It was the murder trial that had the whole of Australia gripped for months; Gittany. A wealthy businessman stood accused of throwing his beautiful ballerina girlfriend to her death. They lived in a luxury high-rise apartment in central Sydney on the 15th floor. Add to this mix some horrifying CCTV footage, a glamorous new partner for the suspect and compelling detail on a controlling personality which bordered on psychotic, and it had all the ingredients for a truly tragic tale. But he swore he wasn’t guilty.
An eye-witness account also brought the event of two years and four months ago to the forefront of the nation’s imagination. On July 30 2011, a journalist for the ABC, Joshua Rathmell, was walking past the smart Hyde apartment block in the city when he looked up and saw a “bare chested man” throwing something “large” off a balcony.
In one of many upsetting details of the case, it transpired that the victim,Lisa Cecilia Harnum, was on the very cusp of eventually escaping from her abusive fiance. She had put some of her belongings into a storage facility and spoken to her mother in Ottawa, who urged her to jump on a plane and go home. It seems she was so close to finding that courage to leave. Until he found out…
“He,” is Simon Gittany, the man now convicted for her murder in the New South Wales Supreme Court.
Rathmell’s testimony turned out to be crucial is what was, a non-jury led trial. The main reason for this was that Gittany could not afford a trial by jury. His business, an online shoe import site, Shoe Candy, was lucrative enough to exempt him from legal aid, but no so that he could withstand the costs of a possible six weeks with a jury. Statistics clearly show that more are found innocent without a jury being involved. That is 12 decent, respectable citizens you have to convince, as opposed to just one. A judge-alone trial would be cheaper, and speedier – and less likely to result in a conviction.
It puts one heck of on onus on a Judge to conduct a trial without a jury, as apart from anyone else, they have to prove “beyond all reasonable doubt” that the accused is either innocent or guilty, and their decision has to be appeal-proof.
One judge alone, in this case, Justice Lucy McCallum, had the task of conviction. If she had had a jury behind her, as one Sydney reporter wrote, the accused would have been “burnt toast.” But it was down to her to decide. It took her almost five hours to deliberate.
As it turned out, she had little cause for doubt.
Judge McCallum did not believe Simon Gittany’s account of what had happened on the balcony. He claimed that Lisa had climbed out herself, with suicidal intent, and he had tried to grab her. There were no fingerprints consistent with this account. The Judge believed she was already unconscious when she fell to her death breaking her back, all of her ribs and a leg in the fatal plummet.
This tallied with the witness testimony of Joshua Rathmell when he described a heavy inert dark object being offloaded, and the trajectory of the fall.
Gitttany’s own covert surveillance came back to bite him, as the pinhole cameras he had secreted about the apartment clearly showed him dragging her back into the building, with his hand over her mouth on the morning of her death.
The Judge took note of the speed and force of this rough handling, and thought it likely that in this tussle Lisa had been rendered unconscious. This would have made it easier to throw her. He is seen dragging her, a minute later she is dead.
Other CCTV footage then showed Gittany in the lift immediately after the murder. He appears distraught, head in hands and then arms aloft in a pleading gesture, but this exhibition, which looked like grief, could be explained,”Anger is not necessarily inconsistent with grief” said Judge McCallum.
The litany of lies told by Gittany and his defence team did not stand up in court. He was exposed as a controlling, abusive, and out of control man, full of rage. He had made his fiancee’s life a miserable hell on earth, until she was reduced to a state of “absolute fear and despair.”
Simon Gittany had a business selling sexy shoes, but he did not allow his girlfriend to wear revealing clothing or draw attention to herself. He was maniacally jealous of other men. When out, she had to keep her head down. He monitored her phone and text messages. He admitted he was jealous but that he didn’t want her to “give out the wrong signals.” Lisa had no friends to turn to. Her every movement was observed on hidden cameras. Her only other contacts were a personal trainer and a counsellor. She was not allowed to go to the gym, hence why the personal trainer came to the apartment.
She had come to the point where she knew she had to get out. Her Mum, Joan, home in Ottawa, was urging her. She changed her Facebook status to “single”, put some things in storage and packed her bags. But when Gittany found out she was planning to leave him he went berserk.
His attempts to cover his tracks did not wash with the Judge. She found him to be like “a person playing a role, telling a story which fitted with the objective evidence but did no more than that.” She said he was someone who lied with apparent ease and some of his evidence to be “glib.” She ended up five-hour summing up with the words “I am satisfied beyond all reasonable doubt that he threw Lisa Harnum from the balcony.”
Shrieks broke out at this verdict. Gittany had found himself a glamorous new girlfriend when he was out on bail and she became a very focal point of news reporting on the story. She looked uncannily like Lisa. Her name is Rachelle Louise. “I love you baby” he mouthed to her. She has now announced that she plans to write a movie script about the case.
It has now come to light that Gittany has previous convictions as a petty criminal and even severed a policeman’s ear by biting it. He is not due to be sentenced on this verdict until February next year. There is no word yet on whether he will attempt an appeal.
Lisa started going out with Simon Gittany in January 2010 and by the following January she texted her mother complaining about his controlling behaviour. Her Mum texted Gittany asking him to let her daughter come home. The last time she heard from Lisa was at 6am on the day she died. “If anything happens to me, contact my counsellor” she said. Soon after she was heard screaming “Please help me. God help me.” A note was found on Lisa’s dead body “There are surveillance cameras inside and outside the house.”
Joan Harnum spoke bravely and poignantly about the need for relatives to help if family members are caught up in abusive relationships like her daughter. She said there were no winners here, but she hoped to make Lisa’s legacy a “powerful wake-up call” to young women everywhere in similar distress. It is too late for Lisa, she did not get out in time. But with Simon Gittany found guilty at his trial, it is one small crumb of comfort that this lying, manipulative and despicable man did not get away with murder.
By Kate Henderson