We tend to think of judges as a privileged bunch, born with silver spoons in their mouths, educated in wealthy schools and at risk only from a mishandled cheese knife at the Melbourne Club.
Vincent is entirely different. He was born in 1937 to Frank snr, a wharfie and Waterside Workers’ Federation union official, and Tess, a factory worker. Eventually they moved to Launceston in Tasmania but after Frank won a Commonwealth scholarship to Melbourne University they returned, living in Camp Pell, the former World War II army camp in Royal Park, then a migrant hostel and cheap temporary housing.
He joined the Victorian Bar and with his grasp of the law and his work ethic he could have made a fortune in commercial litigation but instead gravitated to crime.
In the early 1970s he walked away from lucrative workers’ compensation cases: “I soon became dissatisfied by my involvement in an absurd system that benefited principally those involved in its operation.”
He became a crime specialist: “I was attracted to the work and had no interest in the much less demanding and considerably more lucrative role of arguing about other people’s money.”
Soon he was taking on murder cases, eventually becoming the go-to guy for homicide defences, doing nearly 200. They came at a cost – each is like a heavyweight fight in an emotion-filled court where someone has lost their life and the accused faces losing decades of theirs.
Vincent was always honest, perhaps too honest: “When one of my Victorian clients asked for my view of the prospects of a successful defence, I informed him that they were poor. He thanked me profusely and immediately absconded. He was caught two years later.”
At the eventual trial the defence was going well – that is until the client, who was on bail, panicked, jumped in a cab outside court and disappeared.
The judge, no doubt sensing the jury was set to acquit, didn’t issue an arrest warrant but gave Vincent a chance to find the accused.
“About two hours later the client rang, apologising and obviously drunk. He assured me that he would be there when it resumed. Over the weekend, I was running in a marathon when I saw him at the edge of the road cheering me on.
“As promised, he came to my room on the next morning. This time, I walked across with him. Nothing was said to the jury and the trial continued, resulting in his expected release.”
It wasn’t all high-profile murder cases. Vincent had a second career, defending the underprivileged Indigenous in the Northern Territory.
In one case he knew the prosecution was doctored, learning the so-called confessions were forcibly obtained. “The police would indicate the place where the confession was to be signed, or an adopting mark made, by tapping it with the barrel of a revolver.”
Murder motives, he says, are rarely as glamorous as those portrayed in gritty movies.
“I have been involved in cases where the death of a person has been precipitated by the most trivial of matters, such as the purchase of a Christmas tree.” (Whether it should be real or plastic.)
“In one extraordinary case, the perpetrator stabbed his fiancee to death in a dispute over the design of their wedding invitations.”
For 16 years he was on the Adult Parole Board, 13 of them as chairman. He conducted about 10,000 interviews with inmates wanting release.
Some cases stuck, such as the 14-year-old who turned to crime to care for his 10-year-old sister when they were orphaned.
Living as runaways, “the young man made sure his sister continued at school, and he earned money whenever and however he could. He was proud that he had always looked after her until she reached adulthood and that she was now married and had a good job.”
One prisoner showed all the signs of reforming until his mother’s partner murdered her by dousing her in petrol. “He wanted to stay in prison so that he could eventually be near the man and kill him.”
Some were so institutionalised they were terrified of leaving prison.
While travelling to see his daughter, who he had not seen since she was 16, one parolee started to think about what he could say about those lost years. He got off the bus and bought a knife. “He held up a chemist’s shop on the other side of the road and then waited at the bus stop for the police to arrest him so he could return to prison.”
One long-term prisoner was granted compassionate leave after his infant son was bitten in his cot by a rat. “The prisoner was accompanied by a prison officer who worked with him over a weekend, blocking rat holes and setting baits.”
When this prisoner returned, he wrote draft after draft of what he wanted to say to the Parole Board. “I had never encountered anyone who was as obviously terrified as he was when he entered the room clutching his piece of paper. We made the order for his release, and he left. A short time later, we became aware of a sound outside. He was curled up underneath the window sobbing uncontrollably into the grass. He was so ashamed of the position in which he had placed his wife and children that the pattern of his life was broken, and he was never again seen in the system.”
Appointed to the Supreme Court, Vincent heard some of Australia’s biggest crime cases: the Russell Street bombing trial, the murder of two police in Walsh Street, South Yarra and Paul Charles Denyer, the Frankston serial killer.
As a judge he was unable to show emotion in front of juries but as he says, no one gets out of murder cases unscathed. Even now he avoids movies that show personal distress, having seen too much in real life.
Despite a career in crime he enjoyed some of the civil work: “Watching the antics of fiercely competing relatives in wills cases was often quite entertaining and informative.
“In one of these cases, an elderly and frail-looking female friend of the deceased was called as a witness. She was clearly appalled that the capacity of her long-time companion in an aged care home to decide who she wanted to leave her money to was being challenged by greedy relatives.
“When she entered the witness box and was handed the Bible to be sworn, she said: ‘You want me to take an oath to tell the truth’ – her gaze and sweeping arm encompassing everyone in room with obvious disgust as she continued with real venom – ‘just like all these people here’.
“When counsel for the claimants asked her for her occupation, she responded that she was a pensioner and what would he expect at her age.
“He looked at me to intervene but I said nothing, sharing her general view of the unedifying performances of the people involved. She was a smart and dangerous witness who was quickly excused from the court. Although she gave little evidence, she was a powerful advocate for her old friend.”
Retiring from the Bench in 2009, Vincent conducted a number of inquiries, including as senior adviser for Victoria’s parliamentary investigation into sexual and physical abuse of children in non-government care.
“The institutional hypocrisy evident within the leadership of major religious organisations and their determination to protect their status and reputations in total disregard of the terrible damage to the many victims over decades was sickening,” he writes.
“The Catholic church hierarchy, in particular, expressed feigned surprise at the disclosure of the endemic nature of a problem which they had been well aware of for decades and, once confronted with it, their primary objective was to limit the consequent damage to their reputation and finances.’’
Now in his 80s, Vincent still runs up to three hours a day. At a time when the Nicola Gobbo Royal Commission calls into question the ethics of more than one lawyer, Vincent shows why we need the good ones.
After she graduated, Gobbo applied to be Justice Vincent’s associate. Perhaps if he had been an early role model, she would never have become a toxic double agent.
Vincent’s book will soon be released by Hybrid Publishers. It should be mandatory reading for all legal practitioners, students and anyone with an interest in our criminal justice system.
John Silvester is a Walkley-award winning crime writer and columnist. A co-author of the best-selling books that formed the basis of the hit Australian TV series Underbelly, Silvester is also a regular guest on 3AW with his “Sly of the Underworld” segment.