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The ethics of a murder suicide

By Peter Bowden - posted Friday, 16 October 2015


"It is absolutely the worst of crimes" was the coroner's verdict on the murder suicide by Geoff Hunt of his wife, Kim, and their three children, Fletcher, 10, Mia, 8, and Phoebe, 6, They were found shot dead on their south-west NSW farm last September. The body of Mr Hunt, 44, was found in a nearby dam the next day.

Geoff Hunt primarily wanted to kill himself but killed his whole family first because of a twisted belief that he was sparing them pain,a forensic psychologist stated at the inquest.

Tension in the family was due to a 2012 car accident that left Mrs Hunt with physical and brain injuries. The inquest has heard the brain injury changed Mrs Hunt's personality, making her prone to anger and unable to filter her speech.

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An eccentric delusion the Coroner added. The findings, however, seem particularly unfair on Geoff Hunt. What was he to do? The extremely unfortunate accident of his wife had made their lives miserable. Was he to seek a separation or a divorce? We cannot presume that he would get custody, but assuming he would, it would separate his children from their mother, and also leave a very ill woman without her children, and without help.

But their life together had become unbearable He obviously remonstrated often with his wife, asking her to desist. But it would seem to no avail. The family's disability support worker, Lorraine Bourke, had seen her angry and uninhibited because of the brain injury. Sometimes she would swear at the children without realising. She would often take her rage out on her husband.

The coroner's report notes that Renae Hunt, married to Geoff's brother Allen, witnessed unhappiness in the marriage well before Kim's accident. According to her, for a number of years Kim was hyper-critical of Geoff and that this caused him deep distress. After Kim suffered the brain injury she was less able to conceal her contempt for her husband and frequently belittled and harshly criticised him in front of others.

Most times Mr Hunt would say "that's enough" to his wife's criticism. Ms Bourke, the last person to see the Hunt family alive, remembered Mr Hunt said nothing when rebuked on that final night. She saw in him the signs of depression she had felt in herself. A quiet man had grown quieter. Mrs Hunt was particularly angry with him. "You could cut the air with a knife," Ms Bourke said. As his wife needled, Mr Hunt made the school lunches and cooked dinner.

What was he to do? Would he kill her? A women's network website points out that one woman dies violently every week at the hands of her partner. But in this case, it would leave his children to grow up without either parent – Geoff Hunt would be imprisoned, not be able to bring up his children.

Kill himself? Perhaps the easiest way out. But where does that leave his wife? Already suffering, unable even to drive, and earn for the family. And his three children? He chose killing himself only after killing the rest of his family.

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We argue at times that euthanasia, when faced with an intolerable life, is morally permissible. Geoff Hunt and his family were faced with an intolerable life. We could well assert that this was the only way out of an intolerable life. Perhaps the family member who blamed the inadequate mental health support systems in Australia had the only correct answer. The Coroner, Michael Barnes, noted the need for strengthening the mental health training of disability workers, but felt unable to make more specific recommendations. But it would seem that Geoff Hunt had few other options.

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About the Author

Peter Bowden is an author, researcher and ethicist. He was formerly Coordinator of the MBA Program at Monash University and Professor of Administrative Studies at Manchester University. He is currently a member of the Australian Business Ethics Network , working on business, institutional, and personal ethics.

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