Sunday, March 23, 2014


It looks like an autopsy table, but where there would normally lie an entire human body, there are just 17 fragments of bone.

Although they’ve been carefully laid out, they’re small, dirty, and most are incomplete.
Forensic experts say they are also scratched, decomposed and some appear to have been chewed on by a carnivore before being embedded in the ground for nearly eight years.
I’m staring at this photo, tendered to the Brisbane Supreme Court as evidence, when the unspeakable horror this trial is delving into becomes real to me.
For an entire afternoon in the first week, the court is shown photograph after photograph of bones. Yet it’s only when I see the entire group of 17, laid out in the clinical setting of a laboratory with all its metallic sterility, that my mind is overwhelmed.
This was someone’s little boy. A boy whose body has been treated with a shockingly inhumane disregard.
And this was all that was left of him.
Covering the trial of Brett Cowan, the man charged with and eventually found guilty of what is easily Queensland’s most high profile crime, is the biggest story I have been assigned and I am under no illusion it will be easy.
I approach the trial as the enormous challenge I know it will be, but I doubt I could have prepared myself for the complexities of the case, or the graphic and disturbing nature of the things I will hear over five weeks in February and March.
The court has accommodated the high level of media attention with a designated room for reporting, complete with TV screens showing multiple camera angles of the court, and separate screens to show all of the exhibits.
Other journalists who have been assigned to the trial are, thankfully, very helpful and approachable.
I aim to file a story every hour, creating a sense of continuity while also being mindful of maintaining context for those who are not following the trial closely.
A pattern quickly forms.
Each 60 minute block consists of 45 minutes of frantic typing as I create a near-transcript of the testimony. 15 minutes prior to each bulletin, I begin to pull together a script, and when I am satisfied I leave the media room to record it on my phone, before returning to the proceedings to make sure I didn’t miss anything.
The time restriction of between 30 and 40 seconds per report quickly becomes my biggest frustration.


The trial moves through several distinct phases.
We begin with testimony from Daniel’s parents, Bruce and Denise, who bravely recount their movements on December 7, 2003.
It’s something they must have done countless times in the past decade, retracing their steps and contemplating what could have been done differently.
Soon enough, the evidence shifts focus to the Glasshouse Mountains search zone where Daniel’s remains were found in August and September of 2011.
Dozens of witnesses then recall what they saw during a few fleeting moments while driving past the overpass on the day Daniel vanished.
Brett Cowan’s inner circle gives an insight to his double life as a family man, with his ex-wife, former girlfriend, and even his drug dealer giving evidence.
A convicted child sex offender testifying from jail denies any involvement, and the defence counsel hammers away with lines of questioning that suggest otherwise.
In the final weeks, the court hears of an undercover police operation so complex, so meticulous in its execution, that it trapped a monster.


What fascinates me most about the way the information is emerging in court is seeing how the stories of over 100 people are intertwining to form a complex main narrative.
Dozens of people recall seeing things at the overpass on that day.
There’s a group of teenagers on their way to the movies, lucky enough to already be on the bus that would eventually drive straight past Daniel.
Couples who are returning from, or travelling to, lunches and functions, saw his red t-shirt.
A neighbour who was rushing to get to work after a morning trip to the beach recognises Daniel.
The operators of a service station who are closing up shop for the day see him walking to the overpass, and remember him as a regular customer.
Some go further.
Some recount stories of feet being pulled into cars, of struggles in the back of vehicles, and of men punching sheets that appeared to be concealing a person.
Regardless of whether their memories have embellished the facts, what gets me thinking is that all of these people could have seen Daniel’s last moments of freedom.
Others are more closely involved.
SES volunteers recall the moments they found bones embedded in the mud during a painstaking search, on hands and knees, of a Beerwah Macadamia Farm.
Scientists explain how they traced the origin and DNA profiles of the bones, confirming the worst fears of Daniel’s family.
I quickly realise that attempting to cover more than one of these plot strands in any one report is an unrealistic if not impossible goal.
As the story comes together, the most crushing thing to consider is that so many factors lined up on that day, to bring a little boy into the gaze of Cowan, the 44 year old former tow truck driver who, unbeknownst to the jury, has a hideous record of child sex offences.
Daniel was meant to be in Brisbane at a Christmas party with his parents, but a morning shower delayed his fruit picking shift, throwing out the timing. 
Daniel’s bus broke down just minutes from where he was waiting, meaning a second bus would pass with orders to travel express without picking up passengers.
Daniel was standing at the overpass during the exact period that Cowan was returning home from collecting mulcher from his boss’s father, and at that moment Cowan, the self-professed opportunistic offender, saw his chance. 

Over the course of the trial, my heart repeatedly breaks for the Morcombe family.
They see photos of their son’s bones, his muddied, disintegrating clothes, and the grubby demountable where his terrifying last moments played out.
In candid secret recordings from the undercover police sting, they hear his murderer explain what exactly he did to the 13-year old, along with what he was planning to do, had Daniel not tried to get away.
It's in these tapes that Brett Cowan repeatedly opens up, speaking matter-of-factly about how he murdered Daniel, and callously dumped the boy’s body down an embankment at a Macadamia Farm on the Sunshine Coast.
In the later weeks of the trial, literally hours worth of these recordings are played to the court, with details that would make anyone’s skin crawl.
I sit in the media room of the Brisbane Supreme Court, typing madly as a transcript of the audio is displayed in front of us, while my mind processes the sickening details.
At one stage an undercover operative questions him about what exactly happened when Daniel realised he needed to escape, and fought back.
“Yeah. I had a hold of his pants – and when he went ‘oh no’ and pulled his pants back up and tried to get away that’s when I went (noise) and we both went to the ground and, yeah, just pulled me arm in tight and heard a ‘ch’ (makes noise).”
That ‘ch’ noise may very well have been a bone breaking, and afterwards, Daniel’s body went limp.
I’m not ashamed to admit I’m far from a hardened journo, but I’m not easily disturbed. In my short career so far I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve felt the emotion of a story get the better of me.
My eyes are fixed on the transcripts as my brain begins to work overtime, considering what I’ve just heard and how it must feel for Daniel’s parents to also hear.
The details emerging from these secret recordings are so depraved, so utterly and incomprehensibly inhumane, that at times I feel my eyes begin to water. But I have a job to do and I push those feelings down out of the way so that I can focus on telling the story in the most compassionate, sensitive and accurate way I can.
It can be viewed as a negative, being affected by a story to a point where you feel such sympathy for those involved. But in cases like this it places this great sense of responsibility on my shoulders. I know the details have affected me, and if I can capture what made me react that way well enough, it will hopefully have the same affect those who hear the story re-told. 


When the jury retires just after midday on Wednesday of week five, it marks the beginning of an anxious calm before the storm.
Journalists count the hours as they finalise preparation work for each possible outcome. We know it’s likely to fall one of three ways; guilty, not guilty or a hung jury.
Outside the court complex, a growing camp of cameramen and backup journalists congregates in readiness for the frantic scenes that could be unleashed at any time.

Wednesday is not the day.
Speculation grows. Is the jury divided? Is the dissention widespread or is there only one or two people on the outer? Are they merely being meticulous and reviewing all of the evidence?


Just before one o’clock on Thursday, a sudden wave of chatter and activity is whipped up in the media room.
On the live feed, we’ve heard the bailiff utter a sentence that included the word “a decision”.
Initially there is confusion. The conversation that immediately preceded this sentence was a discussion about the jury’s lunch. Have they reached a decision on lunch, or a ‘decision’ decision?
We quickly establish that the decision is regarding a verdict. Everyone rushes to feed this information back to their various newsrooms.
The storm has arrived.


The anxious energy pulsing through court 11 just fifteen minutes later is like nothing I’ve experienced before.
I’m clumsily cradling a notepad, tablet, keyboard, microphone, recorder and phone amongst a group of journalists and members of the public crammed in the doorway area, because there are no seats.
Bruce and Denise Morcombe, their two other sons Bradley and Dean, along with supporters, are only metres to my right.
Crown Prosecutors file in before exchanging some last words with the family, and defence barristers make their way to the bar.
Cowan is led to the dock, wearing the same grey suit he’s worn for the past 20 days.
His face is void of emotion. He’s not giving anything away.
He rarely has.
My attention is split evenly between keeping my eyes and ears finely tuned for the slightest reactions, and passing this information on through tweets.
The jurors are led into the courtroom, and the judge’s associate initiates the process everyone has been waiting for.
Sighs of relief echo around me, and several people let out a cry of “yes”.
Tears flow. Family members comfort each other.
Metres away, Brett Cowan sits, separated only by panels of glass, frozen, accepting his fate.
Between sending updates to the internet and noting reactions in my head, I scramble to write down some brief notes about what was said.
My hand shakes so much that I struggle to write clearly.


As soon as I walk out of the courtroom and rush to the lifts with a group of other journalists, my phone begins to ring. It’s the start of an avalanche of live crosses.
I walk out the main entrance of the Supreme and District Court complex with my phone already up to my ear waiting to go to air, but am momentarily startled by the enormous collection of cameras, lights and microphones pointed at the door.
A wall of media equipment, cameramen, photographers and journalists blocks the area immediately outside the main doors.

It’s an intimidating sight that will eventually greet Bruce and Denise, as well as police spokespeople, child safety advocates and lawyers.
Time passes as a blur.
When I’m not doing live reports explaining exactly what has happened and what is happening in front of me, I’m typing as fast as I can and emailing reports for the top of each hour.
Some are fired off with minutes to spare.
It’s the most pressure I’ve been under to date.
Thankfully I have two colleagues amongst the enormous media contingent who are able to do crosses with other stations when I’m already on the phone.
At one stage I finish talking to our Sydney station, and a colleague who has been speaking on air with our own Brisbane station hands me his phone mid-cross so that I can continue with more detail.
The afternoon is intense.


I lose track of what my phone is doing, as it vibrates incessantly with a tidal wave of missed calls, voicemails, text messages, emails, and internet notifications.
The court proceeds straight to sentencing submissions that afternoon, where victim impact statements among other matters, are dealt with.
Bruce Morcombe reads his own statement to the court, describing in haunting detail just how this crime has ripped his family apart.
He addresses these powerful sentiments directly to Cowan.
“It makes me nauseous thinking about the total lack of respect you showed for a child’s life.”
“We now have to live with the images of wild dogs devouring our son's remains” he says.

Bruce says they are no longer the same people.

Each statement describes elements of the family’s pain a way that is so raw, so cutting, that even the stoniest of hearts would break from hearing it.

Cowan sits in the dock, cold and unemotional, as he is condemned as an “evil, evil unhuman thing”.
Daniel’s older brother Dean tells him “I’m glad you have been exposed for the murdering, sexual predator you are”.

I will never understand where this family’s courage comes from.

I am continually doing live crosses while translating this incredible amount of detail into hourly reports that will hopefully do it justice.

Bruce and Denise Morcombe bravely face a media scrum that could only be described as daunting in its scope. They are not just surrounded, but encapsulated by a crush of journalists all struggling to hold microphones in their general direction.

I can do nothing but marvel at their strength and composure during such an emotional milestone.

Photo: Brisbane Times

Things don’t slow down until well into the evening.


Friday is sentencing day.
That morning, we learn that Supreme Court Judge Roslyn Atkinson’s sentence will be handed down after the court has dealt with an application by media outlets to film the proceedings.
I’ve previously joked with other journalists about ten to the hour being the least ideal time for developments to break, in terms of filing radio news.
Judge Atkinson’s sentencing remarks begin at 11:50.
Despite the timing her address to Cowan is, in a word, mesmerising.
Judge Atkinson points out Cowan used a ‘plausible story’ to lure the 13 year old into his car, before the horror unfolded.
“You didn’t look like a monster, you didn’t look like a paedophile, you looked like an ordinary person” she says.
The judge describes Cowan’s every action, how he killed the teenager to avoid being caught, how he dumped Daniel’s body down an embankment, and how he returned over a week later to check whether it was gone.
“Everything you did to that child is horrific and disgraceful” she says.
She points out the crime has impacted not only Daniel’s family, but the wider community, which fears that a child may be taken by a “predator like you”.

For twenty minutes, Judge Atkinson denounces Cowan’s actions, his character, his lack of remorse, and his criminal history, with stunning acerbity.

Bruce and Denise are not in court to hear these scathing verbal attacks on the man who killed their son. They spent the day at an annual fundraising event for the organisation named in Daniel’s honour, no doubt in a far more peaceful atmosphere.

Friday afternoon is only slightly less hectic than Thursday afternoon, each 60 minute block dissolves quickly from cross after cross, before I hurriedly record reports, edit audio and email the newsroom.

Time again becomes a blur.

When I finally make my way home, I am a zombie. I’m on the verge of being unable to string a sentence together.

My brain won’t slow down, it continues to relay quotes, facts and figures over and over again.  There is no off button.


What I enjoyed most about this period is the sense of continuity that came with being assigned to the one job for so long. It’s an unfamiliar luxury, given our newsroom is hardworking but quite small.

What it affords me is an ability to build a bank of knowledge and back-story that can be drawn on at any given time, whether it be while writing reports, doing live crosses or predicting where the evidence will head next.

At the same time, this growing collection of names, numbers and facts means I become completely blinkered, oblivious to the details of most other events.

It also means that even outside work hours, my brain is busy recapping all of these details, making sense of everything, sometimes dwelling on things. It’s highlighted the importance of finding an outlet to unwind.

Reviewing the coverage over the five week period makes me realise just how challenging it was. During that time I filed 177 voice reports, did over 50 live crosses, and my notes alone added up to 75,000 words.

Despite all the stress, all the pressure, all the moments where I felt like it was impossible to condense the story into a radio-friendly report, it has been the most fascinating news event to watch unfold.