Daniel Morcombe went missing while waiting for a bus. Picture: supplied
Daniel Morcombe went missing while waiting for a bus. Picture: supplied

Finally, the courts have learned from Daniel Morcombe

This post includes details of child sexual assault.

It was a case that gripped the heart of every parent in Australia, because it could very well have happened to them and their child.

In December 2018, Stirling Mervyn Free lured a seven-year-old child, who was with her mother in Kmart, into his car. He sexually assaulted her, and then returned her to the shopping centre.

The young girl's ordeal - and the mother's - lasted approximately two hours.

Free pleaded guilty to taking a child for immoral purposes, deprivation of liberty, and indecent treatment of a child under 12. He was given an eight-year sentence, with the ability to apply for parole in August 2021.

This week, in acknowledgment of his brazen intentions, abject lack of restraint, and the grave nature of the crimes, Free's appeal against the non-parole period of his sentence was denied. This is despite his co-operation and remorse shown after he was caught. And, despite the fact that he's 'just' 27, and a father of twins.

Last week, the prosecution’s appeal of the eight year sentence handed down to a Sterling Free, 27, who kidnapped a seven-year-old girl from a suburban shopping centre and molested her in bushland, was denied. Picture: AAP
Last week, the prosecution’s appeal of the eight year sentence handed down to a Sterling Free, 27, who kidnapped a seven-year-old girl from a suburban shopping centre and molested her in bushland, was denied. Picture: AAP

To this denial I say thank God. Thank God the court put the safety of children before a predator's rights or freedom. Because that hasn't always happened.

The 2003 disappearance and murder of 13-year-old Daniel is one that many Australians won't forget. Simply heading to the shops to buy Christmas presents for his family, Daniel was standing alone at a bus stop when he was noticed by Brett Peter Cowan, and lured into his car.

Bruce Morcombe, Daniel's father, later revealed that his and wife Denise's discovery that Cowan had a history of violent sexual crimes against very young children, and should never have been out on parole, broke them at the 2011 coronial inquest.

But "a history of violent crimes" is a grossly insufficient description of the now 50-year-old Cowan's past.

Raised in a strict Catholic family, Cowan had been convicted of petty crimes, and involved in illicit drug use, by the age of 17. When he was 18 and performing community service, he lured a seven-year-old child into a public bathroom and he raped him repeatedly.

The year was 1989, and for this crime he only served one year of his two-year sentence.

The 2003 disappearance and murder of 13-year-old Daniel is one that many Australians won’t forget. Picture: Wilson John
The 2003 disappearance and murder of 13-year-old Daniel is one that many Australians won’t forget. Picture: Wilson John

In a 2014 interview with 60 Minutes, victim Tim Nicholls, then aged 33, revealed he was terrified his whole life that Cowan would find him and retaliate for disclosing the rape to authorities.

"I thought I was dying that day; I didn't know what he was going to do to me," he shared.

Four years later, Cowan was caught again for yet another sexual crime involving a child; and this time, the violence escalated.

In 1993, while living in a caravan park with girlfriend Tracey Haneveld, Cowan lured a six-year-old into a nearby junk car yard, tied him up, and raped him.

Following the attack, the child had a punctured lung and appeared in such bad shape that when he stumbled into a local petrol station after freeing himself, people initially thought he had been hit by a car.

Cowan was sentenced to seven years, but was released after less than four.

It defies comprehension that Cowan was ever released into the public again after his second attack. But tragically, he was.

Bruce and Denise Morcombe were appalled at the sentence handed down to 27-year-old Stirling Free. Picture: Lachie Millard
Bruce and Denise Morcombe were appalled at the sentence handed down to 27-year-old Stirling Free. Picture: Lachie Millard

Years later, when speaking about the death of their beloved son Daniel, a heartbroken Bruce and Denise Morcombe echoed these sentiments.

"Daniel would still be alive, this would never have happened," Denise told 60 Minutes.

"I think once they have offended the first time and been charged and found guilty for that offence, they should be on the register from day one."

It's one of the most upsetting aspects of Daniel's case; that it took his death for Cowan to finally be stopped and given a life sentence with a 20-year non-parole period. For the community's safety, let's hope he's never given the chance to attack again.

The best we can do now is learn from the past, and in the case of Free, who committed a calculated, opportunistic and prolonged attack on a very young child, it's a relief to see that the safety of our kids has been deemed more important than his personal freedom, chances of rehabilitation, or his identity as a father.

Free is deserving of the punishment he has received, and thanks to our courts, he will do the time.

Nama Winston is a columnist for RendezView.com.au

Originally published as Finally, the courts have learned from Daniel Morcombe



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