There Is No One Else To Blame For Murder Than The Murderer
On Wednesday, February 19, a young mother and her three small children were burned alive inside a car on a leafy suburban street in Brisbane.
Hannah Clarke, 31, managed to escape the vehicle, but later died from her extensive injuries in hospital. Her three little ones, Laianah, six, Aaliyah, four, and Trey, three, perished in the flames while their mother burned on the ground outside.
This was a deliberate, callous act, and – as with so many victims throughout the ages – Hannah knew her murderer. It was her estranged husband, Rowan Baxter, a man her parents have said left her ‘petrified’ during their marriage.
Baxter, 42, approached the SUV during the school run and sat himself in the passenger seat, as reported by news.com.au. Baxter then set the vehicle alight, with his estranged wife and children still inside. He died at the scene from self-inflicted injuries.
Witnesses have since spoken out about the horror that followed, about how what should have been an ordinary morning in a quiet Australian suburb descended into a tragedy too terrible to bear.
Hannah, who suffered burns to 97% of her body, could be heard screaming, ‘He’s poured petrol on me’, as she leaped from the vehicle. Neighbours tried in vain to save them, with one passerby suffering burns to his face as he attempted to pull the family from the blaze.
Australia has gained a dark notoriety for domestic abuse homicides, an issue that casts a dark shadow over a country often spoken about as a sunny, beautiful place to raise a family.
According to statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, one in six women in Australia – and one in 16 men – have suffered physical or sexual abuse from either a current or former partner. Furthermore, 25% of Australian women and 5% of men have been emotionally abused by a partner.
Horrifyingly, an average of one Australian woman is killed every nine days by a partner, while one man is killed every 29 days.
Speaking with Channel 9’s A Current Affair, Hannah’s brave parents spoke about the manipulation their lovely, energetic daughter had endured at the hands of Baxter, suggesting he had targeted her because of her kindhearted nature.
Baxter allegedly forced Hannah to have sex every single night and stalked her, tracking her phone calls and working to control every single aspect of her life. He forbade her from wearing bikinis and shorts, and worked to drive a wedge between her and other family members.
In January, Baxter was given a domestic violence order (DVO) after kidnapping one of their daughters and taking her interstate without Hannah’s consent.
Hannah’s mum, Suzanne, told A Current Affair’s Tracy Grimshaw how her daughter had feared for her life prior to the attack:
In the beginning we thought he was a prude, but in hindsight we know there was more to it than that. He was controlling. It was Rowan’s way or the highway. She had to grovel and then he would forgive her. She was petrified.
He could manipulate her. The night before he killed them he was on the phone to the children crying, and she hung up or the children hung up – she said to me, ‘Mum I feel so bad for him.’
She was concerned he would kill her. She said to me, ‘What happens to my babies if he kills me?’
Unfortunately, the events that led to this awful day have been somewhat skewed, and as with so many stories where a woman has been murdered by a current or former romantic partner, there has been a nasty undercurrent of victim blaming.
The idea of a man being somehow ‘pushed’ to commit terrible acts was shockingly evident in a press statement delivered by Detective Inspector Mark Thompson of the Queensland Police Department.
In his dangerously irresponsible statement, Detective Inspector Thompson spoke about there being two sides to the story, which members of the community were currently deciding between:
To put it bluntly, there are probably people out there in the community that are deciding which side to take, so to speak, in this investigation.
Is this an issue of a woman suffering significant domestic violence and her and her children perishing at the hands of the husband? Or is this an instance of a husband being driven too far by issues that he’s suffered, by certain circumstances, into committing acts of this form?
DI Thompson has since volunteered to step down from the case, with Queensland Police having issued an apology for his comments and he’s said to be absolutely mortified with how he phrased his press conference. Despite the police handling the backlash correctly, words still have power, and whether he meant to or not, DI Thompson’s words support an extremely damaging narrative.
There are currently various comments floating around social media positioning Baxter as a victim who was ultimately ‘driven too far’ to the point where he felt as if he had no choice. Such comments sympathise with his ongoing custody issues, arguing he had been missing his kids too much.
This argument is, of course, fundamentally untrue. There is nothing loving about setting your children on fire, to rob them of their chance to grow up beyond you and become their own people with their own thoughts, opinions and agency.
Sadly, Hannah is far from the only woman to be heaped with blame for her partner’s rage.
Skewed and inaccurate narratives position violence as an inevitability, murders as ‘crimes of passion’ and heinous, deliberate acts as evidence of their love and desperation.
Far too often in relationships, possessive or controlling behaviour is framed as an outpouring of profound emotions of adoration. Similarly, domestic abuse murders are regularly spoken of as being ‘crimes of passion’, with the perpetrator’s judgement blurred by a sudden ‘red mist’.
Fortunately, this ‘red mist’ notion has been brought under serious scrutiny in recent years, with criminologists now understanding how warning signs can be tracked right back to the very early stages of the relationship.
Sally Field, chair of domestic abuse charity Woman’s Trust, told UNILAD:
People in abusive relationships fear that they won’t be taken seriously, and that the abuse may be trivialised or dismissed. Unfortunately, these fears are often justified.
For example, it is reported that the perpetrator had domestic and family violence orders made against him, yet the police refer to ‘family issues’.
Secondly, the point when someone chooses to leave an abusive partner is often the most dangerous time in that relationship.
Statistics show that this is when women’s lives are at greatest risk, as violence often escalates. These fears coupled with threats to their or their children’s safety, are why some women feel they cannot leave their abusive partner.
Last but not least, one of the biggest issues this raises is around the language used when discussing cases. There is no excuse for domestic abuse or homicide. Ever.
Words like ‘driven too far’ sound like a justification for a perpetrator’s actions. This cannot ever be condoned: the message it sends is that the victim is the one at fault.
UNILAD spoke with Luke Hart, Refuge ambassador and co-author of heartbreaking domestic abuse and murder memoir, Remembered Forever.
Luke and his brother Ryan have a deeply personal understanding of how domestic abuse can escalate to homicide. In 2016, their father killed their mum, Claire, and 19-year-old sister, Charlotte, mere days after they’d managed to escape from his abuse.
Luke told UNILAD:
When men murder their own families, many people think it’s an anomaly, but it simply isn’t.
The home is the most dangerous place for women and children, and the most likely person to harm or kill them are their partners or fathers – and to highlight the truly terrifying lack of options women and children have, the most likely time for them to be killed is after they’ve escaped their abuser.
Rowan Baxter’s murders of Hannah Clarke and her children Laianah, Aaliyah and Trey highlights the pervasive and relentless victim-blaming that surrounds domestic abuse all around the world.
Men’s feelings are routinely given priority over women’s and children’s lives, and in this case a police officer sympathised with the murderer, suggesting he may have been ‘pushed too far’.
But again, it isn’t uncommon for these killers to receive all the empathy. Our father was quoted as being a ‘nice guy’ who was ‘always caring’, and one report even called the murders ‘understandable’.
This reaction is so common that our father actually constructed a murder note when he was planning to kill our family – it was composed of rationalisations that he’d copied from previous media reports as reasons to us all.
Men murdering their families isn’t an anomaly; it’s a weekly event propped up by societal attitudes and emboldened by a misogynistic media. It has nothing to do with men’s mental health, and everything to do with their values and broken masculine ideals.
Much like Luke and Ryan, Hannah’s family are now fighting for other individuals currently suffering at the hands of a partner, establishing anti-domestic abuse campaign Small Steps for Hannah in her name.
The symbol of the footstep is a haunting one, with the soles of Hannah’s feet being the only part of her body that hadn’t been badly burnt.
For a domestic abuser, the murder is their final act of control; taking away their victim’s agency forever. There are no circumstances by which this act can be justified, no outcomes where there are ‘two sides’ to be considered.
It is up to us as a society to ensure a victim’s story is still told when they can no longer tell it themselves, ensuring their lives and their deaths are not warped by cruel and inaccurate narratives.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues, and want to speak to someone in confidence contact the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247. Do not suffer in silence.
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Australian Institute of Health and Welfare
Channel 9/A Current Affair