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New South Wales - Publications Details

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Catherine Freyne
Tit for Tat: The Story of Sandra Willson
ABC Radio National Hindsight, 20 November 2011

What drove a 20-year-old woman to shoot dead an innocent stranger on a remote coastal road in Sydney's south in April 1959?

At Sandra Willson's trial for the murder of taxi driver Rodney Woodgate, she was found not guilty on the grounds of insanity, and sentenced to an indeterminate period at the Governor's Pleasure.

She would serve 18 years for her crime, becoming, at the time, the longest serving female prisoner in New South Wales. Even though the prison authorities declared her sane after 11 years, it took a further 7 years and a determined and disruptive campaign by the activist group Women Behind Bars before Sandra Willson's release became a reality.

After her release, Willson took up the cause of prison reform and established Guthrie House, the first halfway house for women coming out of prison. In her spare time she advised the producers of the TV series Prisoner on what life was really like 'on the inside'.

Sandra Willson died in 1999 at the age of 60, leaving behind an unpublished memoir and a trunk full of personal papers. These sources flesh out and complicate a story previously only known through police records, child welfare files, newspaper headlines, street graffiti and parole board determinations.

They suggest many ways in which the culprit was a victim herself: the victim of an intolerant society in post-war Australia which criminalised her homosexual orientation, pushing her to the margins where violent crime and a desperate bid for suicide seemed like the best options available to her.

The actor Linda Cropper brings Sandra Willson's writings to life in this program. Readings are interspersed with archival recordings and interviews with people whose lives were touched by this complex character in both positive and negative ways.

Thanks to all those involved in this production, including Rebecca Edmunds at Sydney's Police and Justice Museum, Sue Wills, Christina Franken and John Lizzio.