Eric Thomas Turner, murdered twice in 1948, twice again in 1973
‘You wouldn’t have picked him as a mass murderer’
WHEN Eric Thomas Turner was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, it was not the first time he had been told he was going to die.
After strangling his teenage girlfriend and bludgeoning her father to death with an axe, in 1948 he became the last man sentenced to death in NSW. By the time he died 60 years later in Long Bay prison hospital he was the state’s longest-serving inmate.
Turner dodged the hangman when his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He was released on licence in 1970 and married after a whirlwind romance. But his spell of freedom – and his marriage – ended with another double murder, this time of his mother-in-law and stepson in 1973.
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Turner died aged 80, in July last year, having done time in Bathurst, Berrima, Glen Innes, Goulburn, Kirkconnell, Maitland and Silverwater jails.
Deaths in custody are routinely investigated by the coroner, but an inquest was requested by Turner’s niece who raised concerns about his treatment after he was diagnosed with lung cancer in May 2007.
The Deputy State Coroner Paul MacMahon yesterday found that Turner died of natural causes. ”There is nothing to suggest that Mr Turner, following his diagnosis … was not provided with appropriate care and treatment,” he told the Coroner’s Court in Glebe.
Turner was used to being given life terms. At the time of his cancer diagnosis, he was given 12 to 18 months. The dedicated smoker suffered a stroke and developed brain tumours before bronchopneumonia killed him. His niece, Gail Turner, was by his side almost until his final hour. At her request the prison’s Anglican chaplain, Ray Beckman, baptised the killer on his deathbed.
For Turner’s victims, the end had come more swiftly. In 1948, aged 20, he strangled his 15-year-old girlfriend, Claire Sullivan, at Liverpool.
Her father, Frank Sullivan, had tried to break up the relationship. Turner took to him with an axe.
His relationship troubles again turned deadly in 1973. Apparently blaming the failure of his three-week marriage on his mother-in-law, Harriet Field, he stabbed her 11 times. His stepson, John Pilz, 11, was fatally stabbed trying to defend his grandmother.
When Turner’s life sentences were redetermined by a Supreme Court judge in 1992, prison reports reflected a mellowing of his truculent and explosive personality. He was described as a ”quiet, affable, ageing gentleman”, a ”rather tragic figure”.
He became eligible for parole in 1993 but it was repeatedly denied.
He unsuccessfully sought his freedom in 2007 after learning he was terminally ill but was granted day release early last year.
Turner was deeply institutionalised, his lawyer, Jack Grahame, said yesterday.
”He was totally unfamiliar with what was going on in the outside world and relied entirely on the jail routine,” Mr Grahame said.
”He was used to being told what to do. If he had ever been released it would have been very confusing and difficult for him.”
Both double murders were committed when Turner was ”full of grog”, Mr Grahame said.
”If you met him in a friend’s home you’d think he was a slightly withdrawn but quite affable old man. You wouldn’t have picked him as a mass murderer.”