I’ve been reading PD James (got a load in a 99p sale) and listening to The Teacher’s Trial, a podcast series from The Australian newspaper, which follows the trial of Chris Dawson, accused of murdering his wife Lynette forty years ago. The trial itself follows another podcast, The Teacher’s Pet, which details the vanishing of Lynette Dawson in 1982 and the circumstances around her disappearance. It also considered the various police investigations, inquests, rumours, and the reluctance of a series of prosecutors to bring Dawson to trial.
But then, because of the public interest generated by the podcast (millions of listeners), Dawson was arrested, extradited, and charged. No such thing as a speedy trial in this case: years of delays thanks to the pandemic, but also legal proceedings, as the man who claimed he was glad to finally have his day in court tried to avoid having his day in court.
In the third of her novels featuring the detective Adam Dalgliesh, PD James has him muse on the four eternal motives for murder: “love, lust, loathing and lucre” — the four Ls.
Dawson’s trial has been before a judge, after it was determined that it would be impossible to appoint a jury who hadn’t heard the original podcast and formed an opinion. The new podcast has appeared weekly, as the long trial has proceeded, and the reporting has been detailed, fair and thorough.
Many listeners to The Teacher’s Pet will have formed the opinion that Dawson was guilty, but listening to the reports from the trial, you inevitably wonder whether there is quite enough circumstantial evidence to convince a judge. While a jury might have been swayed by the cruelty and feelings of pity for Lynette Dawson, a judge is surely going to be more focused on the law, and the phrase “beyond reasonable doubt”.
If you’re not aware of this case, it is fascinating, and the reporting by award-winning journalist Hedley Thomas seemed – like the Crown prosecutor at the trial – to have been building a solid wall of evidence, brick by brick. But it is of course all circumstantial, as no body has ever been found.
Chris Dawson and his twin brother were well-known rugby league players in 1970s Sydney, both of whom went on to be PE teachers. Chris Dawson married Lynette in 1970, when they were both 21, and they had two children. They also had a property, which through continual improvement and development, ended up being worth a lot of money.
At the school where Dawson taught, there was apparently a culture of male teachers preying on female students. One such student, who is now referred to by her initials JC in the trial, was actually at one point moved into the Dawson family home as an on-tap babysitter. She was 16. Chris is alleged to have plied his wife with drinks (laced with sleeping pills?) so that he could have sex with JC while Lyn slept.
In January 1982, Lynette Dawson disappeared. A few days later, JC was moved permanently into the family home, and a couple of years after that she married Dawson. They divorced in the early 90s, and she now speaks of this “relationship” as one in which she, a vulnerable person from a difficult family background, was targeted and groomed by the predator Dawson. She was treated as a servant and a sex slave (her words), and was discouraged from forming friendships outside the home.
Lyn Dawson worked part-time but couldn’t drive, and didn’t have a lot of her own money. Dawson claims she left him and her kids and went to join a religious commune. He also claims she phoned him several times in the weeks after she left. She didn’t phone her mother, her sister, any of her friends, or her own children. She has been “sighted” by several eyewitnesses over the years, including one who was the only witness for the defence at the trial. This guy claims he spoke to a nameless woman in a bar who wanted him to book her a motel room – but under his name. Nobody has ever come forward who has spoken to Lyn Dawson and known it was her. She didn’t pack a bag, or take any of her own possessions with her.
If Dawson had divorced Lyn, he would have had to share the family’s wealth and might have lost access to his kids (that’s lucre and love). He was, allegedly, obsessed with JC, to the point of driving a long distance to a campground to pick her up as soon as his wife was out of the picture, and drive her back to his house, so she could move in and start wearing his wife’s clothes and jewellery. (That’s lust…)
At the trial, the Crown brought forward many witnesses to Dawson’s physical and psychological abuse of his wife. Bruises on her body. Things she mentioned to friends. People who heard him call her “fatty” etc. Not to mention the (drugged?) nightly drinks so he could have sex with a schoolgirl in the spare room. (That’s loathing…)
It’s hard not to add all these circumstances together and think murder. The valuable property. The obsession with a teenage girl. The wife who disappears, leaving everything behind – including two children she absolutely loved to bits – and is never definitively seen again. The narrative of her disappearance that was entirely controlled by Dawson himself. Yeah, if I was on a jury, I would probably be voting guilty.
But what would a judge think? I wonder if it’s enough. Is the slightly dodgy eyewitness who met a woman in a bar and years later recognised her on TV convincing? Is Dawson’s absolute confidence in himself convincing in itself? That he behaved badly, there’s no doubt. Moving his girlfriend in before he’s even reported his wife missing to the police? Stupidity? Or confidence? Proclaiming his innocence for forty years? He seems to be very confident that no body will ever be found. Which means, he either knows it was disposed of so completely that it will never turn up; or he knows he didn’t kill her.
I really don’t know how it will go. If you forced my hand, I would say that the judge is going to have to say, case not proven. Not beyond a reasonable doubt…