Sue Neill-Fraser – questions, questions, questions …

By Andrew L. Urban.

Troubling questions remain unanswered eight years after the trial in which Sue Neill-Fraser (now 64) was convicted of murdering her partner Bob Chappell, which she has always strenuously denied; she is now seeking leave to appeal in the Supreme Court of Tasmania, under new legislation. Here are just five of those questions. And a sixth question: why not welcome a thorough new review of the case?

The case in brief: Sue Neill-Fraser was convicted of murder in 2010, after her partner of 18 years, Bob Chappell, disappeared from their jointly owned yacht, Four Winds, anchored off Sandy Bay in Hobart on Australia Day 2009. In the afternoon, Neill-Fraser had taken the dinghy ashore, Chappell stayed on board doing maintenance work. At dawn the next morning the yacht was reported sinking slowly, with no sign of Chappell. What appeared to be a clumsy attempt at sabotage had caused the Four Winds to take on water. It was a mystery. The prosecution speculated – without supporting evidence – that Neill-Fraser had killed Chappell, possibly with a wrench, and then winched up the bloodied body onto the deck and then dumped it into the yacht’s dinghy, and then dumped the body into the Derwent.

1) Why did the prosecutor, Tim Ellis SC, show the jury a photograph of the Four Winds dinghy stained blue by the preliminary luminol test, given that all 16 confirmatory tests for blood were negative – and given he himself told the judge (jury absent) that he “never believed” there was blood in the dinghy?

2) Why wasn’t the jury told that the prosecutor “never believed” there was blood in the dinghy – just to make sure they knew that?

3) Given that Bob Chappell’s body has never been found, why did the prosecutor Tim Ellis SC, tell the jury in his closing address “the body doesn’t have any marks of what you’d expect if someone had come down there, a stranger, intent on doing him harm, the body I suggest would have marks consistent only with being delivered by someone who he knew to be there…”

4) Why was the jury not reminded there was no body on which such injuries – or any injuries – could have provided evidence? (Not to mention the question as to the basis for his speculation about “marks” that would have shown whether the killer was known or not to Chappell.)

5) Given that there was no body to provide the relevant evidence, why did the judge (now Chief Justice Blow) state in his summing up to the jury, “there’s evidence that tends to suggest that Mr Chappell’s body was winched out of the – winched up onto the deck and taken away and dropped in the unsearched deeper waters of the River Derwent.”

And the sixth question: why not welcome a thorough review of the case?
The apparatus of Tasmania’s legal system, as represented by the police and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, are mounting robust resistance to Sue Neill-Fraser seeking leave to appeal. It is not only determined, it is costly to taxpayers – it will be revealed just how costly in due course. The DPP may well argue that this is the duty of his office, acting in the interests of the public, supporting a conviction delivered by a jury.

Yet, given the controversial nature of the conviction and the years of public division that it has generated (evidenced by media articles and TV reports, and robust public comments in the Tasmanian Times, for instance), only a full, independent review by a full bench of the court of appeal will satisfy the public interest.

The whole point of Tasmania introducing the further right to appeal legislation was to serve the public interest in cases where convictions are considered unsafe. To maintain public confidence in the legal system, the entire machinery of justice must demonstrate its willingness to re-examine a case where so many questions remain as to undermine such confidence. Errors are made in all jurisdictions and all human institutions; willingness to examine potential wrongful convictions is essential in a democracy.

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