Andrew L. Urban.
What are the ramifications of keeping Sue Neill-Fraser in jail as a convicted murderer when the whole world has heard she is innocent of the crime? What excuse can Tasmania’s slow-lane legal system have for allowing an obviously unsafe murder conviction to loll about the courts for eight years (since first appeal)? At what cost protect the conviction? Which judges will sit on the appeal bench?
The questions posed above are just some that are foremost in the wake of today’s decision by Justice Brett of the Supreme Court to grant Neill-Fraser leave to appeal her 2010 conviction for the murder of her partner, Bob Chappell, on board their yacht, Four Winds on Australia Day 2009.
THE WORLD KNOWS
The combination of media reports covering the 6-part TV series Undercurrent (Seven Network) which concluded on March 6, 2019 and the Meaghan Vass admission that she witnessed the murder – Neill-Fraser absent – on 60 Minutes (Nine Network) on March 10, 2019, which came in the wake of three books unpacking and each thoroughly discrediting the Neill-Fraser conviction, has ensured world wide acknowledgement of her innocence. The only people clinging to the notion of her guilt are those invested in protecting the conviction. Readers can imagine who they might be. (The Vass admission is only the most powerful evidence that the conviction is wrong, not the only element.)
The ‘original sin’, the factor that justifies the claim that this was an obviously unsafe
conviction, was police first ignoring then fumbling the powerful evidence of a large, strong DNA sample at the crime scene – which did not match Sue Neill-Fraser’s DNA. This failure set off a chain reaction that embroiled the DPP (both Tim Ellis SC and successor Darryl Coates SC) when it came to court, where over the past eight years it was downplayed, dismissed and denigrated at every step from trial to appeal, to High Court to this most recent seeking leave to appeal. The system sought to protect the conviction, in favour of seeking the truth.
THE SLOW ASS
Mr Bumble in Oliver Twist accused the law of being an ass (donkey); it is also rather slow, as this example amply illustrates. The absence of any sense of urgency by the legal establishment has been unconscionable. A convicted person, in this case Neill-Fraser, is deprived of liberty and restricted in her ability to agitate the system for a review, both by those restrictions and by the legal framework. If there is an obviously unsafe conviction, the proper response is to fast-track the process to a judicial review, not hinder it as has been the case. In no other area of potential human suffering would this absence of compassion be tolerated – not in failures in medicine, not in safety or security. Reform is urgently needed.
Psychologist/filmmaker Eve Ash (Undercurrent, Seven Network) said the system was far too slow. “If Sue was overseas, in prison for 10 years and someone came forward and said a local criminal had done the murder – you’d have the PM, ambassadors, the AG, the whole country up in arms. It’s like leaving a wounded soldier out on a battle field while we decide who should go and rescue her!”
THE COSTS OF DENIAL
Who will reveal to the Tasmanian taxpayers the unjustifiable cost in cash and time resources of the State acting in denial, resisting this latest judicial review of the case? The costs of the DPP, his junior and several employees defending the conviction at multiple hearings in just the last three years (10 days in court alone), the costs of police raiding and seizing, the cost of transcribing 500 hours of raw tv footage, the costs of preparing charges of perverting justice against those pursuing the truth … and the costs of surveillance not disclosed.
The costs that cannot be counted in dollars are the deepening polarisation caused by the delays within the community and the loss of public confidence in the justice system.
The appeal will be heard by three judges – but which three? The following judges have sat on the Neill-Fraser trial and appeals:
Justice Blow (conviction at trial, 2010 – now Chief Justice),
Crawford CJ, Tennent and Porter JJ (appeal, 2011 – refused)
French CJ, Crennan J (High Court, 2012 – permission to appeal refused)
Justice Brett (further appeal, leave granted, 2019)
There are just 37 judges (six on the Supreme Court) and magistrates in Tasmania. All of them will have followed this case and may wish to recuse themselves. Tasmania may wish to ‘borrow’ some from the mainland.
Then there are these other questions begging to be answered:
What are the police doing to protect Meaghan Vass and to investigate the men on the yacht with her?
The Sue Neill-Fraser Support group issued a statement immediately after the decision was announced late afternoon on 21 March, 2019:
Sue Neill-Fraser’s Support Group welcomes the decision brought down today by Justice Brett. We are immensely grateful to Justice Brett for the objectivity, professionalism and courtesy he has displayed as presiding Judge. This is the first time in ten years that Sue has been given reason for hope in her long quest for justice.
We remain deeply concerned for Sue’s well-being. An innocent woman remains in prison. Her case has highlighted the parlous state of the justice system in Tasmania – how much longer will she have to remain incarcerated while antiquated legal procedures unfold?
Currently tax-payers money is being used in a dragged-out investigation of those people who tried to speak out about the injustice. Instead of this, questions must be asked about what is being done to investigate the many issues and anomalies that have been brought to light during the Appeal application. What is being done to investigate the new evidence given by Meaghan Vass? What is being done to support and protect Meaghan Vass?
A sense of urgency is needed in dealing with this matter, to ensure that vulnerable people are afforded due process and there is a swift righting of wrongs.