Imagine being handed a life sentence for a murder you claimed you didn’t commit.
That was the reality of Zak Grieve, who was convicted of murder in the Northern Territory in 2013. He was nineteen years old. Even the judge who handed down the sentence agreed that there was no evidence that Zak was there, yet, due to the Northern Territory’s harsh mandatory sentencing laws, Zak found himself a convicted murderer.
Enter Dan Box. Dan is an award-winning investigative journalist and author, who has won accolades for true crime reporting in both the UK and Australia. When Dan read about Zak Grieve in the newspaper, he knew he had stumbled upon a fascinating case. But little did he know how Zak’s friendship would change his life and, ultimately, lead to Zak walking out of prison.
Dan’s new book The Man Who Wasn’t There shines a light on the humanity and complexities involved in Zak’s case, and how the law doesn’t always bring about justice.
In 2013, 19-year-old Zak Grieve was convicted for the 2011 murder of Ray Niceforo, despite claims that he was not present at the scene at all. However, since Zak knew about the murder ahead of time, and didn’t try to stop it, Zak was also guilty of murder, according to Northern Territory law.
Furthermore, the mandatory minimum sentencing laws in the Northern Territory automatically meant that anyone convicted of murder received life in prison. The judge presiding over the case accepted that Zak wasn’t there for the murder but had no choice but to hand down the sentence.
When Dan Box first read about Zak’s case in the newspaper, he admitted his interest was for purely professional reasons.
“To be really honest, I looked at it and I thought, this is a fascinating case,” Dan told Hope 103.2’s Finding Hope.
“This illuminates some fascinating issues, and I might win another award if I do this.”
Over a period of almost ten years, Dan worked on a documentary surrounding Zak’s case, interviewed dozens of people – before, ultimately, writing a novel.
During that time, Dan mostly resided in the UK – so any communication with Zak was through letters, in which Dan often waited months for a reply.
Dan and Zak soon developed a deep friendship. Dan told Zak about his dead-end job, his ensuing depression and shared of his heartbreak when his young daughter was diagnosed with cancer.
“It was easier to write to Zak because I didn’t have to see his reaction,” Dan admitted.
“So I could say things, about how I was feeling, what was going right, what was going wrong.”
In the letters, Dan also got to experience Zak’s personality. He loved writing science fiction novels, he was the prison librarian and played noughts and crosses with his dad, in letters.
“Zak is… He’s a big bear of a man, but he’s mainly a big softie,” Dan said.
However, the reality of the case was never lost on Dan – and forced him to live in the grey.
“He’s a cuddly bear of a man, and he’s a friend,” Dan admitted.
“[But] he’s a convicted murderer.”
Update on Zak’s case
Zak remained in prison for more than a decade – before receiving parole last month under special circumstances, largely due to the publicity surrounding the case. Zak is able to live and work in the community but will remain on parole for the rest of his life.
“Zak was nineteen when he went in. He’s in his thirties now,” Dan said.
“He’s got to rebuild a life from the fragments. And he’s got to do that with the stigma of being a convicted murderer.”
Coincidentally, Zak’s parole was granted in the same week as Dan’s book was published – an accumulation of years of advocacy and hard work. For Dan, Zak has taught him about the fragility and beauty of existence.
“Life’s not all good. Life’s not all bad,” Dan reflected.
“Zak is going to face all these adversities, but he will rebuild his life from this point.
“My daughter got cancer while I was writing this book, but she’s doing okay.
“Life isn’t all good, and it isn’t all bad, but it continues, and that’s maybe the best thing we can hope for.”
Listen to Dan’s full interview on Finding Hope in the player above.
For more information on The Man Who Wasn’t There, visit the Ultimo Press website.