“I hate the fact I’ve got the life sentence,” she says. “I’ve been fighting for justice for so long.”
Courtney Herron was 25 when she was fatally assaulted in Royal Park by Henry Hammond, a homeless man she had given a cigarette to on the afternoon of May 24 last year.
The pair went to dinner at a Fitzroy restaurant together, where cameras captured them in friendly conversation, before Courtney paid for Hammond’s meal and they went to a friend’s apartment and smoked cannabis and ice.
In the early hours of May 25, the pair left the apartment and entered Melbourne’s sprawling Royal Park about 4.30am.
Hammond picked up a branch and Courtney became scared. Hammond would later tell police her last words were: “Are you going to kill me?”
A witness sleeping in the park said the frenzied attack lasted 50 minutes. He described hearing a woman’s screams and her attacker going “hell for leather”.
Hammond then tied Courtney’s feet together, dragged her into a clearing and covered her with leaves and put a concrete block on her face.
These are details that will haunt her mother forever.
“The fact she turned around and saw him and got really scared and those were her last words … She wouldn’t have understood why. She would never think like that,” Maxie says.
“She was trusting but was so vulnerable because she didn’t understand that not everyone is like her. She wouldn’t have understood it with every blow coming down on her.”
Maxie says it was her daughter’s kindness – the small act of giving someone on the street a cigarette – that led to her death.
“It’s like a sliding doors moment. She died because of her kindness.”
Hammond was arrested on the afternoon of May 26. He initially denied knowing Courtney, but he later told police that he had been walking through Royal Park when he had felt that she had a “treachery towards him and her family”, adding that the “trees had dropped sticks for a reason”.
He said he “recognised Courtney from a past life” and he had got his revenge on her.
‘The family is so angry’
It wasn’t long after Courtney’s death that her family learnt that just weeks before the killing, Hammond had been released from jail after successfully appealing a sentence he had received for threatening to kill his ex-partner.
Court documents show that in April last year, Hammond was released on a community corrections order after serving a portion of a 10½-month sentence for waving a knife in the face of his partner, before choking and punching her, fracturing her eye socket.
He had arrived at the woman’s apartment several days after she had ended their relationship in August 2018, saying “she was not who she said she was and she was dead”.
He admitted to the assault and was sentenced in December 2018. The court heard he claimed to hold Viking beliefs and had taken a vow of silence, making it difficult to complete a psychological report.
His lawyer argued the sentence was “manifestly excessive” and Hammond’s parents, from NSW, told the court they would help pay for some temporary accommodation if he were released.
He was assessed as suitable for a 12-month community corrections order on the condition he received drug, alcohol and mental health treatment, supervision and judicial monitoring.
“The reason I’m giving you that chance is so that you can be assisted with some rehabilitation,” the judge told Hammond.
“You are a young man, you have some difficulties. You and I both know that. So you’ve got to face up to the difficulties and I’m going to monitor how you do it.”
“OK,” Hammond replied.
Seven weeks later he was back in jail, charged with murder.
Says Maxie: “Finding out that she need not have died had he not been released, it was the first punch in the gut. It was horrifying to discover he had tried to kill his ex-partner … I was appalled.”
‘The system is broken’
Earlier this year, Hammond pleaded not guilty to murdering Courtney, due to mental impairment. This was not opposed by the prosecution, a decision that has angered and upset Courtney’s family.
Her mother finds it hard to accept the testimony of the two psychiatrists who found it was Hammond’s schizophrenia and not his drug use that caused his violent offending.
Court documents show that Hammond was first referred to Victorian mental health professionals in April 2017, after his mother contacted them with concerns. He was living in a van at the time in Northcote.
The crisis team examined him but did not think he required hospitalisation.
Several months later, the manager of restaurant Lentil as Anything expressed concerns that Hammond “believed he was God, and that Odin ‘will bring dragons back’ “. Hammond was also acting aggressively, slashing her tyres and threatening staff.
He was involuntarily admitted for three weeks to a hospital psychiatric unit and discharged in April 2018.
On Monday, the Supreme Court heard that two psychiatrists believed Hammond was in the midst of a relapse of his schizophrenic illness at the time of Courtney’s killing in May 2019.
Forensic psychiatrist Dr Rajan Darjee told the court he believed that at the time of offending, Hammond was suffering from schizophrenia and not a drug-induced psychosis.
“If he was not suffering from this mental illness, the attack on the victim would not have occurred, with no other factors playing a significant direct role in the killing,” Dr Darjee said.
“Substance use may have exacerbated his mental illness but his symptoms were not caused by substance use.”
Justice Phillip Priest accepted the evidence of the two psychiatrists. He directed a verdict of not guilty by mental impairment be recorded.
Maxie says Hammond’s story shows just how Courtney was let down by “a very flawed mental health system”.
“If he has had schizophrenia since 2017 and was in and out of the mental health system, how come it wasn’t picked up? Why did they let him out if he was so ill?” she says.
She spent years trying to help Courtney, who battled a drug addiction from her late teens and spent time in hospital several times for her mental illness issues.
“We have a mental health system that is completely broken,” Maxie says. “We need to be opening proper bedding for mental health.
“We need to change the way we look at mental illness and how we are attacking it. We don’t have any other choice.”
‘Remember her as funny, sweet, loving’
Alongside the pain Maxie suffers, she still has good memories of those times when her daughter’s drug addiction wasn’t consuming.
“She was very artistic and creative and played the piano beautifully, really well,” she says. “She had a bigger heart than most.”
Above all, Maxie wants people to remember Courtney for the goodness in her and not the way she died.
“I don’t want people to think about her being hurt, I want them to remember her as the funny, sweet, loving and a trusting person who was talented but couldn’t recognise that.”
Hammond was remanded until his next court hearing on September 14, when the court will make a supervision order.
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Simone is a crime reporter for The Age. Most recently she covered breaking news for The Age, and before that for The Australian in Melbourne.