New South Wales judicial inquiry into gay hate deaths ‘too narrow’

nsw gay hate crime cold case ross warren Cyril
Ross Warren, Cyril Olsen and John Russell.

A lawyer working with victims of historical gay hate crimes has warned New South Wales’ judicial inquiry into the violence is “too narrow”, including for survivors who want answers.

Last Saturday, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet launched the special commission of inquiry, headed by Supreme Court judge John Sackar.

It will look into dozens of unsolved suspected gay hate murders in the state between 1970 and 2010.

It’s hoped the inquiry will uncover new evidence or previously unreported deaths during the decades-long spate of gay hate violence in Sydney.

Nicholas Stewart is a criminal lawyer and partner at LGBTIQ+ law firm Dowson Turco Lawyers. Stewart and his firm have worked with some of the survivors.

“A generation of people endured hate crimes that were often fatal,” he wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.

“Often, their experiences were met with indifference, bias and negligence from police, health workers and the justice system.

“Victims, and victims’ families and friends, are hurting.”

Stewart highlighted the case of gay man Alan Rosendale. Attackers bashed the gay man unconscious in a gutter in Sydney in 1989.

“Mr Rosendale had been at a gay beat the night he was assaulted,” Stewart said.

“Immediately before he was chased and bashed, he had witnessed four men exiting a vehicle and grabbing clubs from the boot.

“He was set upon. Everyone at the beat bolted, but Mr Rosendale could not get away. He was in hospital for days.

“The police report blamed skinheads. But a third-party witness recorded the assailants’ numberplate.

A police liaison officer later told him it belonged to an unmarked police car.”

Hate crime inquiry’s terms of reference ‘too narrow’

Nicholas Stewart said the special commission of inquiry into the deaths is a “huge step forward”.

“But the commission’s terms of reference are too narrow and will not allow for investigations into matters like Mr Rosendale’s bashing,” he said.

“From a legal view, only a royal commission is appropriate for an inquest into what has been decades of targeted murders and bashings against the gay and transgender community.

“A royal commission with wide terms of reference would also allow for all kinds of evidence to be considered.

“Not only could suspects, police investigators, friends and colleagues of victims be summonsed to give evidence, but tip-offs and gossip could also be interrogated and reported upon.”

“An inquiry into decades of gay and transgender murders, bashings and robberies must have as its focus interrogating matters to a point of identifying evidence that can be used in future criminal prosecutions for murder, assault and robbery.

“The special commission of inquiry announced [by the NSW government] does not have those powers.

“Only a royal commission with wide terms of reference can do this.”

A spokesperson for NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman said “special commissions of inquiry were created to deal with specific allegations, including allegations of specific criminal activity” and possess “the substantial powers of a royal commission”.

Commissioners are required to report to the NSW governor, including whether there was evidence that warranted charges being laid, the spokesperson said.

‘We surprise them when they are not expecting it’

During the decades-long spate of brutal bashings and murders in Sydney, many gangs targeted gay men at gay beats. Victims were often found at the bottom of cliffs.

Nicholas Stewart recalled hearing accounts of the homophobic gang violence as a teenager in the 1990s.

He told the Herald a co-worker had told him at age 14, “Me and my boys go looking for poofs to bash every weekend.

“You can find them on the beaches. They go there to ‘be alone’ and we surprise them when they’re not expecting it.”

Stewart said he “didn’t even know I was gay at the time”.

“But I was suddenly gripped with fear. I walked home from my shift that night anxious and scared,” he said.

“Not long after, I was then told by a friend at high school that a new boy was involved with a gang who went out on Saturday nights to target gay men on the northern beaches.”

Inquiry will ‘work to close a dark chapter of NSW history’

New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet announced the special commission of inquiry last weekend.

He said the unsolved deaths “have left loving families without answers for too long.”

“This inquiry provides an opportunity to focus further scrutiny on suspected hate crimes,” he said.

“Under the leadership of Justice Sackar [it] will work to close a dark chapter of our state’s history that’s left an indelible mark.”

The inquiry will give Justice Sackar the power to call witnesses, hold hearings and also inspect documents.

He’ll also draw on the findings of previous inquiries and reports into the deaths.

Justice Sackar will then deliver a final report by June 30, 2023.

If this has brought up issues for you, help is available from QLife on 1800 184 527 or online at, Lifeline on 13 11 14, Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

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