WYNDHAM VALE, AUSTRALIA
An hour drive from the centre of Melbourne, and 5 kilometres past Werribee is the new suburb of Manor Lakes. Manor lakes officially became its own suburb in 2015 after separating from Wyndham Vale. There is no metropolitan train line that goes out far enough to reach Manor Lakes. Infrastructure has failed to keep up with the constant spread of housing estates and long bus rides are the common alternative to driving. On a map the spacious outskirts of this suburb seem like a different land compared with the tightly squeezed urban streets of Melbourne. Lines that mark the residential streets of the area come to abrupt ends and back on to large expanses of empty land that stretches across the left side of Victoria. A main feature of the area is Gladman Lake which protests itself as home to a mix of native and exotic trees and many native birds. On one side of the lake is Manor Lakes Boulevard, a newly surfaced road that looks like it could travel on forwards forever. On the opposite side of the lake is a children’s playground ‘perfect for keeping the little ones amused after the novelty of watching all the wildlife wears off’ one blogger writes.
On the 8th of April 2015, Akon Guode left her house in Wyndham Vale. She told her eldest child Akoi Chabiet that she was going to spend the afternoon at the children’s grandparents. Akon left her house with four of her seven children. She strapped, Bol, Madit, Hangar, and Aluel into the back of her Toyota Kluger and drove towards the centre of Wyndham Vale. None of the children’s grandparents lived here.
With four restless children in the back, Akon spent almost three hours circling Manor Lakes Boulevard and directly passing Gladman Lake five times. What happened during these three hours is a blur to Akon and in sense to the world at large. In the ambulance that afternoon Akon told paramedic David Hammond that she had felt dizzy whilst driving and could not remember anything that had happened after she had left her house. The court has tried to piece together fragments of witness testimonies and records of evidence to create a true description of what took place on the on the afternoon of 8 April 2015.
Phone records show that Akon called Joseph Manyang, but when she tried to talk to him there was no answer. Akon and Joseph had met in 2008 when Joseph was married with three children and Akon was a widow. Akon’s first husband was killed in the South Sudanese civil war and as a widow in South Sudan Akon remained a member of her husband’s family and was passed on to her husband’s brother. Akon’s ‘auntie’ gave an honest explanation at the committal hearing through an interpreter explaining, ‘You don’t go out. You don’t go anywhere else. You stay with the same tribe because you got married for cows. As dowry’. This she reassures is ‘customary when the husband dies’.
Joseph, a cousin of Akon’s late husband offered Akon a temporary place to live with his family when she moved to Melbourne. It was then that Akon and Joseph began a relationship, one which incited judgement and turmoil within the Sudanese community. Akon was ostracised by her community and Joseph’s wife detested Akon and did not try to hide her anger. To escape this, Akon had plans to move to Morwell to regain her anonymity. Despite all this Joseph and Akon’s relationship persisted. By 2013 Akon and Joseph had four children together.
One hour after Akon had tried to call Joseph, a witness saw Akon huddled over the steering wheel of her stationary vehicle. The witness claimed that the children looked distressed and that the mother’s face was covered by her hands. At 3:40pm after Akon’s call had not been returned, she drove again along Manor Lakes Boulevard. But this time she did not follow the same route that she had followed autonomously for hours earlier. Instead Akon did a U-turn and then pulled to the side of the road that bordered Gladman Lake. Akon’s car was then seen driving over the nature strip, and through the only bare gap in the trees towards Gladman Lake.
THE FIRST PLEA
It was by coincidence that I was pulled deeply into the tangles of Akon’s life. It was the summer break and with broad sweeps of empty time I sat in on the murder trial of a notorious underworld figure. It was two weeks into the university holidays and I had spent those initial weeks struggling to convince myself that I had made the right decision to move overseas. I was set to leave the country in four weeks’ time, leaving behind a boyfriend that I loved and who loved me. To escape, I relished myself in the anonymity that the courtroom offered, and spent my days writing down in my notebook phrases that assertive barristers uttered with their backs facing me. An adjournment was granted and the judge ordered us to clear the court. Outside I saw a woman walking with hand cuffs clinking, surrounded by four police staff, guiding her into a small courtroom. Curiously I followed. I walked through the wooden doorway of the courtroom that was lined with green carpet and shuffled in to the second row of wooden benches on the right side of the room. A Sudanese woman filed in next to me, dressed in colourful, traditional style dress. Tissues were spilling out of her open handbag that sat on the floor. She smiled at me instantly before I had a chance to notice the distressed wrinkles that sunk into her forehead. I soon learnt that I had found myself sitting in on Akon Guode’s plea hearing.
Initially Akon Guode was charged with three counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. She pleaded not guilty to these offences. However, shortly before her trial was set to begin the Department of Public Prosecutions replaced the charge of murder, concerning the death of 17-month-old Bol, with the lesser charge of infanticide. On 16 January 2017, in a brief court hearing Akon Guode pleaded guilty to these offences. Pleading guilty to crimes requiring an actus reus – a guilty mind – is interpreted by the court as showing an intention to kill. As Justice Lasry described, a ‘complication in this case’ is that despite pleading guilty Akon has continually denied having an intention to kill any of her children.