Sue Neill-Fraser innocent? Witness Vass says so on 60 Minutes

Andrew L. Urban.

In her emotional 60 Minutes  interview last night (Sunday, March 10, 2019, Channel 9), Meaghan Vass told the truth – ‘the objective evidence backs it up’ as Robert Richter QC put it: she witnessed Bob Chappell’s murder on board Four Winds on Australia Day 2009 and it was not committed by Sue Neill-Fraser, who is serving a 23 year sentence for it.

Vass, understandably distraught, gave interviewer Liam Bartlett the answers that not only exonerate Neill-Fraser of the murder but identify the killer/s – whose names she knows but doesn’t reveal. There was one especially telling answer: when Bartlett asked if she would now tell the police what she knew, she said ‘no’. But she said she would testify in court.

Liam Bartlett on 60 Minutes with Meaghan Vass

The 60 Minutes interview (1.035 million average viewers nationally) ended a week in which the final episode of Undercurrent (7 Network – 6 part series produced over more than 2 years) also presented Vass as a witness to Chappell’s murder, exonerating Neill-Fraser.  In Tasmania, Channel 9 programs are carried by WIN (some regions) and SCA (other regions); WIN took the Vass segments, SCA did not, broadcasting an older story instead, according to a 60 Minutes spokesman, who also confirmed that Vass was not paid a fee. The program is available online at 9now.com.au

Well groomed in a crisp white shirt over a T shirt and jeans, with neat, long dark blonde hair, her face often crunched by emotion and wet with tears, Vass (now 25 and still homeless, vulnerable) was heart wrenching. Scared “of the man who killed Bob?” as Bartlett put it, “Yeah,” she replied – and guilt-ridden about Neill-Fraser. So Neill-Fraser, an innocent woman, has been sitting in jail for nine years? “Yes,” she whispered tearfully.

Bartlett didn’t have the heart, perhaps, to ask Vass how she felt about that man’s 10 year silence in the face of an innocent woman languishing in prison for his crime, and the position his silence has put her. Nor if she ever sees him these days.

Nor did the program delve into what might happen next in this tortured case. Justice Brett is due any day to announce his decision whether to grant Neill-Fraser leave to appeal her conviction. How hollow and cruel that now seems.

As for the lack of her reliability after her previous lies about it – which she admits – Robert Richter QC says “she is a woman who is very, very troubled but she is telling the truth, I don’t have the slightest doubt about it – because the objective evidence backs it up.”

The evidence includes the large DNA deposit matched to her, which is consistent with her statement that she vomited, which is also consistent with the blue rag found near the DNA deposit stained with vomit – and which mysteriously disappeared from the evidence log, as former detective Colin McLaren demonstrates to Bartlett with documents obtained under freedom of information.

Richter describes the case as “a forensic disaster … no-one had any idea of how to investigate this kind of homicide in Tasmania.” And by pursuing Sue Neill-Fraser so vigorously, the police didn’t give enough weight to other evidence or leads, he says.

The DNA match with Vass (in March 2010) “would have set off alarm bells, but by then Neill-Fraser had already been charged. It would have been pretty horrible for them (police) to come round and say, by God we’ve charged the wrong person.” Richter says he wants to see a Royal Commission into the case.

The main reason that Vass claims she now wants to admit what she knows is to see Neill-Fraser go home to her family – she repeats this like a mantra. She breaks down when she adds “I don’t have a family…” But she can’t really explain why it has taken her this long to confirm she was there.

Vass was a vulnerable, homeless 15 year old mixing with the wrong crowd and taking drugs at the time of the murder. She is still a bit fuzzy about some of the details, and not just because it’s been 10 years since the event.

When she took the stand in Sue Neill-Fraser’s murder trial near the end of 2010, it was to answer one big question: was she on the Four Windsyacht in January 2009 when Bob Chappell was murdered, as her DNA – found on the deck – suggested? She said no. The court simply accepted her denial. New information that she had lied about where she really was prompted a request to recall her for another cross examination. Prosecutor Tim Ellis SC objected to her being recalled and presiding Justice Blow denied the request.

During and since the trial, the DNA evidence which placed Vass on the yacht has been minimised and dismissed by the prosecution, through every court hearing about the case. The circumstantial case effectively demanded that Neill-Fraser prove her innocence, subtly reversing the onus of proof. Did the jury get it wrong? Did they hear the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

NEXT:
How to proceed? We will explore this subject tomorrow, while Neill-Fraser’s legal team (all working pro bono) is considering their options.

COMMENT:
Incompetence the mother of malice

It is inconceivable that the 60 Minutes interview will have no effect on the runout of the case. The admissions will energize public opinion, and put pressure on the legal system.

Words like ‘consequences’ and ‘accountability’ will be in frequent use in the wake of Vass’ admissions. And whose duty now to look after the safety of Meaghan Vass?

The obstinate refusal by Tasmania’s DPP and TasPol to acknowledge the egregious errors in their case against Sue Neill-Fraser – even after years of agitation by lawyers and media – made it seem a deliberate attack on her innocence and freedom. It showed a willful blind eye to the obvious truth, made possible by a brazen abuse of power. Incompetence became the mother of malice.

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17 Responses to Sue Neill-Fraser innocent? Witness Vass says so on 60 Minutes

  1. Kerry says:

    Pleass the next time I vomit may it only be a spit and only take 1 cloth instead of 2 to clean up.What more BS has been invented ..If we all use more logic perhaps we won’t be fooled so easily as many Australians were. Australian apathy has also a lot to do with Sue Neil Fraser lingering so long in prison.The Tasmanian Government may hope the issues dies down and is forgotten about .Please let us not become apathetic but pursue her release.

  2. Judy says:

    Yes I know Meaghan Vass took a few attempts over the past years to tell her story, but imagine the enormous fears that she has had to overcome to do that….I wanted to give the girl a big hug for finally having the courage to tell what she saw. Meaghan’s fear may be worse now, but there must also be some relief in having told her story.

    What a shame there was not enough attention paid to real rather than just circumstantial evidence back in 2009 plus – what a shame Meaghan wasn’t given the protection and immunity from prosecution that was requested by Robert Richter and others back in May 2017, perhaps if that had happened Sue Neill Fraser may have been out of prison by now.

    Well done Meaghan, and also to the team, legal, literary and ordinary folk who have continued the “Free Sue” campaign for years.

    In the original trial, and in subsequent court appearances the DPP went to enormous and lengthy efforts to dismiss /minimise the DNA evidence. IF Police, Tim Ellis, and later the current DPP, had access to the photos and information about a dinner plate size of body-fluid which the DNA sample was taken then they would have known it could not have just been trampled onto the boat by a policeman’s foot – and IF they knew: then were the DPP efforts to dismiss the DNA evidence as a secondary sample “perverting the course of justice”??? A fair trial depends on a case being decided on by the evidence, not influence.”

    • Kevin J says:

      Have you actually read that the visible stain on the deck was only the size of a 50c coin?

      • MM says:

        VPFSD actually ran tests on the swab and concluded it was primary. The prosecution had a swab report from police then later, separately brought an expert in to hypothesise on the possibility of secondary transfer. Now, I’m no scientist but I do believe an actual test result over an hypothesis. I think you could be suffering from confirmation bias

  3. Brian Johnston says:

    Let no one be confused or deceived. This case is not tunnel vision. It is the nominative approach and is has been going on for hundreds of years. The police arrive on the scene, coppers nose, hunch call it what you like and before the trail of evidence leads police to the perpetrator they arrive at a conclusion, form a view and in this case got way ahead of themselves and formed an uninformed view that Sue was it, the perpetrator, the guilty one. It is standard police modus operandi. From there it is a case of building a case around Sue. Sue doesn’t stand a chance as is confirmed by the outcome. Real evidence is discarded and circumstantial evidence is milked for all it’s worth.
    Certain police, Ellis the DPP and judge Blow should all stand trial.
    Then all politicians, attorney generals and the premiers should be examined, the very people who had the power to do something and looked the other way.
    The sick and frightening part is that Sue’s guilt was built on fiction.
    Judge Blow should never have allowed the nonsense he did. It does not say much about his ability/intelligence. Blow encouraged the fiction who in my opinion is a fool. Blow should be stood down immediately.
    And to all those who cursed Sue? Shame.

    • Helen Adkins says:

      Thank you Brian for having such an intelligent comment. Like poor Lindy – incidentally Indigenous trackers were never asked to go on the witness stand where they would have verified the drag marks caused by the dingo dragging an object and weeks prior to Azaria’s disappearance there had been a young child snatched out of a car by a so-called dingo called “Ding” at the same spot causing the parents to report it to the Wildlife rangers but went into thin air – like NT fried brains and Tasmania justice system still in the penal colony mentality without the convicts with frozen brains.
      Also please remember that Ellis sacked from DPP position – 4 mths suspension on full pay March 2013 for a car crash which killed a young 27 year old girl travelling on the Midlands highway.

      Also Tassie locals do have short memories about Blow who let a young driver off travelling at 80 km/hr through a 40 km zone and killed a young school age girl. Now Current Affairs this week showed what a shocker this Tassie Justice system is like with Darryl Coates letting a middle aged driver off here for killing a young NSW fellow. A slap on the wrist yet we have a 62 yr old woman imprisoned for 23 years. Certainly double standards here. The bathplug was travelling over the white lines. As well another young Tasmanian was killed with the same result. High time we had a Criminal Cases Review Commission.

  4. MM says:

    Thanks for the running commentary Andrew. Very informative.

    I do recall 60 minutes aired a 2 part report which did result in a Royal Commission. Both episodes were removed from public viewing until witnesses were dealt with, so I’m fairly certain this report, when added to previous reports by the same team, may hold some weight.

    I thought it was very respectful and professional of 60 minutes to stop recording when Ms Vass exhibited signs of breakdown. Perhaps this confession may have come much sooner had she been handled gently from the start, like back when she was 15.

    The entire family court system is under the spotlight right now because the adversarial nature of our justice system is nothing short of brutal when dealing with vulnerable witnesses. After watching this whole charade play out, I don’t believe future law reform should be limited to family courts. Should a positive outcome result, it SHOULD encompass ALL vulnerable witness in ANY court.

  5. nola scheele says:

    I agree with all the comments that I have just read.
    Who or where is the policeman called Damien who Meaghan Vass called out to at the hearing ??

  6. Robin Bowles says:

    Following on from above comment, Vass did have a go at admitting she was on the boat, in a statement signed in the presence of Jeff Thompson (a lawyer, not being threatened by Karen Keefe, as claimed, as KK was in prison when the document was signed). But when police got wind of the existence of this sworn statement, Vass and her lawyer were subtly threatened by the police legal advisor(see letter reproduced from my book on the Sue Neill-Fraser is Innocent FB page) the witness lawyer was charged with pervert justice, the witness Keefe also charged with pervert justice( serious charges carrying sentences of imprisonment) and pressure applied to Vass to say she was coerced to sign that statement (police officer Damien George standing at the back of Supreme Court to encourage her to keep on track during her subsequent evidence). Her DNA, A SAMPLE THE SIZE OF A PLATE, A PRIMARY TRANSFER was found at the murder scene. A blue cloth was found near the sample, photographed and numbered by forensics, was also found, bagged and numbered. Was this cloth used to wipe up Vass’s stressed out vomit? That blue cloth never made it to the trial evidence, in fact DISAPPEARED from the numbered log of evidence used in Sue’s trial and when Sue’s lawyers asked recently for it to be produced the police and DPP said they no longer know where it is. Too much has been hidden in this story. The 60 story is Sue’s ‘matinee jacket’ moment. All concerned citizens MUST DEMAND a full judicial hearing or a Royal commission. Until then, be afraid. If this can happen to Sue it can happen to you. EVERY ONE of us is a potential defendant.

    • Helen Adkins says:

      Robin

      As a Christian I believe that the Lord will repay. Vengence is mine saith the Lord I will repay. Trust me he will as this has happened to me when my mother was dying and I was coerced not to have time off (she could go on for 6 months) she died that weekend and that particular person appeared with a mark on her face which would not go away for two years when the time was right to forgive her and pregnant with my first. The Lord works in mysterious ways. And a true saying For he who is without sin be the first to caste thy stone.
      Since my return back to this insular state from Brisbane I am still dismayed at the judgemental aspersions on people here eg Sue too and the lack of empathy into Sue’s case.
      My youngest daughter having attended universities in NSW and still residing in Sydney (she will never come back to this state) commented on the jury’s inability to even question certain aspects of the trial. I have become very passionate about this disgraceful Miscarriage of Justice – like poor Lindy Chamberlain. High time for an Inquiry into our Justice System here.

  7. Jo says:

    The thing that is most fascinating to me about Meaghan Vass’s connection to this matter is how bizarre it is that the existence of her DNA was so easily dismissed by police. Usually, DNA at a murder scene will result in you being put through the ringer, and people have been convicted due to such DNA when it has been there for innocuous reasons. (I am not suggesting that Vass was respsonsible for Bob Chappell’s death.) Yet here it is a case of DNA being at a scene with no other genuine forensic leads and it’s, “Meh, musta ended up there some other way, totally irrelevant.”

    I would have thought that at the very least it would lead to rigorous questioning of Vass, a thorough examination of her whereabouts and investigation of any associates. I would have thought this would have been an essential line of inquiry for the purposes of solving what happened (because surely that’s what it is about, not just putting someone – anyone – in jail), if only to at least rule her out. Yet none of this appears to have happened.

    The reason people can pick at Vass’ s credibility is not solely due to her. A large part of that is the apparent failure of a proper investigation of her back when it happened. If that had been done, this whole situation would look different. For starters, more complete information would have been provided to the jury. Regardless of whether one believes in Sue Neill-Fraser’s guilt or innocence, surely everyone would be in agreement that the more relevant information a jury has the better they can do their job and reach a correct outcome, ensuring the robustness of the system and safety of the verdict. For another, there would be greater credibility one way or another with regards to what Vass is saying now (whenever she got to the point of saying it, if that even became necessary). Anyone flailing in the wind about whether to believe Vass is in that position because an examination of the situation was not done when it should have been.

    This would seem to be a particular failing given Vass’s age and circumstances at the time. We cannot expect a child, especially one with her history, scared and without proper support structures to know how to handle something like this. Accommodations should have been made at the time and if it was thought – and it seems there was reasonable foundation to think it – that she wasn’t speaking honestly our of fear or a lack of understanding of the ramifications, she should have been reassured and given the necessary support to provide her with the security and understanding to speak. That’s what solving something is about – ensuring those who know something can speak. But it seems this was more about blaming someone for the sake of it.

    As an aside to this, I also wonder how it can be accepted that Vass’s DNA, and only hers, was transferred by contact. First of all, where did it come from? Were any steps taken to determine that – eg where she had been that intersected with those accessing the Four Winds? Surely such crime scene contamination warranted that investigation. Second, if there was such contamination, why wasn’t the Four Winds assessed for other possible DNA contamination? Again, surely that was warranted, even necesary, under the cicumstances. And leading on from this, I find it difficult to believe that if this was some random contact transfer it was the only DNA in that transfer unless the person who transferred it had come into contact shortly before depositing it. Any longer and one would expect more people’s DNA or it to have degraded to the point that it was unrecognisable. If it was a short time then that still places Vass close to the Four Winds. But overall I do not think a contact transfer can be a certainty, if at all really plausible.

  8. Stephen Menadue says:

    Before 60 minutes, the lawyer Jeff Thompson obtained a signed statement that is no different to the admission she made on the show.

  9. tony koch says:

    it should be put to the dpp and some members of the police force that they serve 10 years for their incompetence in this case

  10. L.B says:

    Andrew- thank you for another well- written and factual piece about Sue Neill-Fraser’s unsafe conviction. Her story really is quite unbelievable. This whole sorry mess appears to have eventuated from a glaring lack of insight, failure to properly gather facts, failure to properly research and failure to interview persons who should have been of interest or persons with information, resulting in a huge failure in administering justice.
    CLASSIC TUNNEL VISION.
    How on earth the court and the prosecutor allowed this case to be conducted in a way that resulted in a decision of guilt is beyond me. It appears that the Jury did not receive all the facts, instead repeatedly hearing supposition that Sue hit Bob with a wrench. The transcripts speak for themselves. “BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT” – does that provision not apply in Tasmania? (How Sue was charged, let alone convicted, defies rational thought when so much evidence seems to have been ignored or put aside). Apart from Sue and her family, there is a number of people who have suffered over the last decade due to these failures. There is the homeless and traumatised girl on the yacht, the witnesses who have been pursued and charged, the lawyers who have given their time, as well as the community as a whole having been seemingly duped about the conviction. The girl on the yacht who witnessed what occurred on Australia Day 2009 is clearly traumatised and in desperate need of help and protection. (Robert Richter QC even asked the Tas Premier to arrange this but was told “no”. ) Had this girl gone to Tas Pol with her confession would they have listened? I doubt it – the court apparently dismissed her and her DNA on the yacht as “a red herring”. It is scandalous. In any case the wrongs now need to be put right. Thanks should not only go to the barristers and lawyers speaking out, Eve, Colin, Charlie, and you Andrew for keeping Sue’s plight in the public eye, but also to her pro bono lawyer, Barbara Etter who worked solidly for almost SIX YEARS uncovering the truth, gathering valuable supporting information, obtaining forensic reports on a number of issues, including the DNA on the yacht, organising independent experts on luminol and winching – ALL IN A SEARCH FOR THE TRUTH. Barbara gave the information that she could to Eve and Colin to pursue, at all times acting professionally and lawfully. Sue and her family will confirm this – without Barbara’s dedicated and tireless work there would have been no “Shadow of Doubt”, no “Undercurrent”, and no books written by Bowles, Urban and McLaren. Let’s add her to the list of people who should be thanked and praised for searching for the truth.
    IT IS TIME FOR TASMANIA TO STEP UP AND OWN THIS WRONGFUL CONVICTION.

    • MM says:

      I firmly believe she did tell TASpol and that’s who convinced her to retract her statement. They way she behaved on the stand is telling. She thought she was being ‘protected’ by who-ever she called out to.

      Until you have sat in the hot-seat with police it may be difficult to recognise that which I can see clearly. My children and I have been in that hot-seat during numerous unrelated cases – we were all threatened with “If you don’t comply with our demands we will hurt someone you love”.

      In Maeghan’s case it was, most assuredly, the threat of being charged with murder in Sue’s stead. I hope Maeghan is one day strong enough to tell her side of the story regarding witness intimidation, not just to clarify why she was scared, but to also provide some recompense to those who have recently been charged with perverting the course of justice.

      And Maeghan, if you are reading this, you must know you are the hero in this whole sordid affair – not the pathetic excuse for a human-being that you have been portrayed to be. YOU hold all the aces, not the police. YOU will be the victor, not the victim! Best wishes on the road to healing, I look forward to your rise from the ashes xxx

      • Christa says:

        Thankyou MM. My heart went out to Meghan Vass. I just hope she is receiving protection and the help she so badly needs. xx

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