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Tait, Robert Peters (1924–1985)

by Mike Richards

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Robert Peters Tait (1924-1985), criminal, was born on 14 December 1924 at Glasgow, Scotland, fourth of five children of Matthew John Tait, spirit salesman, and his wife Margaret, née Collins. Aged 8, ‘Bertie’ (as he was known as a child) fell forty feet (12 m) through a skylight while trying to retrieve a ball. He was unconscious for several hours after the fall and spent six months in an infirmary with severe injuries to his head, back and a leg. Learning difficulties ensued and he was sent to a special school for retarded children, where he remained for six years. He worked as a messenger boy before beginning an apprenticeship as a motor mechanic. Described by one of his sisters as ‘slow and very childish’, he was preoccupied with simple pleasures such as reading comic books and going to ‘the pictures’. In 1943, aged 18, he was called up for the Royal Navy, and served as a stoker in the Mediterranean and Far East.

Demobilised in 1947, Tait found employment in the Lanarkshire collieries. On 31 December 1948 at the office of the registrar, Blythswood, Glasgow, he married Ann Lizdaitis, known as Ann Smith. The couple moved to Australia as assisted migrants in 1952. The marriage failed within a year or two, owing to his heavy drinking and violent domestic behaviour.

Drinking more heavily, Tait wandered from State to State looking for casual work, but was frequently unemployed. In 1955 in a bar at Cairns, Queensland, he used a broken glass in a drunken fight; he was sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment with hard labour (serving five months) for unlawful wounding. After his release his sexual proclivities moved to transvestite and sadomasochistic behaviour. In August 1959 he assaulted and robbed a 70-year-old woman at the Christian Science Reading Room, Melbourne. Convicted of robbery with violence, he was sentenced to three years hard labour in Victoria’s French Island prison.

On 27 July 1961 the slightly built, ginger-haired ‘Jock’, as some knew him, was released from prison on parole. He spent the next ten days drinking in Melbourne hotels before going to the All Saints’ Church of England vicarage, Hawthorn, on 8 August, with the intention of obtaining money. Surprised by Mrs Ada Hall, the frail, 82-year-old widowed mother of the absent vicar, Tait violently struck her on the face, neck and chest, half-stripped her of her clothes, dragged her into her bedroom and sexually interfered with her in a brutal and sadistic way. Mrs Hall died. Tait was arrested at Port Augusta, South Australia, nine days later.

At his trial for murder, which began on 4 December 1961 in the Supreme Court of Victoria, Tait pleaded not guilty on the grounds of legal insanity. During the five-day hearing, psychiatrists appearing for both the crown and defence agreed that Tait was an alcoholic, a sexual psychopath and a transvestite with sadistic and masochistic tendencies. Argument ensued, however, about whether Tait was insane in the legal sense. The jury took just fifty-five minutes to reject the arguments of Tait’s defence counsel, John Starke, QC, that Tait was legally insane. He was found guilty. The trial judge, Justice Sir Arthur Dean, pronounced the mandatory death sentence.

Appeals to the Full Court of the Supreme Court in February 1962 and the High Court of Australia in May 1962 failed. The cabinet of the Liberal and Country Party premier, (Sir) Henry Bolte, confirmed Tait’s death sentence on 6 August 1962. This was to be the first execution in Victoria since 1951. A concerted legal and public protest campaign to avert Tait’s hanging, then scheduled for 22 August 1962, began. The campaign was broadly based across legal, academic, church, community and union groups, and was encouraged by the Melbourne press. Bolte was unmoved.

Execution dates were postponed and reset pending the outcome of further pleas to the courts. On 2 October 1962 the judicial committee of the Privy Council in London dismissed a petition for special leave to appeal. With only days to the scheduled execution, new applications were made to the Supreme Court to establish Tait’s insanity. All these attempts failed, primarily on the threshold issue of the courts’ jurisdiction.

On 31 October 1962 an application was made to the High Court, on the grounds that if Tait were now found to be insane, he would not be executed. The new Mental Health Act 1959, which had been recently proclaimed, was coming into force the next day—the scheduled day for the execution. Instead of ‘insanity’ it contained a milder concept of ‘mentally ill or intellectually defective’. With less than twenty-four hours remaining, the chief justice, Sir Owen Dixon, swept aside the jurisdictional issue and firmly restrained the Victorian government from proceeding with the execution, pending further hearing.

On 5 November 1962 the government commuted Tait’s death sentence to one of life imprisonment after a new psychiatric examination had shown his mental health to be impaired. His papers were marked ‘never to be released’. Tait’s case came to be seen as a precursor to the capital case four years later of Ronald Joseph Ryan. On 19 February 1985 Tait died of a cerebrovascular accident after failed heart surgery in hospital at Fitzroy, Melbourne, and was cremated. Still imprisoned in Pentridge, at his death he was Victoria’s longest serving prisoner.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Burns, The Tait Case (1962)
  • B. Jones, A Thinking Reed (2006)
  • Truth (Melbourne), 13 Oct 1962, p 1
  • Vic Bar News, no 101, winter 1997, p 34.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Mike Richards, 'Tait, Robert Peters (1924–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tait-robert-peters-15812/text27011, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 22 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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