Almost every person in prison protests their innocence, but Australian Jock Palfreeman*, who is serving 20 years in a Bulgarian prison for the death of a Bulgarian national, arguably has more reasons to protest than most: it’s unlikely he committed the crime.
For a little over five years (and while much of the Aussie-locked-up-OS attention has gone Schapelle Corby’s way), Jock’s been incarcerated in a Bulgarian prison under more-than-dubious circumstances.
Jock’s story commences as any number of Australians’ does: He’s 19, restless, fearless, and setting out on the great European adventure. Having grown up in Australia, he has no sense that not every other country operates by the same rules.
Rushing in to defend a Roma man in Bulgaria from attack by some youths, Jock goes from good samaritan guided by a strong moral compass to accused (and soon convicted) murderer. Andrei Monov, one of the youths and the son of a Bulgarian power couple, was stabbed and died during the melee.
It’s unclear whether Jock, who was foolishly and uncharacteristically carrying a knife for self-defence that night, stabbed Andrei. This is in part because the authorities didn’t try very hard to obtain crucial CCTV footage and because the witnesses (the other youths in the fight) changed their stories (and were allowed to do so uncontested).
What is clear is that he had the best of intentions.
Describing and understanding Jock is nearly impossible. He’s a pacifist, yet had just signed up to the British Army. Award-winning journalist Belinda Hawkins, author of Every Parent’s Nightmare, writes, ‘He wasn’t a greenie, a hippie, a punk, a Trotskyite, an anarchist or a conservative, though he had friends who happily wore one or other of those labels.’ His father sums it up simply: ‘Jock’s heart would have been in the right place, if not his head.’
Bulgaria is a country still cloaked in communist ways. Its human rights record is red flagged, and court cases prior to Jock’s had drawn the attention of international authorities for the shonkiness of their conduct.
So now has Jock’s, as his case’s truths are stranger than fiction, testing the limits of credulity. The forensic doctor in charge of crucial evidence was arrested accused of aiding an illegal organ harvesting scheme. The prosecutor’s partner purportedly had connections to the mafia. Both were allowed to continue in their roles.
The civil and criminal cases ran in conjunction with, and influenced, each other. Unsubstantiated evidence, such as misreported newspaper articles, were not only referenced but allowed to stand. Frankly, I’m still confused why everyone watched the CCTV footage in a crowded room, but the defence could not watch it separately or obtain copies.
Australian Story journalist Belinda Hawkins created a two-part documentary about Palfreeman’s (and his father’s) story** and wrote a Good Weekend feature too. Haunted by the complexities and sheer absurdities of the case, she penned and released a book (and complementary website) that investigates it further.
The book title is ringingly accurate: Every Parent’s Nightmare. It’s a nod to parents’ worst fears being realised, despite their best efforts to shepherd their children safely through the world. It’s also a hint of the even-handedness of this book.
Hawkins could easily have sided with the Palfreemans, championing Jock’s stringing up and shoddy treatment at the hands of the authorities (of which there was plenty). Instead she depicts the tale as one of a dual tragedy: the Palfreemans’ and the Monovs’. Both families have, through a tragic sequence of events, lost their sons.
The book opens with a map of the crime scene, a la that which you traditionally find in speculative fiction books. I initially thought it a nice touch, then later found it extremely necessary. How many takes can you have of one event?! I repeatedly, incredulously found myself thinking throughout.
Hawkins’ careful investigation unfurls the story better than the prosecution ever did, and with it reveals some incredibly complex characters. Jock is an impetuous, but principled young man. His father, Simon, a pathologist who has to step up to drive Jock’s defence, is so straight he was voted ‘most likely to be Pope’ by his primary school classmates.
There are uncanny parallels between the Palfreemans’ and Monovs’ lives, although oddly Simon seems to understand that his son isn’t perfect, but the Monovs can’t entertain any notion that their son wasn’t. The Monovs chose not to be interviewed for the book [Update: This was my misinterpretation. Hawkins and her researcher were in contact with the Monovs regularly over the phone and Hawkins later met Mrs Monov, which is detailed in the book. I was implying that the Monovs weren’t keen to be a part of the book, but my wording was a little clunky.], but it takes nothing away from Hawkins’ efforts to remain objective.
Every Parents’ Nightmare is gripping reading, albeit one accompanied by a constant, low-level frustration at the authorities’ blundering incompetence and neglect. There is so much evidence in Jock’s case that wasn’t collected or wasn’t allowed to be tendered, and then much that shouldn’t have been.
Bulgarian media inaccurately portrayed him as ‘the kind of dissolute foreigner many believed came to Bulgaria to have a good time on the cheap, with no regard for the country or its people.’ As Hawkins writes: ‘… the Australian in the public mind was of a homeless, drugged-up, foreign commando who went out with strippers and had slaughtered a student in a calculated attack. There was worse to come.’
That includes a poorly laid claim by Sydney barrister Jonathan Cohen that Jock had assaulted him—it was quickly disproved because Jock hadn’t even been in Australia at the time. For some reason, this of all things incensed me. That’s probably because until that point I’d considered the absence of delivered justice the Bulgarian court’s fault, and now here was an Australian inflicting further, senseless damage. Moreover Cohen, a man of the law, should have known and done better with investigating the issue before bandying around accusations.
Jock’s story taps into wider issues of Australians not expecting trouble overseas and that if they do encounter it, the Australian government and their parents will be able to resolve it. Jock’s is also a very recognisable, very common tale: You get caught up in a fight while out drinking one night in Europe. It could happen to anyone.
Jock’s case rebukes the notions everyone will receive a fair trial (a ‘fair go’, if you want to get all Aussie) and that the truth will set you free. That’s not to say that Jock wasn’t at times his own worst enemy. When his ex-lawyer asked if there was anything he needed, Jock replied, ‘Just a Kalashnikov […] So I can shoot my way out of here.’ Likewise, I think ‘no fascism’ is an odd thing to yell while trying to break up a fight. Why not just ‘stop’?
What would you do if your son was jailed for life in a hellhole of a Bulgarian prison for a crime you believe he didn’t commit? Hawkins’ book asks. How far would you go for the ones you love?
They’re big questions and utterly wrenching ones no parent ever wants to have to answer. This story has occupied six years of Jock’s, Simon’s, and Hawkins’ lives, and with appeals pending and transfers to Australian prisons being requested, there’s likely a lot more set to emerge. I’ve only spent a week with it, but this tale is already haunting me. I look forward to reading Hawkins’ next installations.
* I can’t help but note the irony that his name comprises the words ‘free’ and ‘man’.