|30 Oct 2018 • Age, Melbourne (General News)
by Richard Baker
A man committed to stand trial over the 1997 rape of two 16-year-old girls in Echuca never faced court and the Office of Public Prosecutions is unable to explain what happened or why.
Last year, Peter Glenn Pryse was sentenced to three years in jail with a minimum of two for 15 counts of sexual penetration of one of the girls, relating to a period when she was under 16 and groomed into a relationship with him.
In 2004, Pryse was jailed for four years over grossly violating a six-year-old girl and her seven-year-old brother.
In what were arguably Victoria’s longest initiated prosecutions, the OPP last year unsuccessfully tried to have Pryse face the outstanding 1997 Echuca rape charges, which a detective investigating Pryse in 2012 noticed when checking a police database.
But a County Court judge ordered a permanent stay on the 1997 charges, saying the attempt after so long was unfair to Pryse.
Law fails in 20-year wait for justice in rape cases Prosecutors inexplicably neglected to press serious charges and cannot explain why, writes Richard Baker.
In the tranquil Murray River town of Echuca during 1997, three teenage girls reported something terrifying to police.
A man had come into their bedrooms while they were asleep. Two 16-year-olds said the man had raped them. One of the girls was groomed into a relationship with the man, who was several years older and had started grooming her at 13.
A third girl, 17, reported that she had been indecently assaulted by an unknown intruder.
The girls’ accounts were sufficient for Victoria Police to charge Peter Glenn Pryse with two counts of rape, one of indecent assault, one of aggravated burglary and one of burglary.
He was committed to stand trial on all charges at the Bendigo County Court in May 1999. Pryse had vigorously maintained his innocence.
But in a confounding failure of the Victorian justice system, Pryse’s twin rape charges were never presented in court and the Office of Public Prosecutions is unable to explain what happened or why. His alleged victims were not told anything at the time.
There are only two plausible scenarios.
The first has Pryse getting an extremely generous deal from the OPP which in effect had the rape charges traded for a guilty plea to indecent assault with the promise of no jail time. But the Crown prosecutor who ran the Pryse case, Thomas Gyorffy, QC, has testified that he made no such deal.
The second scenario is that the OPP and police forgot about the rape charges. Embarrassingly, the OPP is unable to say with any certainty what happened because it has next to no records on the case.
“There is unfortunately no clear and definitive explanation available as to the events that ultimately transpired in 1999,” the then director of public prosecutions, John Champion, now a Victorian Supreme Court judge, wrote to one of Pryse’s accusers in 2015.
The consequences of not bringing Pryse’s rape charges to trial were extremely grave. A few years after his 1999 court appearance, Pryse began to grossly violate a six-year-old girl and her seven-year-old brother. In 2004 he was convicted and jailed for four years for those offences, becoming a registered sex offender for life.
For Holly* and Marissa*, the women who accused Pryse of raping them as teens, the knowledge of what happened to those two children makes them feel sick.
In what were arguably Victoria’s longest initiated prosecutions, the OPP last year unsuccessfully tried to have Pryse face the 1997 Echuca rape charges. This only came about because a detective investigating Pryse for stalking a woman in 2012 noticed the unresolved rape charges.
But County Court Judge Paul Lacava ordered a permanent stay on the charges, saying the attempt after so long was unfair to Pryse.
Prosecutors told Judge Lacava they would not be appealing his decision.
And so for the second time in 20 years, Holly and Marissa didn’t get their day in court. Their lawyers, Ali Besiroglu and Jeremy King from Robinson Gill, told The Age they are not aware of any other case where the OPP has been unable to explain what happened.
The lawyers wrote to Attorney-eneral Martin Pakula in June seeking an ex-gratia payment due to the “gross failings of the State of Victoria” which had made it impossible for Holly and Marissa to get a chance at justice.
Pakula last month authorised the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office to reject the request on the grounds of prosecutorial immunity. But days before a story on that decision was to be published, Pakula had a change of heart after receiving questions from The Age and an approach by Victims of Crime Commissioner Greg Davies.
“I have now asked the Department of Justice and Regulation to enter into discussions with the applicants’ legal representatives,” Pakula told The Age last Friday.
Pakula was reminded of a 2010 case when then attorney-general Rob Hulls authorised a $525,000 ex-gratia payment to a man convicted of rape by a jury only to have it quashed when it emerged a DNA bungle was not disclosed.
Davies said the circumstances of the Pryse case were “unbelievable, unfathomable” and that victims had equal rights to the accused. “This needs to be resolved to the satisfaction of the victims. They need to know how this happened and why [there were] no records. There needs to be compensation for the gross failings of the state.”
Shadow attorney-general John Pesutto said an urgent and independent inquiry “into this sad fiasco” was required to determine if the cases could still be prosecuted, and called for a more compassionate approach to the victims “who have been treated appallingly”.
Victoria’s Solicitor for Public Prosecutions, John Cain, said the outcome for Holly and Marissa was regrettable. “Unfortunately, I can’t turn back the clock,” he said, adding that there had been major change since 1999 in the way the OPP communicates with victims and involves them in decision-making.
For Holly and Marissa, their 20-year ordeal has sapped their confidence in the justice system and left them wondering whether reporting rape was worth it.
“Here I am in my late 30s still dealing with this. It’s so emotionally draining to have this drag on more than 20 years and get nowhere near justice,” Marissa said.
“To go through this process not once but twice . . . was absolutely soul destroying,” Holly said.
‘Crying or moaning?’
By giving a statement to police in October 1997 about Pryse’s alleged rape, Holly knew she was opening herself up to a grilling.
This was because she had been in a physical relationship with Pryse for about three years until the middle of 1997, a few months before her alleged rape. Holly ended things when she discovered Pryse had been cheating on her.
According to police statements and evidence given in court, Pryse had begun grooming Holly from before she had even had her first period. He would tell her she was beautiful and bought her sweet pre-mixed alcoholic drinks. The attention from an older male was intoxicating. Holly was 13 when they first had sex. He was almost 18.
Holly made several other serious allegations against Pryse when she reported him for the alleged October 16 rape, which had police collect DNA evidence from her bedroom. She told detective Adrian Kennedy that Pryse had roughly forced her to have sex at least 10 times since she was 13. In short, these were rapes.
But things got complicated for Kennedy when Holly said she only wanted Pryse charged for the alleged rape in October, not the other occasions when they were together. Despite it being clear that Pryse had been having sex with Holly since she was 13, no one thought to charge him with penetration of a minor.
Holly’s close friend Marissa, 16, told police that a drunken Pryse had come into a bedroom where she was sleeping at a party in Echuca in August 1997 and began to have sex with her while she was asleep.
Pryse’s third accuser, another Echuca girl who did not know him, had reported a man breaking into her bedroom in January 1997 and touching her on the breast before fleeing. This girl’s case was the only one that ever made it properly to the County Court.
Holly was a witness in the indecent assault case because she told police that Pryse had admitted to her when in a drunken state one night in January 1997 that he had touched someone’s breast earlier in the evening.
These circumstances meant Holly would be a prime target for Pryse’s defence lawyers.
Transcripts of Pryse’s 1999 committal hearing show Holly was asked how many “thrusts” Pryse made after she tried to push him off her. When she replied that he kept going for three minutes, the male barrister went on to ask disbelievingly if she kept trying to push him off for the entire three minutes.
“I woke up and he was inside of me, soon as I woke up… my arms went up and I tried to push him off me, and then my legs were down and he had his legs forcing my legs down, and it was pretty hard to move.”
His line of questioning then moved onto what type of noises Holly was making during and after the alleged rape. She had used the words crying and sobbing at different times to describe her state.
“I don’t want to appear nitpicking, but my understanding of crying is more the actual act of the tears coming out; can you describe to some greater degree what you’re talking about… gasping for breath, or bawling, as in wah ha ha.”
He then asked: “I take it there’s no prospect, in your mind at least, that the noises you were making could’ve been confused for, let’s say, moaning or something like that?”
Holly replied, “No they couldn’t be confused for that.”
Pryse was committed to stand trial on all charges at Bendigo’s County Court in 1999. But from the start, things didn’t go smoothly for the prosecution.
County Court judge Michael McInerney ruled that three separate trials be held so the allegations from the three girls could be tested in isolation.
Over two days in February 1999, the OPP presented the indecent assault case against Pryse. His victim and Holly provided testimony in court.
Judge McInerney, who retired last year after a long judicial career, was not impressed with what he heard. On day three of the trial he directed the jury to deliver a not guilty verdict. But the jury felt differently and wanted the case to go on. Then, to the dismay of several involved in the case, he dismissed the jury.
A new trial began in May 1999 before a different judge. This time Pryse agreed to plead guilty to the indecent assault charge. He got an 18-month suspended sentence.
Eighteen years later, he said he only pleaded guilty because the prosecution had offered him a deal which involved not proceeding with the rape cases. However, Crown prosecutor Gyorffy is adamant the rapes were not part of the deal.
As hard as it is to believe, there are no documentary records held by the OPP, the County Court or Pryse’s defence lawyers to give any clues as to what happened with the outstanding rape charges.
Holly got to give evidence in the indecent assault case but not her own alleged rape. Marissa didn’t get to give any evidence about her alleged rape beyond Pryse’s committal hearing.
In the OPP’s efforts to investigate what happened, Judge McInerney was approached for his 1999 “pink book” – a diary of sorts.
But he told the OPP that his book had been destroyed.
After Pryse’s guilty plea to indecent assault, no one from the OPP spoke to Holly and Marissa, or their families, to explain what had happened in court. The only written record that indicates anything is a May 1999 note on a calendar by Holly’s mum, who after meeting with detective Kennedy wrote “Holly’s day, no court ever”.
LEAP check 2012
By 2012, Holly and Marissa had got on with their lives. They’d travelled, and started careers and families.
Pryse had spent 2004 to 2008 in jail for his sexual abuse of the two young children. After his release, he continued to attract police notice.
In 2012, he was living with a woman who had two six-year-old children. But he had not told police about this, putting him in breach of his registered sex offender conditions. It was his third breach.
Detective Sergeant Matthew Gildea was investigating Pryse in 2012 over a stalking complaint. He checked police’s Law Enforcement Assistance Database to learn more about Pryse and noticed the 1997 rape charges but could find no record of any court outcome.
Gildea contacted Holly and asked her about Pryse. Six months later in May 2013, Holly made a new statement to police, detailing other incidents related to Pryse.
It took almost four more years to get him back before Bendigo’s County Court to answer for acts allegedly carried out 20 years ago.
An irritating case
In February last year, Pryse faced a slew of new charges, including 15 counts of sexual penetration of an underage Holly. He was also hit with a new rape charge in relation to Holly and another of an indecent act.
His initial 1997 rape charges involving Holly and Marissa were also presented. But over three days of pre-trial argument, Pryse’s defence worked to persuade Judge Lacava that the 1997 charges ought be permanently stayed because they must have been part of a plea deal.
Pryse gave evidence that he remembered prosecutors offering to not proceed with the rape charges if he pleaded guilty to indecent assault. “I believed at the time that those charges and the allegations would be thrown out of court and not continued with, not then or not 20 years later. If I actually had an understanding that there was any possibility of a trial ever happening again in the future, I certainly would not have pleaded guilty,” he said.
Pryse’s defence lawyer from 1999 also recalled a deal, even though no one had any paperwork to show it. The OPP failed to call its instructing solicitor from 1999 to give evidence.
But the 1999 prosecutor Gyorffy said he was only briefed on the indecent assault and had no authority to deal on the rape charges. He had no recollection of the rape charges being part of a deal.
Describing the circumstances surrounding the new case against Pryse as “most unusual”, Judge Lacava hit out at the OPP. “It is an irritating case in some ways because I think it’s been poorly handled. Not by you but by the OPP. If people had been doing their jobs we would not be sitting here.”
He preferred the evidence of Pryse and his old lawyer to that of Gyorffy, stating that “there is a degree of unfairness in again bringing the accused before the court to face charges that could have and probably should have been dealt with in 1999″.
Holly and Marissa’s original rape charges were permanently stayed. As for Pryse’s fresh charges, they were again resolved by way of a plea.
He admitted guilt to four counts of sexual penetration of Holly as a child under 16. The OPP withdrew the fresh rape charge involving Holly and Pryse, which Judge Lacava had ruled as admissible, on the basis it was not in the public interest to proceed.
Pryse was sentenced to three years in jail, with the prospect of parole in two years.
As for Holly and Marissa, they have the rest of their lives to wonder how it came to be that they will never have the chance at justice for their alleged rape as 16-year-olds.
Not their real names