David Bourke has been found guilty of murdering his wife, Jean Gilbert. He stabbed her four times in front of their three children, one morning after making the kids’ breakfast. It took the seven men and five women in the jury a little over seven and a half hours to come to their decision and when it came it was with one dissenter, a majority verdict.
We’d all been expecting a majority, even a hung jury. As the trial unfolded over a week even the judge made it abundantly clear that this was a clear case of manslaughter through provocation. Jean Gilbert had been in love with another man and had made no secret of the fact. She was planning to leave her husband and her children and run away with a former lover, a musician who shared her Buddhist beliefs.
The phrase Judge Barry White used repeatedly in his summing up to the evidence and his charging of the jury was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. The question the jury had been asked to consider was whether this previously mild mannered, devoted husband and father had encountered this straw and “snapped” or whether he had petulantly murdered the woman he professed to love because she was no longer his.
The two possible verdicts polarised people. Over the past week I’ve heard particularly dogmatic opinions on either side. The judge even asked the prosecution (in the absence of the jury) to find out who decided Bourke would face a murder charge rather than manslaughter. I think in the end what it boiled down to was the verdict that was perhaps technically correct, manslaughter by dint of provocation, to the one that seemed morally correct, that is murder. The jury went with their hearts. I’m glad they did.
Bourke was undoubtedly under tremendous stress in the days and weeks leading up to his wife’s death. She had told him she did not love him, had never loved him. He read letters and emails written to and from her lover. The family that he held so dear, that he talked about to anyone who would listen, was being torn apart, a bolt out of the blue that he had never seen coming, a tragedy of the domestic kind.
But did that justify his actions? The jury certainly didn’t think so. They obviously asked themselves the question, is it ever justifiable to kill the person you love? Is a crime of passion a lesser crime than a spur of the moment attack against a stranger? They decided it wasn’t.
It can sound strange when you hear closing arguments to hear the defence of provocation argued. That being, really, really pissed off because of someone’s actions is an actual defence to murder. It calls to mind cases of neighbour playing boy bands at full volume in the middle of the night, every night. Undoubtedly there are times when people are goaded into violent action, unfortunate taste in music doesn’t have to feature. The law allows for this kind of loss of control and it was this defence that David Bourke was using.
He said in evidence that he had wanted to hurt his wife the way she had hurt him, when he went into the living room brandishing a knife. He said she looked smug, satisfied and happy, having just returned from an early morning tryst with the man she would leave him for. He had never raised a hand to her before. Was this the straw that broke the camel’s back and if so did that make it all right?
David Bourke was a very different man to the wife killers who’ve sat on that bench facing the jury over the past few years. He didn’t claim a phantom intruder had killed his wife, as Joe O’Reilly and Brian Kearney did before him. He didn’t deny dealing the fatal blow. His wife wasn’t threatening to take away the children, only herself.
When the verdict was read out he sat very still. His face reddened but he stayed composed. Only when the judge left the court to allow for discussion about his wife’s family’s victim impact statement did he show any emotion. As people milled around him and the journalists behind chattered excitedly and compared their notes he sat down heavily as his family closed in. He was quickly surrounded and hidden from view. He looked in shock, disbelieving.
Jean Gilbert’s family eventually gave their victim impact statement. Her brother Robert spoke about the sister with infectious laugh and dazzling smile, who brought passion to everything she did. The women who was proud of having created the first jelly bear sweet with no artificial colourings or flavours.
But it was the quoted words of the three children who had watched their mother die that hit hardest. Bourke nodded very slightly as his daughter was quoted “I will never forget my mum. She was the best, so nice. I loved you and miss you so much.” He swallowed as his son’s words were read to the court. “I just really miss her. I want my mum. I want to go home to my mum.”
Speaking outside the courts the family were brief. They decided to draw a veil over whatever had gone on within that family. Whatever hurt the parents inflicted on one another it is the children who will have to come to terms with the loss of any normal family.
The more obvious verdict from a legal point of view might have been manslaughter but that verdict never did sit quite right. It would have meant a jury saying that it’s OK to kill your wife if she pisses you off enough. They obviously didn’t agree.