Meaghan Vass’ eye witness testimony changes everything

Andrew L. Urban

Meaghan Vass (fb 2019)

When Meaghan Vass finally identified herself to the court in March 2019 as an eye witness to Bob Chappell’s 2009 murder, confirming the evidence of her DNA at the crime scene, the prosecution’s circumstantial case against Sue Neill-Fraser fell apart. The new appeal is due to be heard later this year, but Vass has already changed everything.

The American Innocence Project has used DNA as its primary tool to exonerate hundreds of convicted murderers and rapists over the past 25 years. But in the Neill-Fraser case, the prosecution argued in contradiction to the DNA evidence. When DNA was found at the crime scene at the start of the investigation, it could not be matched to anyone in the police database. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t vitally important evidence. Whose was it? What did they do or see? Could it be evidence consistent with the innocence of the accused? (Obviously, yes.)

And even when a match was made, several months before the trial began while the accused – Sue Neill-Fraser – was on remand in prison, the case against her was not dropped. It should not have mattered that the then homeless 15 year old Meaghan Vass denied to police having been on the boat and lied as to her whereabouts on the night. (They believed that? and not Neill-Fraser’s denial of guilt?) This was exculpatory evidence of the most powerful kind. Yes, it would have been embarrassing for all concerned to admit having arrested the innocent partner of the murdered man, but that must never be a justification for the legal system itself to pervert justice.

TasPol should never have submitted their brief of evidence against Neill-Fraser in the first place, but after the match, TasPol should have immediately withdrawn it. In the days after Chappell’s disappearance from their yacht, police should have attempted to match the DNA with persons of interest around Hobart – not least the petty crims and others who were eventually identified years later by former detective-turned author Colin McLaren, as he detailed in his book Southern Justice (Hachette) and in the 6-part docu-series, Undercurrent (Eve Ash & CJZ Productions).

The DPP should also know that DNA does not stand for Do Not Admit.

In light of Vass’ testimony, everything about this case acquires new dimensions. Here are just a couple of elements.

CONFIDENCE OR DENIAL?
On 60 Minutes (8.30pm, Sunday, March 10, 2019, Channel Nine), Meaghan Vass confirmed that Sue Neill-Fraser did not kill Bob Chappell on Australia Day 2009. Vass knows because she was an eye witness, as her on-board DNA indicated, though it was dismissed as a ‘red herring’ by the DPP for the past 10 years. She provided the court with an affidavit to that effect which was the fresh evidence that persuaded Justice Brett to grant Neill-Fraser leave to appeal (March 21, 2019).

The Advocate news report, March 11, 2019: Tasmania Police said it was aware of the contents of the 60 Minutes story. Assistant Commissioner Richard Cowling said police re-interviewed Ms Vass last week when the program’s promotional material suggested a new version of events.

“The version of events given by Ms Vass on 60 Minutes is contrary to her previous police interview, contrary to her sworn evidence in court and contrary to last week’s police interview,” Commander Cowling said.

In her interview on 60 Minutes, Vass had said she wouldn’t tell the police what she was revealing on air – but was prepared to say it under oath in court. Tasmania Police did not present any “contrary” new information based on “last week’s police interview” with Meaghan Vass to the court in the days following that interview or in the 10 days following the 60 Minutes broadcast.

“We continue to have full confidence in both the original and current police investigators and reiterate that Sue Neill-Fraser stood trial and was convicted by a jury.” (March 11, 2019)

(Why does it need reiterating – of course Neill-Fraser stood trial and was convicted by a jury; that’s the whole problem. All wrongful convictions are preceded by a guilty verdict.)

Earlier, after an Australia Day call for a royal commission by Civil Liberties Australia, a State Government spokesman said the Tasmanian legal system was sound. “The Attorney-General has every confidence in the Tasmanian Legal system,” a spokesman said. (Jan 28, 2019, The Mercury)

So much confidence, so little to base it on.

WHAT WRENCH?
The prosecution went to trial armed with an argument based on character assassination, circumstantial evidence – and speculation without proof. The DNA of a stranger at the crime scene was just ‘a red herring’ Tim Ellis SC maintained. He speculated how the murder must have been committed.

Tim Ellis SC, former DPP of Tasmania

In Tasmanian Times, May 5, 2015, Ellis published an email exchange between himself and journalist Susan Horburgh of the Australian Women’s Weekly; she was preparing an article about the Sue Neill-Fraser case. (It was published on July 27, 2015.)

Horsburgh put some questions to Ellis; here is an extract from their exchange, followed by relevant extracts from the trial transcript.

Horsburgh, April 28, 2015: What was your wrench theory based on?

Ellis, May 5, 2015: I am disturbed that you use the phrase “your wrench theory “. I never advanced any such “theory”. I will refer you to the transcript, the availability of which I have previously alerted you to, but first I point out that it was never the Crown case and it was not and is not essential to the valid conviction of Ms Neill-Fraser that the prosecution produce a murder weapon or prove a manner of death.

FROM TRANSCRIPT: ELLIS CROSS EXAMINING NEILL-FRASER
It was a wrench, wasn’t it, or a similar sort of tool with which you struck Mr Chappell from behind and killed him

FROM TRANSCRIPT: CLOSING ADDRESS BY ELLIS
Now I’ve suggested that wrenches have been on her mind as a sort of implement that she used to kill Mr Chappell.

FROM TRANSCRIPT: CLOSING ADDRESS BY GUNSON (defence)
He pressed a theory (about operating the EPIRB) …. The same (lack of evidence) with the murder methodology that Mr Ellis said. He came out with things like:
You crept up behind him with a wrench and you banged him on the head with a wrench or something like that.
She denied that. There’s no evidence about that. So her answer’s the evidence: No, I didn’t do it.

I suppose you could adopt Mr Ellis’s theory and use the ‘sneak up behind when they’re least expecting and bang them on the head’  but what would happen if the person fought back if your attempt was inadequate? (Ed: yes, this was defence counsel!)

FROM TRANSCRIPT: HH JUSTICE BLOW SUMMING UP
… you’d need to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the physical act or acts by which she killed Mr Chappell were voluntary and intentional acts. So, for example, if she was walking through the boat and tripped and fell and happened to be carrying a terribly heavy wrench which hit him on the back of the head causing death, that wouldn’t be a voluntary and intentional act.

Mr Ellis in cross-examining Ms Neill-Fraser put to her a series of propositions, a scenario about killing Mr Chappell with a wrench, attacking him from behind. ..

So let’s take the example of hitting a man on the head with a wrench. ..

So if an assailant hits someone on the head with a wrench, for example, and if that sort of bodily harm that’s intended, a head injury caused with a wrench, is something that could well cause death and the assailant knows that that’s the sort of bodily harm that could well cause death then that’s murder. For example, if the assailant thinks, ‘I don’t care whether he dies or not, I’m so angry with him I’m going to hit him on the head with this wrench and that’ll really hurt him’, then that can amount to murder.

1) It is impermissible for the prosecution to speculate – and for good reason. In a serious criminal case, the state must take extreme care to ensure that the accused receives a fair trial: the punishment is heavy. 2) In a circumstantial case, the burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt is also subject to the proviso that the guilt of the accused is the ONLY reasonable conclusion available to the jury.

As for Mr Ellis’ claim that “it was not and is not essential to the valid conviction of Ms Neill-Fraser that the prosecution produce a murder weapon or prove a manner of death,” … it is nonetheless essential that the prosecution produce evidence of the identity of the murderer beyond reasonable doubt.

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27 Responses to Meaghan Vass’ eye witness testimony changes everything

  1. Brian Johnston says:

    I would be most surprised, appalled, if Blow is one of the judges. I would compare that to something similar to a criminal investigating his own case.
    I would like to think Blow would be severely disciplined and struck off.

  2. SH says:

    So thankful that MV is on the mainland and receiving professional help – at last!
    Will continue to pray for her healing.

  3. Eve Ash says:

    Disgusting red herrings. The herrings are off. The whole case stinks.

    STATE v. NEILL-FRASER P-1407-1408 MR ELLIS SC
    HOBART 13.10.10 CLOSING

    Tim Ellis to the jury:

    “The two – two big red herrings that were raised in this trial were firstly the so-called other dinghy that was at Four Winds in the afternoon and the young girl, Meaghan Vass and in both cases when they were raised and pursued very, very energetically by her counsel, Mr Gunson, Ms Neill-Fraser apparently knew things that would undermine that very energetic geeing up of an issue, that energetic, ‘Look over there at Meaghan Vass’. Because, it seems, it was never suggested it was said to police, it seems that she now says anyway that the boat when it was at Goodwood was entered and some things were taken, wrenches. Now I’ve suggested that wrenches have been on her mind as a sort of implement that she used to kill Mr Chappell.

    It was never suggested that when police came she informed them of this and we’ve had Meaghan Vass, a sixteen year old homeless girl, bullied and chased around by Mr Gunson all because some of her DNA was found in the one spot on Four Winds, one spot, one spot only, on the top of the deck – a sixteen year old girl. And the idea was to making you think that she could or was – to make a reasonable doubt in your minds that she was connected to this killing – but that gained her what? “Where were you living on the night of the 26th?”

    “Don’t know” – two different stories, oh, homeless girl, two different stories. Treated ferociously, treated ferociously, while all the time it seems that she may have been in the Goodwood area, maybe she had something to do with an entry there, maybe not – probably not, I suggest, but the whole thing is such a red herring because when you realize that the DNA could have been transferred from someone onto Four Winds, and the number of people who were there and where they came from, it’s – it was a refinement of that red herring to say, “Were you down at Constitution Dock then?” as if she had necessarily stepped onboard, or even if someone had necessarily acquired some trace of her DNA, some strong sign of her DNA on their footwear before getting on the yacht.

    They could have got in – they could have acquired that anyway in Hobart, I suggest, anywhere she might have been, and we don’t know where she’s been, nor can she be expected to remember where she was on the 26th of January. But it could have been put there at any time before the DNA swab was taken by anyone who had acquired some trace on their footwear
    P1408
    at any place and then maybe got in the car, driven down and got out and onto the boat and transferred it. All those things are logically possible, all things go to explain this finding, which of course has been disclosed to Ms Neill-Fraser, it’s been thoroughly investigated, which was always on the DNA chart as an unknown person until she got into some sort of trouble with the law and her DNA became on the database and it was matched. But where does that leave us?

    Where did that red herring take us? Why was that girl pursued? Why was she bullied and argued with so fiercely? Was it because it was wanted for you to seriously entertain a reasonable doubt that she’s responsible for this killing? That she, a complete stranger to it all, a sixteen year old homeless girl, has gone down to Marieville Esplanade untied, as it happens, the very dinghy, the very dinghy, which belongs to Four Winds, even though it isn’t marked as such, there’s no Four Winds dinghy, taken that very dinghy to Four Winds by coincidence, committed an atrocious crime for no reason, taken the body out somewhere in order to cover up that crime and come back.”

    • Carol Rea says:

      What an incoherent address to the jury. People try to make sense of utterances when a person of authority is speaking. As in this instance. I fear Tim Ellis was rambling and the judgement was tainted by that.

  4. Andrea Brown says:

    I’d just like to thank everyone for their concern for Meaghan. As of ten days ago she was admitted to an inpatient rehabilitation and trauma facility on the mainland. I spoke with the founders of this life saving place yesterday and Meaghan is taking part in all group discussions and going well.
    I’d also like to make mention that the founder of this rehab centre came from Bali to Hobart to personally go to court and have her bail varied as tas pol thought it necessary for her to sign in weekly, something even the judge thought was over the top.
    Since she has left tas pol have been looking for Meaghan and harassing her close make friend asking if they are safe and do they need anything…. As if…. More like they can’t get to her now, and there’s no chance to even make her go back on what she said to sixty mins now…..
    I hope they rot in hell for what Sue has endured but also for what Meaghan has had to go through and is still going through.

    • Geraldine Allan says:

      Andrea, I am indeed pleased to read that finally Meaghan seems to be in wise and empathetic care. I’m glad she has solid friends like you looking out for her.

    • DK says:

      Andrea – really happy to know that MV is safe and being assisted to get on with her life away from Tasmania police.

    • So relieved that Meaghan is being supported on the mainland and out of reach from TasPol. Hopefully, the focus will now be on its acceptance that justice will be done and Sue must be released.

  5. Brian Johnston says:

    The above story and the follow on comments illustrate how this case was not tunnel vision. Sue was nominated. The case was built around her, as a comment said, Sue was bricked in. Sue never had a chance and her ‘helpful’ answers were used against her. As a comment said the police were unprofessional and lazy.
    The police and prosecution with the judge promoting matters spoke of Sue using a wrench to kill Bob and that the DNA was a red herring and along with all the other pieces of the not circumstantial but fabricated story must surely run very close to or be outright dishonest.
    This case is very serious and should result in a complete overhaul of police, prosecution, judicial and jury procedures.
    I venture to say there are those who should be disciplined. How harshly is another matter. This case is a disgrace and should embarrass the system.
    Why should Sue remain in gaol a day longer than is necessary?
    Why can’t the panel of three judges hear Sue’s case tomorrow?
    Are the powers that be plotting how to keep Sue locked up?

    • Fiona Peate says:

      I’m concerned about who those judges might be. Who decides – is it the Chief Justice? That’s Blow who was judge for the original trial. Surely he would be conflicted.

    • DK says:

      I suspect there are many people who should be disciplined or lose their careers over this case. That Sue remains in prison continues the injustice that has occurred. I am not convinced that a panel of judges in Tasmania will provide a fair and just hearing for Sue and I believe there are powerful people trying to keep any new evidence – facts not fabrication – from being heard. I again call for the Federal Government to intervene urgently in this matter otherwise we will still be discussing this in 12 months with Sue still behind bars!!!

    • SH says:

      Yes, why is it that she has to even appeal? It’s obvious!
      Sue should be let out of jail immediately!!!

    • Andrea Brown says:

      I dare say that any admittance of wrongdoing by tas police will never happen. Not by the look of it anyway.

      • Geraldine Allan says:

        It doesn’t have to be admitted. common sense prevails; most ordinary citizens are not stupid and we can see for ourselves the wrongdoing, and who the culprits are.

  6. Gruntle Massey says:

    You really have to wonder if these jurors have the capacity to understand what “beyond reasonable doubt means”. Upon learning of Vass’s DNA, I would return Not Guilty immediately. Just too much doubt.

    As for the way about which the police went about bricking SNF, I am reminded of the Gable Tostee case 2 years ago in Qld. A young man who had a girl in his hi rise apartment, whom he locked out on his balcony for only 10 seconds at which time she jumped to her death for reasons unknown. He was immediately aghast at the prospect of being considered the culprit and behaved like a guilty person – fleeing the scene, and lawyering up before presenting to police. He was subsequently arrested and charged with her murder, despite the police have a complete recording of the night which the jury heard to ultimately exonerate him. There was absolutely no forensic evidence, or witnesses, to indicate he murdered her. The DPP presented a misleading narrative that contradicted the evidence in the recording. He spent three months in prison on remand, just because the Police bricked him. Had he not recorded the encounter, he would have probably been imprisoned for 12+ years. The jury deliberated for four days over what should have been decided in four hours. Some were obviously swayed by the biased narrative by the media at the time.

    It is not just Taspol, but all police in this country. Truly unprofessional and lazy. If you look like a possible suspect and they have no othr leads, they will pursue you. Never speak to Police, always film them, always lawyer up with the best your money will buy.

    • andrew says:

      What a shame that the really good, honest and smart cops get tarred with the same brush.

    • Aldo says:

      Gruntle Massey, your ignorance is clearly showing in the Gable Tostee case. Warriena Wright who was intoxicated because Tostee plied her with alcohol was forcibly locked outside on the balcony after shouting and pleading with him to stop and let her go home. She then attempted to climb to the unit below due to fear but lost her grip and fell to her death. BTW there were witnesses who heard her shouting and pleading before she fell to her death.

      Yes he was charged with murder however that was extremely unlikely to stick because intent could not be proven however he could have been found guilty of manslaughter on the basis of reckless indifference but the jury, after 4 days of deliberations, let him off.

      • Gruntle Massey says:

        You have clearly swallowed the media kool aid. It is not reckless indifference to lock a violent vandalising person on an approved residential balcony, where she had spent considerable time previously in the evening. She lost the plot, that is not his fault. Haven’t listened to the audio, have you?

        Anyway, you are off topic – my original comment was how the police bricked him, they misinterpreted aspects of the audio in a very sloppy unprofessional lazy manner that saw him jailed needlessly. It was a wildly circumstantial and overly speculative case driven by media lies. and police incompetence. Neill Fraser suffered a very similar fate. She should NEVER have been charged.

        • Aldo says:

          Absolute rubbish, i have read the audio recording transcript and it was clear that his actions in forcing and then locking her out on a balcony 14 floors up after having told her previously that he should throw her off the balcony because she was a bit rowdy was reckless indifference.

          You’re obviously not familiar with the precedent in Royall? Here’s the link http://www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/viewdoc/au/cases/cth/HCA/1991/27.html?context=1;query=royall;mask_path=au/cases/cth/HCA

          • Gruntle Massey says:

            The reference about throwing her off the balcony was an obvious sarcastic jibe, so it seems you have not listened to the audio. I know the Royall case very well and it has no relevance because he actually severely assaulted his victim.You clearly have no understanding of either case so please dont comment further else I will continue to correct you.

  7. Unfortunately, there has happened to be other discordant undertakings that have enabled guilty verdicts to be accomplished in Tasmania’s Supreme Court.

  8. LB says:

    People seem confused…wasn’t it the “wrench” mentioned repeatedly (in the trial transcript) that was the red herring, rather than the DNA deposit on the yacht? I do not understand….

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