Red baron holds court

Robert Richter
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Robert Richter, QC, has strong opinions on the role of law and his part in it. Eliot Davenport reports.

 

He greets you with a broad smile and a firm handshake. Robert Richter, QC, gestures to a leather seat.

He smiles through his grey beard and circular glasses as he opens a fresh pack of cigarettes. “Anything strong,” he says of the brands he smokes

The scent of tobacco is the first thing you notice as you enter his office, seven stories up. It seems terribly out of place in a room that resembles a museum. You gaze around spying antique furniture, paintings, a large oriental rug covering much of the floor, bookcases, with bound books.

The only other noise in the room is the gentle hum of the air-conditioner and his husky Australian voice.

There’s a model Albatros D.III, the fighter plane flown by the ‘Red Baron’ during WWI, on his bookshelf.

“We’re all fighter pilots,” he smiles as he picks it up, “fighting all alone”.

It’s hard not to see him as some kind of warrior, aptly nicknamed the ‘Red Baron’ for his once flaming-red hair and German surname. “Richter actually means judge in German,” he smiles again.

Veteran Age court reporter, Steve Butcher, says Richter’s a “brilliant cross examiner” and “one of the best in 30 years”. In court, says Butcher, “he’s imposing, has a fantastic persona, he’s not shrill, not given to extremes” and he “never loses the incisive and pointed focus of what he’s there for.”

It is almost 30 years since he successfully defended surgeon Dr Ian McGoldrick, who faced charges of procuring abortion. He was back in the news a few years on, successful in his defence of police officer Cliff Lockwood, who shot dead Gary Abdallah, a suspect in the Walsh Street Police Shootings.

He led the defence of Underworld figure Dominic ‘Mick’ Gatto, charged after a shooting incident in which Andrew ‘Benji’ Veniamin was shot dead with a .38 six-shot revolver in the back of a La Porcella, Carlton, in 2004. Gatto was acquitted by the jury.

What “fight” has been his greatest achievement?

Richter ponders the question. “Well, I formed the view very early on that the firearm [in the Gatto case] had a loose cylinder so I realized it misfired…There was a struggle going on, pressure on the cylinder… So that was very satisfying as you form a kind of case theory. When everything falls in to place, it’s just terrific.”

Born in 1946 in Kyrgyzstan, Richter’s family moved to Israel in 1949, before migrating to Australia a decade later when he was 13, speaking only Hebrew. He learnt English from dictionaries and television shows, such as the legal drama Perry Mason.

He’s well-spoken but talks like he’s “one of the boys”, humble and fond of a laugh. “Well, if I’m going to develop stomach ulcers I may as well do it so I can stop people going to jail who shouldn’t,” he jokes.

“I have very strong feelings about the legal system. At the time I started to practice there was a lot of police corruption, there were a lot of insane laws beginning to come in, which has since become more insane and stupider, you know the drug laws.”

He pauses. “…It’s the kind of way in which you treat people who shouldn’t be in jail because they are not a danger to anyone, but they are slotted in because of moral panics created by the press.”

His opinion on the current ice epidemic is blunt. “Every drug epidemic has been produced by the law,” he warns, “has been produced by the way that the law regards drugs. It doesn’t look at drugs and say ‘if this drug under controlled circumstances could be harmless…it shouldn’t be dealt with in punitive way’”.

Deakin University law student, Daniel Shapero, says he is a, “ruthless defender of civil liberties, the kind of lawyer who motivates you in your studies so that one day you might provide the quality of representation he does.”

Richter has held positions such as chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, President of Victorian Council for Civil Liberties, part time member of the Law Reform Commission of Victoria.

Richter poses in his most cherished item in his office, a reclining chair made around 1770 by the author of the dictionary of the English language, Samuel Johnson, and jokes it belongs in a museum.

“Probably like me,” he smiles.