The bizarre case of Trent Jennings goes way beyond the headlines of a psychotic killer on the run, one who absconded from Morriset Psychiatric Hospital eight years to the day after he bound and stabbed a man to death in a frenzied sex attack in a Sydney park.
On 11 August 2005, Judge David Kirby of the NSW Supreme Court, in a non-jury judgment, found Jennings not guilty of murder on the grounds that he suffered a psychotic illness that was ‘precipitated or aggravated by illicit drug use’.
Jennings, then 18, met Guiseppe Vitale, 32, on a gay hook-up site and the two arranged to have sex in a park in Narwee, Sydney.
Jennings admitted to self-administering ‘three or four ecstasy tablets and intravenous amphetamine’ in the hour before they met, on 30 December 2003.
The sex encounter included bondage, which turned out to be Vitale’s undoing.
According to court reports, Vitale first tied up Jennings. It was at this point that Jennings said he began to hear voices.
‘I looked up and in the bushes there was a man and a wolf telling me to be careful, he might get you,’ Jennings told forensic psychiatrist Bruce Westmore.
‘I felt frightened and paranoid.’
Jennings said that he later tied up Vitale, after which, ‘I heard the voices again [saying] ‘I’m going to get you, I’m going to rape you’… I thought it was coming from the visions I was seeing.’
Jennings then stabbed Vitale in the throat with a kitchen knife he said he carried for his own protection.
Still bound hand and foot, Vitale managed to make it to a to a nearby house but bled to death before ambulance officers could save him.
Forensic psychiatrist Westmore told the court, ‘It is likely that Mr Jennings would have understood that he would have got into trouble from a legal perspective because of his behaviour but at the time the incident occurred I think it is probable that he was acting under delusional beliefs in relation to the victim.’
Justice Kirby accepted Westmore’s report and ordered that Jennings be detained as forensic patient, subject to review by the Mental Health Review Tribunal.
The first of many questions this raises is whether people who self-administer recreational drugs can then be absolved of any resulting psychotic behaviour. Clearly both the judge and psychiatrist in this case believed so. Whether a jury would have agreed is a moot point as it was a non-jury trial.
Readers may also have noticed that there are some similarities in this defence to the age-old ‘homosexuality advance defence’ (HAD) used in Australian courts up until quite recently. In HAD, the mere sexual approach by someone of the same sex was seen as mitigating circumstances for killing the victim and in at least two known cases, a reason for acquittal.
In this case, it is not the (admittedly consensual) sex itself but the combination of drugs and bondage that led the defendant to claim the role of victim.
While the laws of subjudice don’t allow us to prejudge a matter before the courts, we can note the startling similarity between some of the circumstances surrounding Vitale’s killing and elements of the crimes with which Jennings now stands charged.
Just a month before he absconded, Jennings was granted day leave rights from Morisset Hospital for the first time.
Police allege he used the same technique of arranging to meet a man for sex over the internet that he did in the Vitale case.
He allegedly met the 50-year-old man at his Zetland home a day before the eighth anniversary of Vitale’s killing.
Jennings also allegedly tied the man up with his consent before stealing some of his belongings, including his black Mercedes four-wheel-drive.
That night he returned to hospital after curfew, having contacted staff to tell them his train was running late.
Apparently satisfied with this explanation, hospital staff allowed him out unsupervised again at 2pm the next day, eight years to the day after he stabbed Giuseppe Vitale to death.
Jennings did not return on Friday evening and, four hours later, he was pulled over by police in the stolen car south of Coffs Harbour.
Assistant Commissioner Mark Murdoch told media last week, ‘The bona fides of the driver were checked, he was issued with some infringement notices and let go.’
‘About an hour after that, the fellow who had been tied up the day before walked into Redfern Police Station to report that incident.’
‘We did not know Jennings had committed the offences 24 hours before. We did not know he had absconded from Morisset Hospital. The cops… are not clairvoyants,’ the Commissioner said.
Clairvoyants, as I understand it, claim to look into the future. The events the Commissioner apparently could not ‘forsee’ had all taken place many hours earlier, some more than a day before.
Nor is the hospital system off the hook in any of this. Why was Jennings allowed out on unsupervised day release on 30 December having returned late the night before? Why was there no flag in the system that the date was the eighth anniversary of the killing?
Despite this remarkable laxity, NSW chief psychiatrist John Allan went on record to defend the length of time it took for Morisset Hospital to notify police that Jennings had escaped, saying ‘it’s often important to give people a little bit of leeway’.
A little bit of leeway? About 500 kilometres’ leeway, as it proved in this case.
Jennings, it seems, is just one of a handful of prisoners who has been able to apply for and receive both a passport and drivers licence while in prison. Yet his ability to do this points up definite flaws in the system.
A DFAT spokesperson said the department relies on police and prisons to request that access to passports be restricted.
Likewise Roads and Maritime Services said that, ‘there is no separate policy in place for serving prisoners.’
After being arrested asleep in his car in Bayshore Drive, Byron Bay last Wednesday following a tip-off from the member of the public, Jennings’ luck finally ran out. Not only was he recaptured but he had the additional misfortune to come up against magistrate Mark Bromhead at Lismore Local Court the following day.
Despite the circumstances surrounding his extraordinary escape, Jennings’ legal aid solicitor proposed to the court that he be given a psychiatric assessment and returned to Morriset psychiatric hospital, effectively as if nothing had happened.
But magistrate Bromhead wasn’t buying.
‘The only way the gentleman could have returned to the institution [was if he] had not committed more offences,’ he told the court.
He ordered Jennings to be remanded in custody and returned to Sydney to stand trial at Sydney Central Local Court tomorrow.
It remains to be seen whether this time his case will be heard before a jury.