Sue Neill-Fraser case: “tainted view” v facts

Andrew L. Urban.

In the view of some, it seems the ‘defence’ perspective of the murder conviction of Sue Neill-Fraser is a ‘tainted view’.  Tainted with the facts, perhaps? One reader has articulated this in the comments thread under my recent article, Who killed Bob Chappell? The cops don’t know but we do…

I don’t know John Dodd, but I know he has followed the case of Sue Neill-Fraser for years, first commenting on articles I have published inTasmanian Times, now here. He has now posted this comment (Feb. 18, 2019): I can imagine if you have only seen and heard the ‘defence’ perspective you would have a tainted view of the case and the legal system in Tasmania.

The comment is symbolic of the divide between those who want a full & thorough appeal in the courts and those who think the conviction is well founded.

For context …. John Dodd was responding to the Feb 3, 2019 comment, by Anne MacKelvie: After watching the program (Undercurrent) last week and reading ‘Southern Justice’, I am convinced. I feel sorry for anyone living in Tasmania and involved in police investigations or the legal system. So much evidence seems to have been ignored. They must know the wrong person is wasting their life in jail but not prepared to accept that huge errors have been made. I hope a Royal Commission will take place.

‘Defence perspective’ and ‘tainted view’ reflect the adversarial legal system we have; these terms suggest a two sided argument, not a search for the truth. In court, and in the pre-trial investigation, the search for the truth ought to be paramount. Of course, we can say the trial presents the ‘prosecution perspective’ and is faced with the ‘defence perspective’. But courtroom theatrics and the sophistry known to be practiced by some lawyers are not immune to attack by the facts.

In the many years since Sue Neill-Fraser’s trial, there have been plenty of opportunities to examine the police investigation, the evidence offered at trial and the information coming to light after the trial. The ‘tainted view’ to which Dodd refers, may be better described as ‘informed view’, I suggest.

It may be worth noting here, that several experienced and respected lawyers and barristers – including a high profile prosecutor – have publicly expressed their concern at the conviction: Margaret Cunneen SC, Kevin Borick QC, Marcus Einfeld QC, Robert Richter QC, Chester Porter QC, Tom Percy QC, Greg Barns, Jeff Thompson, Stuart Tipple and Dr Bob Moles (legal academic and author on miscarriages of justice).

Not one (except obviously the DPP and his Office) has publicly defended it.

So for the benefit of John Dodd and those who agree with him, here is just a tiny sample of the facts that have ‘tainted’ my view – me holding views of the ‘defence perspective’:

Pre-trial investigation:
A strong sample of DNA was found in a significant deposit on the deck of Four Winds in the immediate aftermath of Chappell’s disappearance on Australia Day 2009. But the DNA, one of the most powerful tools in crime investigation, was completely ignored as police targeted Sue Neill-Fraser. Even after a match with Meaghan Vass popped up the system in March 2010, while Neill-Fraser was on remand awaiting trial, it was not regarded as vital & compelling evidence that someone was on the boat at the critical time. Not necessarily a murder suspect, but a witness, surely.

Tim Ellis SC, former DPP of Tasmania

At trial, then DPP Tim Ellis SC, dismissed the DNA as ‘a red herring’. Meaghan Vass was put in the witness box but her denials of being on the boat were readily accepted and even after it was discovered that she had lied about her whereabouts that night, Ellis objected to her being recalled and the judge refused to allow it. Two years after the trial, when Neill-Fraser was seeking special leave to appeal to the High Court, Ellis told the bench: The core evidence was … she was not on the boat. She had no way of being on the boat. There was nothing credible suggested as to how she could be on the boat. (That is a laughable proposition, in my respectful and humble opinion. ALU)

 The Trial:
Then DPP Tim Ellis SC speculated how Neill-Fraser murdered Bob Chappell, probably with a wrench, without producing any evidence for his scenario – ‘theory’ as the judge put it. Speculation is inadmissable.

The DPP’s speculation went a long way into ‘theory’ as this extract from his closing address shows: She’s walking backwards and forwards and delivers blow – a blow or blows, or maybe stabs him with a screwdriver, I don’t know, he doesn’t look round, and so 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, who he knew and expected to be behind him.

Here the DPP not only speculates about how Neill-Fraser might have killed Chappell, he even speculates on what wounds we would see on the body – were it ever found.

The judge’s summary was highly prejudicial, reinforcing the idea of a wrench being used to kill him.

In the hearings seeking leave to appeal, it was revealed by Neill-Fraser’s legal team that a witness testifying to seeing what may have been ‘a female’ figure heading in the general direction of Four Windsjust before midnight, turned out to be mistaken. It was in fact Grant Maddock (left, in 2009), a slightly built, long haired male. Given that this sighting was the only (and rather flimsy) evidence that put Neill-Fraser on the water heading ‘in the general direction’ of the crime scene, now there is nothing at all to connect her to the crime or the crime scene.

My ‘tainted view’ is that the facts (and not just these, either) do not support the safety of the conviction.

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16 Responses to Sue Neill-Fraser case: “tainted view” v facts

  1. Eric Blair says:

    The very same justice system in Tasmania that didn’t have either a Coroners Inquest or Royal commission into the events at Port Arthur in 1996…. despite foreign nationals dying and a fire allegedly killing others.

    • MM says:

      Yes! I believe this to be the underlying reason that the government doesn’t want to intervene in Sue’s wrongful conviction. Her case has the potential to open a can of worms that they purposely sealed for 77 years

      • Helen says:

        Look at a certain legal identity and go back to a certain era where a young girl of 12 was prostituted out to 120 men – she is now 21 and that fat piece of lard did not charge any of the men. And a young girl of 27 was driving back to Launceston in the overtaking lane only to be killed by a certain same legal identity who was driving in the wrong lane for over a km =- High time we had a Royal Commission. The jury also in my opinion in the SNF’s case were not of an intelligent calibre to query the DNA et al

  2. TA says:

    I have another theory – to which there is as much REAL evidence as any other theory.

    But first, a boring story to set the scene. In my past life I lived on a yacht in the Whitsundays. We also had an inflatable dinghy to travel to and from shore.

    One night, we left the yacht to eat dinner in town. On our return, the yacht was ransacked; a small bilge pump and my guitar were stolen. Another night, I woke up to the sounds of splashing. When we went out on deck, we saw 3 swimmers approaching. Upon seeing us, they turned and fled back to shore. Another night, again we left the yacht to eat in town. On our return the whole dinghy was stolen! (Being the very reason it didn’t have a motor on it).

    Yachts are often targeted by thieves for obvious reasons – the same reasons that mansions are targeted – because wealthy people with many treasures usually own them.

    In my case, I didn’t own the yacht. I was there for the sole purpose of preventing thieves from breaking in and destroying it. Yacht-setting is a great job if you can stomach the constant risk of break-ins, which I couldn’t. I was always aware it only took one break-in to go wrong and we’d be drowned. Hence, my tenure as a yacht-setter was short lived.

    Regardless if you’ve heard of yacht-setting before now: To deny yacht destruction and robberies are common is also to deny that security personnel and security gates at Marinas exist for that very reason.

    So my theory is: Ms Vass and her homeless friend (or friends) broke into yachts regularly. I think Ms Vass either saw who killed Chappell or knows the person who did it. Given her reluctance to come forward voluntarily I’m guessing she is either an accessory or very scared for her personal safety. But then, given her later (very public) cooperation during the appeal, I’m leaning towards accessory.

    I don’t think Neill-Fraser’s theory of drug-runners was too far fetched since that kind of criminal would have an intimate knowledge of where things might be located on any given yacht (like floor hatches and sewerage pipes etc). However, even the petty thieves who ransacked the yacht I was looking after knew every nook and cranny to search, including where to find easily liftable items that they could hock (like bilge pumps etc).

    Anyway, I have already presented other questions and doubts I have regarding the prosecution’s theory in the missing evidence section, so I won’t repeat it. Bear in mind, I only just tuned into this case yesterday so I have a lot to catch up on.

    Oh, and I found my guitar at a hock shop a few weeks later incidentally. It wasn’t a valuable one but I have very small hands and it fits me like a glove so I was pleased to get it back again. It’s a pity finding Mr Chappell hasn’t been so easy :~(

  3. Rick says:

    Thank you for being patient with my persistent curiosity. My final comment with respect to what I said above is that the sighting of a female figure on a motorised inflatable dinghy heading in the direction of Four Winds at about the same time that Sue returned to the river late at night means the Sue’s lie about staying home the whole night takes on a whole new meaning. It would mean that Sue had a sinister reason for hiding the fact that she went out to the river late at night. But as you say, we can now leave it to Justice Brett to see what the court makes of this issue.

    • andrew says:

      Just to conclude, then; in evidence at trial Neill-Fraser ended the phone call at her home with Richard King at 10.30 pm. The ‘female figure in a dinghy’ sighting is around 11.30pm – 12 am. (Too long a time gap I suggest.) The prosecution suggested (the CCTV footage of a car whizzing by a Sandy Bay Road petrol station was not shown to the jury, though) she was returning home from the crime scene at 12.25am. (Too short a time scale to commit the crime, I suggest.) In my next book I publish a complete hypothetical timeline based on the prosecution case, which shows the impossibility of the murder scenario as put to the jury.

      • Rick says:

        I am aware of another way of looking at it.
        Instead of being at Bunnings for hours, Sue was on Four Winds murdering Bob and rigging up the winch before getting home shorty before 9 pm (there was a sighting of a light coloured motorised zodiac with one middle-aged person on onboard leaving the area of Four Winds around 8 pm). Sue then returned to the yacht after 11:30 pm to dispose the body and sabotage the yacht. Shortly after boarding the yacht she realised that she needed something that wasn’t on the yacht so she returned home to pick up whatever she needed (eg cable ties, duct tape, etc) and drove back via another route and then returned to the yacht. After winching the body off the yacht and onto the dinghy she then sabotage the yacht, leaving her mobile phone on it. After disposing the body she returned home around 3 am and dialled *#10 to check if anyone called whilst she was out.

        • Helen says:

          What a (EDITED). Sue could not possibly lift a body out of the lower deck and winch it up as she had a slight frame and as the Qld crew (said) who sailed the yacht down from Scarborough with her, she could not even lift heavy items on the yacht as she had a broken coccyx and very badly injured hip from a horse fall. Police did not even cordon off the area on yacht and completely contaminated it and removed a rag containing DNA of the Vass girl. Just remember Tasmania is an insular place with a Deep dark past still with penal colony justice system.

  4. Rick S says:

    I have had a few dinghies during my life and therefore know the difference between the side view of the wooden dinghy shown in the photograph of Grant Maddock and the side view of an modern inflatable 4 – 5 person dinghy of the type that Sue Neill-Fraser had as part of Four Winds. I have couple of questions. Is the pictured dinghy the same dinghy that Grant Maddock used late at night on Australia Day 2009? Did Grant have a motor on his dinghy on Australia Day 2009? My understanding is that John Hughes said that he saw a female figure on an inflatable dinghy and that he heard the overboard motor. Can you see the discrepancy?

    • andrew says:

      Well observed – but misplaced. This photo of Grant Maddock is not representative of what the witness said he saw. This photo of Maddock was only used by Sue Neill-Fraser’s barrister to show how Maddock looked at the time. The dinghy is not at issue here. In the dark, said the barrister, his figure outline and long hair could be mistaken for a female figure. It is backed by evidence that he was on the water at the relevant time.

      • Rick says:

        Sorry for being a pest. But there is an important discrepancy that isn’t noted in your comment. I did some research on this. I just googled “grant maddock susan neill-fraser bob chappell” and have come across the relevant information.What do you think of the following:

        “The defence also called Grant Maddock, who lived on a nearby yacht. He told the court he had been rowing in the area late on the night of Chappell’s disappearance. A photograph was produced, showing that at the time Maddock had collar-length hair; supporting a defence theory that it was he — rather than Neill-Fraser — who was the “female” figure seen by a witness rowing in the rough direction of the Four Winds about 11.30pm that night”

        Grant was rowing. Had it been Neill-Fraser who was spotted on her motorised dinghy then she wouldn’t have been rowing but would have used her overboard motor.

        And then there is this very crucial evidence:

        “Under cross-examination, Mr Maddock said he was waiting to have a broken wrist operated on at the time and to avoid putting pressure on his wrist to propel his boat forward using one oar placed into the water at the back — a technique he called “sculling”.

        “I certainly didn’t have an outboard motor — I could just as easily have been sculling or rowing,” he said.”

        Then there is this

        “John Hughes told the court he saw a dingy and heard an outboard motor between 11.30pm and midnight on Australia Day last year near Short Beach.”

        Do you see the discrepancy? Maddock didn’t have a motor of any sort at that time but Hughes heard the dinghy’s motor.

        How is my observation misplaced?

        • andrew says:

          My personal view is that Mr Hughes’ evidence is rather vague at best, and uncertain. It certainly isn’t probative in any case: seeing a person in a dinghy heading in the general direction of the Four Winds is hardly concrete evidence of Sue Neill-Fraser going to the boat, is it.

  5. nola scheele says:

    The more I see and read about this conviction is that I think the police have to be taken and re-trained in criminal convictions starting with 101. I bet they are leaving a foul taste in their mouth. They forbid it going to air but they are not stupid.

  6. Juliet says:

    I have followed this case if not closely, then certainly with interest, for some time. It seems to me that the basic premise of the prosecution having to make its case is at the very basis of the wrongful conviction here. I feel that the Jury made its decision based on whether Sue Neill Fraser’s story made sense, rather than whether the prosecution made its case. At every turn there is reasonable doubt.

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