KASAMA Vol. 14 No. 1 / January-February-March 2000 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Left: Jean Angela Strachan Keir - Right: Strachan family with Filipino Women's Working Party at the court. (Photo: D. Wall)

Thomas Keir, convicted of murdering Filipina, Jean Angela Strachan Keir, was sentenced on 29 February 2000 by Justice Michael Adams in the Supreme Court of New South Wales to 24 years (a minimum of 18 years and additional term of 6 years) to end in 2022.

DEBORAH RUIZ WALL reports from the Sydney courthouse.

Thomas Keir's case brings to 12 the number of convictions recorded by the Centre for Philippine Concerns-Australia (CPCA) for those accused of murdering Filipino women or their children, mainly spousal homicide cases in Australia. Keir's case is also significant because he is one of two cases of acquittals for another spousal homicide case, also involving a Filipina - his second wife. CPCA's records to date list 24 deaths since 1980, comprising of 21 Filipino women and 3 children in addition to 5 women and 2 children reported as missing. Apart from one, all involve non-Filipino perpetrators. Eleven cases remain unsolved. (see summary of CPCA data below …Eds.)

Mrs Christina Strachan, the victim's mother and her family were visibly relieved upon hearing the sentence. After the sentencing, Filipino Women's Working Party members met with the family and had a talk over coffee. Mrs Strachan recalled idiosyncrasies in Keir's personality. She had known him, both as one of Keir's employees and later as her son-in-law. She used to take young 15-year old Jean to the upholstery factory where she worked as a machinist. Keir spotted her and gave the teenager a bit of pocket money for helping her mother. When Jean turned 16, Keir started going out with her and they married when she was 18.

Mrs Strachan thought highly of Keir as an employer but after he married her daughter, she saw another side to his personality. He displayed extreme jealousy and possessiveness with regard to Jean. A couple of times, he discharged Jean from hospital because he would not allow any male doctor to attend to his wife. He was insanely jealous of her male relatives and acquaintances.

In 1993, Keir was acquitted of the murder of his second wife, Rosalina Canonizado, also a Filipina and coincidentally a second cousin of Jean. Rosalina was introduced to Keir by Mrs Strachan during a family wedding in Sydney in 1988.

Jean had been reported missing for a few months at this stage, with Keir alleging that his wife ran away with her lover. Their son, Michael now aged 15, was in the care of Keir and his mother.

Rosalina, who was in Australia on holiday, returned to the Philippines. Keir pursued and wooed her and they were married in the Philippines in November 1989. He was able to marry her, his first wife having been missing for less than two years, because he was able to produce papers that showed he had no impediment to marriage, being 'divorced'.

In April 1991, Rosalina was strangled, her body set alight at their Tregear home in Sydney's west. Keir was accused of her murder but acquitted by a jury in 1993. The detectives involved in Rosalina's case were the same officers who investigated Jean's case. They were happy to discuss with us how they sent away the bone fragments (Jean's remains found in Keir's backyard) to the USA for DNA testing - vital evidence against Keir.

Unless there is fresh evidence with regard to Rosalina's case, it is unlikely that it would be re-opened. Under Australia's criminal justice law, the accused who receives an acquittal can not be tried for the same crime. Although Justice Adams did not make any reference to Rosalina's case upon sentencing Keir for Jean's murder, he expressed fear that "unless there is a considerable change in (Keir's) psyche…he will react in the same ruthlessly violent fashion".

Justice Adams cited at length the evidence presented by Dr Westmore, a consultant forensic psychiatrist: "I would not…consider him to represent a risk to the general community but one would need to say that in the context of an intense emotional relationship of an intimate type he potentially does represent risk to the other person, particularly if that person chooses to leave him at some stage during the course of that relationship."

Keir's case is one of many drawing attention as part of a pattern of violent deaths and disappearances among Filipino women immigrants in Australia recently highlighted in a forum held in Manila on February 18. Expressed in the forum was the pain and grief suffered by the families of the victims. This human element sometimes receives little attention when tragedies are reported and cases investigated.

Questions remain as to why Filipino women have experienced this level of violence and how it can be stopped. In Keir's case, one can hardly attribute the cause to introduction agencies or extreme economic imbalance of power. Jean Strachan's family of Spanish, Greek and Filipino background emigrated from the Philippines to Australia in the sixties and Jean was born here. While it is true that Jean's mother, Christina was employed by Keir, there was no necessity or compulsion for her daughter to be married to Keir. However, in situations of domestic violence, it is often claimed that religion and culture influence family members to be less supportive when it comes to the proposition of a daughter leaving her husband. The problem is further complicated by the practical and emotional issues of housing and children.

The factors generally associated with why this pattern of violence occurs are:

  • the global economic interface such as lack of labour placements;
  • desire for poorer countries to earn revenue from overseas;
  • sex tourism and trafficking;
  • the absence of legislation and the inability of the Philippine government to protect Filipino nationals abroad;
  • stereotyped attitudes about Filipino women in terms of submissiveness and desirability as sex partners;
  • the attitudes some men have about preserving male superiority and dominance over women;
  • police reluctance to deal with a 'domestic' case;
  • religion and culture affecting family views about keeping marriages intact and tending to overlook the risk posed by violent behaviour within marriage;
  • social construction that reinforces racism;
  • and the stereotypes reflected in media reporting and film treatment of the inter-cultural dynamic such as in the Australian satire, Priscilla, which drew the ire of the Filipino community in Australia.

With regard to processing documents to ensure sponsors have no impediment to marriage if they seek to marry a foreign national, the brief period of Jean's alleged disappearance for some 21 months, after which Keir was able to obtain for himself a change of status from 'married' to 'divorced', raises an important issue in law. How long should one's spouse be missing before one could apply for a change of marital status? Presumably at the Australian Embassy in Manila, Keir's papers would have been seen as nothing out of the ordinary.

The Commission on Filipinos Overseas recently reported 16,000 applications last year of Filipinos wanting to marry foreign nationals. Ninety eight per cent of these applications are from women.

It is recognised that the picture is not all grim, as attested to by many successful inter-cultural marriages. In Australia, in particular, where there are hardly any working visas granted, the majority of women enter the country as fiancees or marriage partners rather than as independent migrants. Anecdotal evidence indicates that many of the relationships developed from introductions by friends and relatives of already successful and established families of inter-cultural marriage rather than through commercial agencies.

There is also a snowball impact of this phenomenon with regard to skilled migration and family reunion.

The background of Thomas Keir's wives gives Filipino analysts further insight into the trend of violence against Filipino women in Australia. The case does not fit the media stereotype of 'mail order brides'. The victims involved were not 'poor' by any stretch of the imagination. His first wife in fact could just as well be labelled 'Australian' rather than 'Filipina'.

Generalised explanations of the causes or patterns of violence is fraught with danger. In other words - interpreting human behaviour and its social context is complex and difficult.

What the case does show is a particular attitude or view of 'possession' in regard to a man's relationship with his spouse - a gender issue of power relationship.

Justice Adams' warning to perpetrators is well worth recording:

"It has sometimes been suggested that 'domestic' murders comprise a less heinous class of crime than murders where such a relationship is absent. I do not accept this point of view. The deliberate infliction of lethal violence is as culpable whether the victim is a spouse or a stranger. I add that it is apparent that there are some men in the community who consider that marriage gives them the right to control the lives and welfare of their wives and to punish them when they do not comply with those demands. Those men should be warned that the law will not stand idly by and permit them to commit crimes of violence, however justified they think they might be. Nor should they think that such attempts at justification will be met with sympathy. To the contrary, the assertion of such a right should be treated as rendering culpability all the greater."

Justice Michael Adams
New South Wales Supreme Court
29 February, 2000, on sentencing Thomas Keir

Filipino Women's Working Party members and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism reporter discussing the sentencing with the Strachan family over coffee at the court (Photos: D. Wall)

About the Author: Deborah Ruiz Wall is convenor of the Filipino Women's Working Party, a SPAN member and a regular Kasama correspondent.

Appeal Court grants Thomas Keir retrial