In October 2011, Katherine, NT businessman Ray Niceforo was brutally murdered. The subsequent police investigation and trial of the quartet accused of killing him would put a renewed spotlight on the NT government's mandatory sentencing laws.
Four years before the 41-year-old was bashed to death in a contract killing organised by his fiancιe Bronwyn Buttery, the latter had moved from Adelaide to Katherine to be with the man she called the love of her life. However, Niceforo turned out to have a mean streak, which made her feel trapped. Niceforo had previous troubles with women when he lived in Queensland, but his close friend Brenda Heal found him affable. Even his brother Nico and mother Anna did not regard him as the black sheep of the family despite his well-known convictions for assault on several local townspeople. At the time of his death, Niceforo was due to appear in court for breaching a violence restraining order Buttery and her son, Chris Malychko had taken out against him.
Investigative journalism: Steven Schubert's book detailing the investigation into Ray Niceforo's murdeer and the subsequent convictions of those responsible, of which one of them (Zak Grieve) was not only absent from the crime scene, but had pulled out of the plot altogether.
Buttery subsequently offered money to have Niceforo taken out of her life and asked Malychko to look for people who could do that. Unbeknownst to her, Malychko himself had a personal desire to whack the life out of Niceforo after seeing the horrible way his mother had been treated. Niceforo had also been cold towards Malychko and had sent threatening messages to Buttery in which he mentioned harming someone she loved, which could only mean Malychko. Two other people, Darren "Spider" Halfpenny and Zak Grieve, were recruited by Malychko to do the dirty deed. All three young men had been social misfits who endured constant bullying in school. They were keen fans of video games and enjoyed smoking marijuana together.
Grieve later got cold feet and backed out of the plot to kill Niceforo, and Malychko dropped him home. Only Malychko and Spider were present when Niceforo was bashed to death at his flat. The pair later dumped Niceforo's body near a construction site on Gorge Road, 13 kilometres from Katherine town centre, where it was found by a grader driver. Subsequently, Spider, Grieve and Malychko were arrested for murder, while Buttery turned herself into the authorities sometime later despite earlier telling her son to keep her out of the case in conversations recorded by correctional services officers. Although the subsequent trial proved that Grieve was certainly not present at the crime scene, the fact that he did not go to the authorities to tell them what his friends were up to make him culpable of murder. He was found guilty by a jury and given a minimum of 20 years' imprisonment without parole. Buttery, who had ordered the hit on her former partner, got eight years, with a non-parole period of four. The disparity of the sentences meted out left a bad taste in the mouth of the trial judge himself. This was the result of the NT's mandatory sentencing law which left his hands tied.
Mandatory Murder is the result of Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) journalist Steven Schubert's long-running investigation into the Niceforo murder case and its aftermath. It looks at the personal stories behind each of the players in the case, the police investigation, trials of all the accused persons as well as the effects on the family of Zak Grieve, the man who was most hard done by a corrupt system. It reads like part thriller and part legal treatise. Schubert spent most of his career as a reporter in Alice Springs and is familiar with life and customs in the NT. He is well-known for looking into the murders of indigenous people in the territory.
One cannot half but feel a large ounce of sympathy for Grieve as there have been few avenues for him to get his conviction quashed and be released immediately. Despite this, Grieve appeared upbeat and positive the last time Schubert saw him in prison. It also appears that correctional services are wary that Grieve might reveal too much as they have tried to keep Grieve away from Schubert while the latter was doing the legwork to gather material for his book. One question concerns the possible involvement of Trevor "Nipper" Tydd, a close friend of Buttery and Malychko, who allegedly was responsible for disposing of the weapons used to inflict fatal wounds on Niceforo. Nipper denied all involvement, was never investigated and certainly not charged at all. Another issue is a statement made by Zak Grieve's father Wal to the police, which was brushed aside by Zak's legal team but could have helped in his defence.
Comments on the ABC's Facebook page seem to suggest that Buttery got off lightly on account of her gender while Grieve got it worst due to his ethnicity. They may not be entirely wrong. Niceforo could be compared to Alexander Zalachenko from Steig Larsson's Millennium series. In a way, he had his brutal end coming for quite some time. Grieve being of Aboriginal descent was disadvantaged by having an all-European jury that lacked diversity. Four years after the conclusion of Grieve's trial, his case became the central story for a six-part television series aired on the NITV channel. Schubert was the next journalist to look into the case for his book. Barely a month after the publication of Mandatory Murder, Chris Malychko was found dead in his prison cell, with drug use suspected as the main cause of death.
Even if Nino and Anna Niceforo vouched for Grieve, the authorities are not going to budge. This case certainly makes it all the more pressing for Australian residents to be covered by a Charter of Rights like the one guaranteed by the US Constitution. For now, the only way for Grieve to get his side of the story out to more people might be through iExpress.