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The Bain of his life: Joe Karam

Steve Nicoll



When I contacted law lecturer Steven Price in regards to interviewing David Bain, he told me not to worry, doubting Bain would agree to an interview with Salient. Ten minutes later, I was speaking with Bain’s most prominent supporter, Joe Karam, after obtaining his cell phone number from a media acquaintance. Karam helped fund Bain’s appeals against his convictions for serial murder, including his successful Privy Council appeal in May. My pitch was thus: Bain is a unique example of someone who has not been a part of New Zealand society for 12 years. What reflections can he offer on how we have changed? How have cultural attitudes and the role of technology in our lives changed since his incarceration in 1995?

Karam liked the idea of Bain as social commentator and, after emails clarifying what questions would be asked, a date was set for the interview. However, the interview would never eventuate after Bain accepted a stocktaking job that week. Several unanswered phone calls to Karam led to the inevitable: the story would be canned. Karam said that they were too busy with retrial preparations, and that now he thought the original idea would be uninteresting as the changes in society had still affected Bain behind bars with the influence of the media and technology. I wondered if Karam had changed his mind for more profit driven reasons, after he acknowledged that he had recently received offers to produce books about Bain. That seems likely, considering Karam’s comment to me: “Why should we give you that information when, after Bain is acquitted, we could charge for interviews?” Regardless of the reasons, Joe himself consented to an interview. On the same day, an article in The Press appeared, describing Karam’s re-release of his book on the Bain killings (David and Goliath: the Bain family murders) – despite the Solicitor-General’s warning that any public discussion could prejudice David Bain’s retrial.
Salient: What are your core beliefs and how have they influenced your decision to be an advocate for Bain?
Joe: I have always had an abhorrence for bullies, which I think mixes in with a great belief in fairness. Life, I suppose, often isn’t fair. There is unfairness which is unjustified, as opposed to those things that just go wrong for us all from time to time. I can illustrate with a little story. I remember a particular bully at school who was in a group of hard nuts. He was giving an unfortunate kid a hard time, and it wasn’t affecting me in any way, but I stood up for this kid and eventually I got picked on. So I got this guy and gave him a hell of a good hiding. It’s the only fight I’ve ever had in my life and the authorities at the school said it was the best thing that could have been done to him. So that goes back to when I was a young guy. Maybe that stems from my family upbringing and the fact that I had five sisters. I was the only brother and the oldest one in the family, so it was just a sense of responsibility that people should have a fair go. And I suppose at the core of what I’ve done for David, leaving everything else aside, is that what’s now been proven is that David did not get a fair go. That’s been the driving force. And again, David was in most unfortunate circumstances – it was [through] no fault of his own that he got treated like he did. That’s really been the driving force behind what I’ve done.
Salient: How do you think others would describe you?
Joe: The perception from people close to me is quite different from that of those in the media. I’m a reasonably hard taskmaster. I have high expectations that people will deliver on their word. But, at the same time, I think I’m a very generous person for people in need. I think those would be two overriding things.
Salient: How is Bain feeling at the moment?
Joe: He’s feeling very good, he’s really ready to move on in life. He has ambitions, obviously. He’d like to make a career for himself. He’d like to meet a lady one day and have a family of his own. So leaving aside the fact that he can’t really pursue either of those endeavours until his trial is over, he’s in great heart.
Salient: In terms of the way the media have portrayed Bain – I mean, one of the headlines at the time of his conviction was “Paperboy delivers death to father”, then he was almost ignored for a number of years, and now there’s been a resurgence in interest – how do you view that?
Joe: I think it’s entirely understandable. I think one of the peculiar and exceptional circumstances of this case, which is that by any standards, the slaying of an entire family, bar one, is an extremely gruesome and disturbing thing to happen. In a place like Dunedin, which is quite conservative and moralistic (except for the Scarfies), that was an intense shock. So within a couple of weeks of the event, the house was burnt down – in what many people have described as a kind of exorcism of evil. David was only ever photographed once, really, and that was on the day of his arrest. He didn’t realise that he was even being arrested and, after four days, was still suffering the trauma of discovering his dead family. That one brief clip of David in the striped jersey looking extremely forlorn, frail, distraught and possibly withdrawn has been the way that he’s been depicted for all these years. I think it’s entirely natural that the media have been enchanted by the fellow they’ve met 12 years later. I’m not surprised by that – in fact, I’ve personally said for years that the single greatest reward would be the day that David did get out, so that New Zealanders could see what he’s really like. I think it’s entirely understandable that there has been a focus on the person that we now know.
Salient: Was there any kind of consideration for Bain’s image when he got released?
Joe: Absolutely – you see he’s had no clothes except prison clothes for 13 years, and I certainly wasn’t going to have him go to court in a striped jersey! I mean, he never went to the hair dressers or had anything done of that nature. But you know, I went and purchased a nice suit and shirt for him. I wanted him to look smart and to feel proud, and I think he did.
Salient: How does Bain feel about the cliché about his jerseys?
Joe: Oh, he thinks it’s a great joke! He laughs, no, he really does. His mother was a very good knitter, like many mothers are. She used a whole lot of leftover wool from various things she had done and she knitted him a striped jersey to keep him warm in Dunedin, which I’m sure he’s very grateful for. David actually thinks it’s quite a hoot, really. I mean, he probably doesn’t realise just how much it’s impacted on the psychology of the nation. I mean, for example, when he got out, one of the radio stations in Christchurch presented him with a red and black Canterbury striped jersey. He thought that was very amusing and played along and enjoyed the fun of it.
Salient: Have you had many offers for autobiographies of Bain?
Joe: There’ve been quite a lot of discussions going on at the present. They were moving forward really quickly until the retrial was ordered, and now everyone’s sitting back taking stock of the situation to see what pans out, really. The general feeling was that there wouldn’t be a retrial, and I think the general feeling in New Zealand is that there shouldn’t be one – but at this stage, there’s going to be one. The movie, book, documentary type people…again, I’ve got probably 20 letters at home and I’ve just replied to them all and said, “Look, we’re just too busy at the moment – we’ve got a trial to get through!”
Salient: How has your perception of natural justice changed from this whole process?
Joe: I don’t think my perception of natural justice has changed at all. My perception of the justice system has changed dramatically, but I think those are two different. Justice is about the law and not about justice. The justice system administers the law, as opposed to necessarily pronouncing justice. Another one that people often talk about – the only winners in court are the lawyers. And so it goes on.
Salient: Should the public still have faith in the system?
Joe: No, I don’t think so, actually. I think it’s in need of dramatic overhaul, and I’ve written about that, particularly in the second book I wrote, called Bain and Beyond. My thoughts and beliefs have actually advanced, even since then.
Salient: How have the trials changed how you relate to people?
Joe: I think it’s affected the way people relate to me, more than the way I relate to people, I think.
Salient: In what way?
Joe: Sad to say, the justice system is the same for everybody, but the people who can afford justice tend to get a much better result. What I think has happened is that the people of the upper socioeconomic cluster don’t appreciate the pitfalls in the system, and view me as some sort of renegade who is having an unwarranted slash at the establishment. Whereas the general public applaud me for standing up for what they know happens to them and their ilk when they get caught up in this thing. It’s a strange thing in a way. I don’t want to sound self-congratulatory but, I mean, there’s an overwhelming warmth towards me from the vast majority of ordinary people. And, unfortunately, an almost equivalent rejection of me by the people who could actually make a difference.
Salient: What made you want to do this? You’ve given up so much of your life for one person. It’s a rare thing. It’s a remarkable thing.
Joe: What I’ve really been driven by is an absolute certainty that David Bain was railroaded – that he never got a fair go. That’s what’s kept me going really, that there’s been a police inquiry, a police complaints inquiry, a Ministry of Justice enquiry, there’s been two Court of Appeal hearings and three Privy Council hearings. It’s taken till the last one of those to get the truth on the table. I haven’t been prepared to allow what I would loosely describe as a cover up of the previous ones, and that’s really been the driving force of it. Get the facts on the table and this man cannot possibly be convicted. I’ve said that hundreds of times. I said it 12 years ago.
Salient: How would you react if Bain was found guilty?
Joe: Well, I would be astonished, because I think it’s impossible. I have no doubt whatsoever that that won’t happen, so I’ve never really considered it.
Salient: You’ve never considered it at all?
Joe: Not a possibility, no.
Salient: How do you get away from the case? Do you watch a DVD in the evening or drink a glass of merlot?
Joe: Yeah, I enjoy cooking, at an amateur level. I enjoy my wine; I like to cook sort of like Jamie Oliver. I love getting in there and chopping things and making things up that aren’t in recipe books, and having a glass of wine while I’m doing it. I enjoy a lot of the international sport we’re able to get now on television.
Salient: Of course, the rugby (Joe is a former All Black).
Joe: And some of the rugby, too. Though rugby itself, no, I don’t like the game – to be honest, the rules have destroyed it. I’m tired of seeing teams being congratulated for having gone through 40 phases in seven yards. And I find it terribly boring – at least with league, every six tackles the other team gets a crack. I play golf and tennis. I’ve got a little kind of garden at home, I think it’s a very good sort of thing to keep you grounded and clear the cobwebs out of the brain.
Salient: Assuming Bain gets acquitted, five years on, what will you be doing?
Joe: I’ve actually been harbouring a belief that I might be able to make a living out of writing, and contribute to other people’s enjoyment by having them read my books. And I’ve got some ideas, but the case has been such that I’ve never really had time to sit down and sort of let the pen flow, if you like.
Salient: Would you consider writing for Salient? Because we’d take a feature from you.
Joe: Oh good, yeah, let’s do that, yeah! I’ve got some quite good ideas for some light-hearted sort of stuff. But I also now have got a very good understanding, I could almost do a script for a CSI programme, you know – I’ve been in DNA laboratories and a part of the criminal investigation world, and so I’ve got ideas of becoming a modern day John Grisham, or whatever.
Salient: Great, I look forward to reading your novels.
Joe: Well, it’d be nice if I can achieve it. One has to have dreams.