authorities view crimes against us. While things have certainly changed, these cases highlight the need for more equality and justice.
They demonstrate that prejudice and discrimination against the LGBTIQ community still exists in the police force and judicial system.
Many of us who identify as LGBTIQ have been physically and verbally abused, often with no consequences for our attackers. It happens in schools, at work, in our families. It happens everywhere.
But it needs to stop.
We want to feel safe in our communities. We want to be equal members of society. We want those who perpetrate violence against us to be held accountable and prosecuted, to the full extent of the law.
James May is a freelance writer and support worker.
If you feel distressed reading the story, you can reach out to support services.
For 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention call Lifeline on 13 11 14
For Australia-wide LGBTQI peer support call QLife on 1800 184 527 or webchat.
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