30 Apr The Robert Farquharson Case – Homicide Investigation Review
This essay will review the Robert Farquharson homicide investigation. Robert Farquharson was convicted on the 5th of October 2007 by a Victorian court for the murder of his three children, Jai, Tyler, and Bailey Farquharson. The children drowned in their car on Father’s Day 2005 after it veered off the Princess Highway and into a nearby dam (DPP v Farquharson, 2007; R v Farquharson, 2009). This essay will first examine the investigative process pertaining to this homicide case. It will then look at what possible failures or weaknesses existed during this investigative process, before identifying suggestions for overcoming any possible investigative failures. Lastly, it will examine what possible role the media played in potentially influencing the outcome of this case. The purpose of this essay is not to provide judgment on potential guilt but critically review the investigation.
The Homicide Investigative Process
Brookman (2005) breaks the homicide investigation process into two major components: the primary response stage and the secondary inquiries stage. In the primary response stage of this investigation, authorities had arrived at the scene after community members have already arrived (R v Farquharson, 2009). The major police presence at the scene was specialists from the Major Collision Investigation Unit (MCIU). These specialists started the investigation by recording and gathering forensic data that would later be used in digitally recreating the accident scene. They marked the tire tracks across the grass and aggregate leading to the dam with yellow paint, as well as taking detailed measurements and sophisticated calculations, in addition to taking crime scene photos. Sergeant Urquhart, who was then a reconstruction expert with the MCIU, created a digital reconstruction via computer modeling software. He also ran multiple driving experiments using a car of similar design, drawn from the observations of the investigative team (Kissane, 2007; Tyson, 2009). The MCIU determined that the circumstances of the three boy’s deaths were suspicious, and subsequently referred the case to the homicide squad (Tyson, 2009). This marks the second stage of the investigation – inquiries. Police conducted interviews of family and friends of Farquharson, including Greg King. Mr. King described to police a conversation between himself and Farquharson which occurred several months earlier outside a fish and chip shop. In this conversation, Farquharson brought up the idea of killing his three boys as an act of revenge (Donovan, 2007; Petrie, 2010). Mr. King further assisted with the investigative process by partaking in a covert undercover conversation recording between himself and Farquharson (Tyson, 2009). In Farquharson’s second trial, the police identified a new witness who had been driving behind Farquharson the night of the murder and testified to his erratic driving and suspicious behavior in the vehicle (R v Farquharson, 2009).
The original investigative process was fundamentally flawed throughout its initial stages. These flaws formed the foundation for a successful re-trial by the legal team handling Robert Farquharson’s case (R v Farquharson, 2009). While not a fault of the investigative team, the first weakness to show in this case was the ability for community members to have access to the crime scene before emergency services arrived to confirm the integrity of the scene. This type of unsupervised access would allow for evidence and crime scene contamination to occur, either accidentally or purposely, and can be defined as something beyond investigators control (Brookman & Innes, 2013). The second weakness of the investigative process was with the application of the yellow spray paint marking the tyre tracks along the grass and aggregate leading towards the dam being applied at the incorrect angle. This error is compounded by some potential non-tyre markings making their way into evidence, including one section which is suspected to be a boot indentation rather than a tyre mark (Tyson, 2009; R v Farquharson, 2009). An additional investigative failure was the photo documentation of the crime scene being conducted in non-optimal lighting conditions with inappropriate supplemental lighting available. With officers on the scene around 9:45 pm, daylight was not an option, so officers resorted to the use of personal torches and State Emergency Services portable lighting generation to provide illumination to the site (Tyson, 2009). This lack of reliable lighting resulted in low quality, blurred, and unreliable photographic evidence that is open to interpretation by different reviewing parties. Despite the inferior quality of the photographs, they were still used for scientific and forensic modelling (R v Farquharson, 2009). These investigative failures were compounded by accusations of evidence tampering and manipulation of evidence to support the investigation’s theory of events. This was evident with the driving experiments and crime scene reconstruction simulation. Both the car’s path of travel and type and model deviated from the facts of the investigation (Tyson, 2009). A further weakness was raised when it was noted that the investigators didn’t inform Farquharson’s legal team of previous charges brought against their main witness, Greg King. From the defence legal team’s perspective, this raised issues of police integrity surrounding the case (R v Farquharson, 2009). With the integrity of the investigation in question, it makes sense to examine these failures to see if they are the fault of investigators, and what workable solutions exist for preventing them from reoccurring.
Suggestions for Overcoming Investigative Failure
It’s entirely plausible that countermeasures could have been put in place to address many of the potential investigative failures and key points of weakness in this case. However, some research does suggest that investigative teams can occasionally focus too strongly on one point of the case, either through confirmation biases or tunnel vision like circumstances, leading to one or more errors (Beare, 2008; Rossmo, 2009; Findley, 2010). As the responsibility for the initial stage of the investigative procedure was with the MCIU, the first suggestion for overcoming some of the shortcomings, failures and weaknesses, in this case, would be to upgrade the field kit for this department to include proper portable lighting and illumination tools. This would then minimize or remove the opportunity for mistakes around evidence cataloguing and collection, such as the boot imprint being misidentified as tyre marks. Saks & Koehler (2005) point out in their research that field errors can and do happen regularly, this is further shown with Geberth (2007); Rossmo (2009); Duhs (2012). Therefore, a second suggestion would be to implement standardised practices for the investigation and preservation of evidence by crime scene officers at night. This is important because investigators review and screen the forensic evidence and therefore have a powerful influence on the case and evidence collection priorities (Peterson, Sommers, Baskin, & Johnson, 2010). McCartney (2005) shows that investigators that are forensically unaware can develop tunnel vision like behaviour when using key points of a case rather than relying on proper detective work. This is apparent when reviewing the reconstruction of the scene and driving examples. Investigators conducted their research of these events based around Farquharson being conscious at the time, despite his accounts and repeated statements to the contrary. The reconstructed evidence was also factually flawed, being conducted with dissimilar vehicles and conditions, including travelling in the wrong direction. Because of this, it’s clear that increased training, or regular re-training for crime scene reconstruction and modelling is needed.
Continually upskilling is necessary as investigators are required to make certain judgements surrounding the credibility and appropriateness of witnesses and the information they provide (Brookman, 2005). The information provided by Mr King became a cornerstone of the investigation, despite certain inaccuracies, lack of recorded evidence and Farquharson repeatedly denying that Mr King had the correct interpretation of events (Tyson, 2009). Picornell (2013) raises the idea and process of how witness statements can be examined for deceptive language. In addition to further training for crime scene officers, further training should be made available to investigators in how to correctly weigh the seriousness of witness statements. This idea is further strengthened by Adams and Jarvis (2006) who found this type of analysis can identify areas of a statement that need further checking. Westera, Kebbell, Milne, and Green (2014) discovered that the first and second most important skills for investigators were communication and thoroughness. In this case, it appears investigators need to improve their communication skills as the withholding of Mr King’s prior police charges from the defence team were attributed to miscommunication (Tyson, 2009). This raises the option for improved communication training to help develop investigators ability to communicate effectively with different stakeholders. Tyson (2009) further elaborates that a potential solution to investigative shortcomings, in this case, could be to increase the availability of police resources. With increased resources, police could access more sophisticated forensic modelling tools and technology, as well as create opportunities for investigators findings to be reviewed from a second perspective, to help alleviate any potential confirmation biases or tunnel vision associated errors. Furthermore, training investigators to critically examine and review their own findings could help reduce case errors created by confirmation bias. However, there still exists the issue of public contamination of the scene, which is, unfortunately, an uncontrollable issue and appears to be an unavoidable part of the police process. Especially given the ease of media production (photos and videos), and peoples willingness to share events happening around them on social media.
Role of the media in influencing case outcome
Due to the emotional nature and timing of this case, the death of 3 young boys while being with their father on Father’s Day, it is not surprising that it received exhaustive media coverage, a few examples being Medew (2006); AAP (2010); Garner (2014); and Lever (2014). At the commencement of the trial, Justice Cummins addressed the jury saying there would be ‘a fair bit of media attention given to the case’ (DPP v Farquharson, 2007). He further instructed them to not treat what they are exposed to by media outside of the courtroom as evidence. With modern communication tools such as digital news cycles and social media, modern media can have a potentially staggering reach. Ubelaker (2012) raises the idea that with our modern communication tools and the ingrained nature of social media in our society, that now more than ever before judges and juries are susceptible to the influence of the media. This is shown first hand with a story regarding Farquharson’s conduct after the incident at the dam contributing to prejudicial overemphasis, with Farquharson’s defense team stating that the trial judge gave disproportionate attention to these details (R v Farquharson, 2009). Media had even more influence when different social media platforms were leveraged by community members to start the Fact Before Theory campaign (Tyson, 2009). This campaign is explored in depth by Tyson (2009), who discusses the idea that by connecting the crime scene photos with popular media titles, the website and campaign author hopes to leverage the emotional connection between the media and the population. It’s clear they hope to influence people to only look at the facts and disregard the prosecution’s narrative of events. Lumby (2010) brings to light the challenges that the internet and spread of media influence pose to the administration of justice It raises concerns about the media’s ability to influence and undermine a court’s control of information given to jurors. While it can’t be quantified, it is clear through the warnings given to jurors, actions of the trial judge, and even the actions of Farquharson’s estranged wife rejecting his guilty verdict, that the heavy media exposure had an influence in this case.
In conclusion, this essay has outlined the investigative process undertaken during this case, the points of weakness, and possible investigative failures that occurred throughout its duration which undeniably had an impact on the result. Workable solutions for these failures include additional police resources, extra and supplemental training on skills and procedures for both crime scene officers and investigators, the possibility for secondary or impartial reviews of evidence, and analysis of witness statements for deception have all been raised to help strengthen further investigations. Finally, this essay has examined the possible role that social media and digital news media have played in possibly influencing the outcome of this case due to its highly emotive circumstances.