Murder By The Torrens
It is 40 years since the murder of gay academic Dr George Duncan in Adelaide, an event that would have profound ramifications on gay rights in Australia. By Garry Wotherspoon.
It seemed like a run-of-the-mill evening late at night on May 10, 1972, at Adelaide’s popular “Number 1 Beat”, as the banks of the City of Churches’ Torrens River were locally known. Among the cruising men stepping out that moonlit night were two who were to have unwelcome publicity thrust upon them: Roger James and Dr George Duncan. Just after 11pm, these two were suddenly set upon by three men and thrown into the river. Despite a broken ankle, Roger James struggled out. George Duncan was not so lucky – he drowned.
James managed to crawl to a nearby road, where he was found by a passing driver and taken to the Royal Adelaide Hospital. News spread quickly, and a television crew arrived at the river. Although Duncan’s body had already been pulled from the water, it was returned to the river by police to allow the TV crew to film its ‘recovery’.
George Duncan was 42-years-old, a quiet unassuming man who was a lecturer in law at Adelaide University, who had only taken up his post less than two months earlier. Homosexuality was still illegal in South Australia at that time, and while there was some initial general interest, as more facts emerged this turned to growing public outrage. The trigger was the published allegation that the three men who had thrown Duncan into the river were actually senior police officers, members of the State’s Vice Squad, out for ‘a bit of fun’. And the fact that a respected academic could be killed by police officers during the Vice Squad’s “teach Adelaide’s poofters to swim” campaign was a step too far for any society.
At the Coronial Inquiry, detectives who were alleged to be involved were called upon to give evidence, but they refused to answer any of the questions put to them, and the coroner returned an open finding in July 1972. Following growing public agitation, there was an internal police investigation, which called the incident a “high spirited frolic gone wrong”, and failed to find ‘sufficient evidence’ to prosecute any of the officers involved. Such was the public disbelief – and concern - that the Labor Premier, the civil libertarian Don Dunstan, allowed detectives from New Scotland Yard to be called in to investigate the murder. Their report was never made public, but the crown solicitor announced in October that year that he had decided against proceeding with any prosecution. The three officers were subsequently suspended from duty and eventually resigned, although criminal charges were not brought against them.
But the Adelaide GLBTIQ communities did not let the matter rest. On the first anniversary of the murder, fences at the Victoria Park Racecourse were emblazoned with the sign: “Duncan was murdered one year ago by SA Police – remember”. National media also continued to comment on the matter. Such an incident was central to the plot of Simon Payne’s 1984 novel The Beat, and in July 1985 a former Vice Squad officer finally went public, naming the officers and claiming that there had been a cover-up to protect them. Thus it was that in February 1986 three former Vice Squad officers – Brian Hudson, Francis Cawley and Michael Clayton – were finally charged with the manslaughter of Dr. Duncan. Cawley and Clayton eventually went to trial in 1988, with both being acquitted of the charges, after refusing once again to testify. During the trial, it was also alleged by the former Vice Squad officer that it was a common practice for Vice Squad officers to throw homosexuals into the river, and a further allegation was later raised that there had been an attempt to influence a juror to find the two officers charged not guilty.
Violence on gay beats was not uncommon in Australia, as the murders in Sydney in the late 1980s and early 1990s, at North Head and Bondi, attest. But it was rarer for the police to be actually named as the culprits. In South Australia, agitation for a fuller investigation continued, and – despite public concern that it was improper for police to continue investigating police – a police task force was set up, reporting to Parliament in 1990 that there was ‘insufficient evidence’ to charge any person with the murder. Repeated calls for a Royal Commission were ignored.
The public outrage over the death of Dr George became the trigger for homosexual law reform in South Australia. Such was the level of national media coverage and growing civil agitation that in July 1972, a mere eleven weeks after the drowning, a bill to amend the law that criminalised homosexuality was introduced. The bill was not perfect, but it was a first step. Then in August 1975 a bill to fully decriminalise male homosexual acts was introduced and passed by the South Australian Parliament, making it the first state in Australia to do so.
This had not been the first step in that process, however; this had started in NSW nearly two years previously, with the formation of CAMP INC, a group that aimed to “redefine the place of the homosexual in Australian society”, and law reform was in its sights. Successful agitation for law reform continued in all Australian states, with Tasmania the last to decriminalise male homosexual acts, in 1997.
Such were the ripples of that unprovoked drowning in a slow-flowing river, and George Duncan is a person whose unsought martyrdom should never be forgotten.