R v Emily Perry: Enlivening and Reframing a High Court Case

Author: Rachel Spencer

Spencer, Rachel, 2021 R v Emily Perry: Enlivening and Reframing a High Court Case, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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In 1981, fifty-five-year-old Emily Perry stood trial in South Australia for the attempted murder of her husband Ken Perry who almost died from arsenic poisoning. In Emily’s past were three other men, who had all died from poisoning. The trial was a media sensation and the Perry case went on to become a definitive legal precedent

This thesis is an innovative cross-disciplinary study positioned at the nexus of legal theory and creative writing. It is a work of creative research into the Emily Perry case (R v Perry [No. 5] 1981 and Perry v R 1982) comprising a creative artefact and an exegesis, in accordance with Rule 6 (a) of the Flinders University HDR Thesis Rules. The artefact tells Emily’s story and explores the legal context and background to the Perry case and the concept of ‘similar fact evidence’. The artefact is styled as a true crime narrative, using familiar fictional techniques and generic conventions but it also provides a vehicle to explain the law for an audience who may not have specialised legal knowledge. As a practising lawyer, I am able to include doctrinal knowledge of the law within the creative work, lending a level of authority and expertise that enhances reader understanding of the criminal justice system. The artefact is the culmination of my research into the Perry case, providing an alternative perspective on the events that led to the High Court judgments. Drawing on the experience of writing the artefact and reflecting on the creative process of using archival material, the exegesis is a consideration of the legal and cultural significance of the Perry case; a consideration of the contemporary artistic and cultural context of the artefact (which straddles both true crime and life-writing while also exploring the legal reasoning that led to the outcome of the case); and an analysis of the specific ethical issues that have arisen from writing a narrative that blurs the boundaries of true-crime, biography, and legal analysis.

Using the creative methodology of practice-led research, this thesis excavates the intersecting seams of disciplinary knowledge within law and true crime, deliberately and explicitly negotiating the methods and ethics of life writing. I draw conclusions about the specific ethical issues and narrative challenges that also define my unique circumstances: a practising lawyer writing for a popular audience about a complex criminal case. I conclude that the product of the lawyer- writer is not art for art’s sake, but as an alternative expression of the disciplinary literacy of law.

Keywords: similar fact evidence, Emily Perry, true crime, life writing, ethics

Subject: Creative Arts thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2021
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Dr Kylie Cardell