Murder scene DNA – Coroner shrugs

Andrew L. Urban

The DNA of the eye witness to Bob Chappell’s murder is central to the new appeal in the Sue Neill-Fraser case. Its importance had been downplayed by the prosecution at every step of the legal process ever since it was found, on January 30, 2009. When the Coroner, Glenn Hay, finally released his findings on January 17, 2014, he not only also dismissed its importance – he shrugged – he even got key facts wrong.

In light of the newly launched appeal against the conviction of Bob Chappell’s murder by Sue Neill-Fraser (leave granted March 21, 2019), it is instructive, if disturbing, to revisit the Coroner’s report – Record of Investigation into Death (Without Inquest) – into Bob Chappell’s death.

What stands out is the flippant dismissal of the value of DNA evidence from the crime scene. But in this respect, the Coroner is not alone. Prosecutor Tim Ellis SC, had the same dismissive attitude to the DNA evidence.

 THE CORONER
At pages 274 to 277 of the Crown papers is the Statutory Declaration of Senior Constable Sinnitt noting in some detail his investigations into the Vass DNA and noting that she declined to make a statement “stating that she has no recollection of her movements at the relevant time and stating it would be a waste of time due to her having no knowledge of the matter.”  The Constable’s hand-written notes of his conversation with Ms Vass on 18 March 2009 were also in the Crown papers.  It is also to be remembered that Ms Vass was aged just 15 years at the relevant time and had been homeless for some 2 years.  I have previously noted that both appeals rejected submissions that her evidence should have been rejected.  In my view, whether TasPol did or did not disclose interviews with Ms Vass before the criminal trial has no significance to my considerations. 

 Having considered the available material, there is nothing more usefully to be gained in relation to the evidence of Ms VassThere is no acceptable evidence to link Vass to any other person linked to the investigation or for any motive for her to be involved with the murder of Mr Chappell.  Other than the DNA match there was no other link between Vass and the vessel.  It is established that no less than 21 persons, including Police, Fire Officers, civilian witnesses and Ms Neill-Fraser had been on board the vessel between the time the vessel was found sinking to the time the sample of Vass’ DNA was taken from the deck on or about the 15 March.  (emphasis added).

Forensic crime scene notes, Jan 30, 2009 showing area 11 deposit from which DNA sample was taken

That is incorrect. The DNA was in a sample taken on the deck on January 30, 2009. The Coroner confused the date of the discovery of the DNA with the date of identification of whose it was. The presence of 21 persons on board the vessel after the discovery is irrelevant. On March 15, 2010, more than a year later, the DNA was matched with Meaghan Vass.

To say that Other than the DNA match there was no other link between Vass and the vessel, displays a remarkable indifference to one of the most powerful investigative tools in crime investigation. No other link was necessary.

Tim Ellis SC, former DPP of Tasmania

THE PROSECUTOR – at trial:
Now we have from Meaghan Vass already evidence that she has not been on board that boat, that will not be changed in the least by her being taxed about her whereabouts on certain days, nor will it alter the fact that the possibility is that the DNA found on the deck came in some way from a transfer. That possibility in turn will not be affected by where she was at any particular time when it is understood that someone may have contacted her DNA even enlarge prospects on getting into a car, driven down to, say, Constitution Dock, hopped out of the car and got straight on board. It will not be affected by the fact that someone may have equally contacted on their footsteps or in some other way her DNA and gone to Marieville Esplanade and got on a dinghy and alighted on the Four Winds at any time …

 THE PROSECUTOR – at the High Court:
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.

There is just no other connection besides DNA, one piece of DNA; no fingerprints, nothing else, and a piece of DNA found in a common walkway, not in relation to the real scene of the crime which was below decks. Further, the DPP at page 13:
… a very strong case where all the circumstances pointed to the applicant and to the applicant only. They did not point to a homeless 15-year old girl.

As we have reported in detail, Meaghan Vass admitted on 60 Minutes (March 10, 2019) that she was on the yacht, witnessed the murder (Sue Neill-Fraser was not present), and vomited on the deck (hence her DNA). She also provided an affidavit to the court with those details.

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11 Responses to Murder scene DNA – Coroner shrugs

  1. Nola Rae Scheele says:

    My comment is that he DDP said that a wrench was the murder weapon. Now to my understanding is being hit on the head or even when you hit your head accidentally there is more blood loss.
    So why didn’t Taspol luminal the dinghy that SNF supposed to take Bob Cappall and dump him ??
    Why the people of Tasmania do not march about the wrong verdict was bccause they were kept in the dark about new evidence and Tassie was in lock down. They had a black out from what was going on.

  2. marue leone says:

    All while an innocent woman rots in Jail – embarrassed to be an Australian with our powers that be behaving worse than corrupt politicians, lawyers and policie form the outbackk in Africa. SHAME SHAME SHAME Tasmania – you ought to be disgusted with yourselves – the world is watching you and wondering what a backward society we are.

  3. Garry Stannus says:

    Thank you again, Andrew:

    I had missed that Coroner’s mistake … (his confusing the 15Mar2010 identification of the Vass DNA with the taking of the sample on 30Jan2009 – more than a year earlier).

    Could I raise another matter? With the image in your article of an excerpt from the ‘Crime Scene Notes’, it is possible to see that for ‘Area 11’, a barcode [14431-679-3] had been scanned onto the doc/image somehow. It is crossed out and another barcode number is given: [14431-680-4] From the crime scene notes, it seems as if the ‘crossed out’ scanned barcode applies to the previous entry … ‘Area 10’.

    I’m guessing, Andrew, that you have a complete copy of those particular crime scene notes, so you might be in a position to throw some light on why it is that the barcode number for Area 10 is handwritten, while the barcode entry for Area 11 is in the first instance, scanned. Are other of Debra McHoul’s case notes for that 30Jan2009 scanned, handwritten or a mixture of both? Are there other similar cross-outs of scanned barcodes and replacement numbers substituted?

    I ask because there is some evidence that a blue (hand?) towel was at one stage by the Vass deposit, and it seems that it is now missing. So I’m wondering if it’s worth checking to see whether there is a missing sequence in the barcode numbers. Sometimes barcode numbers are generated partly randomly and printed in sheets, so that they will later allow for scanner/keyboarding user error to be noticed. However, with the two numbers shown in your image, there seems to be a two part sequential progression. If that’s how McHoul’s barcode numbers were created/generated, then you might be able to notice if there is a ‘one-off’ gap in the sequence. You might also be able to make a judgement about how the ‘printed’ barcode appears within the notes: was it printed on somehow, or is it ‘stuck on’?

  4. Keith Kroger says:

    Why aren’t the people of Hobart demonstrating in the streets and marching on the Premier’s and AG’s offices? Is this injustice not reported there or has the local media swallowed the police version of events?

    • Judy (Hobart) says:

      Keith Kroger, you are quite right, however please note local people HAVE kept up pressure over the past decade, have conducted rallies, vigils, meetings on Parliament House lawns, have (where appropriate) supported efforts by authors, journalists, Eve Ash the documentary maker, and others involved with the appeal process.

      A couple of years ago Robert Richter QC visited the Premier and AG with a strictly confidential dossier of information about the case, it is understood the visit suggested protection and immunity from prosecution for Meaghan Vass, clearly that advice was not taken – in fact the opposite, the info was almost immediately in the hands of the DPP – quickly the Police arrested a number of people mentioned in the dossier with “attempting to pervert the course of Justice” – some of those cases have been delayed various times by the DPP seriously impacting lives of those accused.
      Many Tasmanians support what you suggest, but equally, being in a small community where we have observed damage to the reputation and careers of some who stood up for Sue, there is real “fear” perhaps too strong a word – at least apprehension) from some community members about protests, and during the appeal period – which we are effectively still in – there are restrictions about what could/can be done.

      It is important to note that Tasmanians have NOT seen either the Undercurrent series on Seven Network, nor the 60 Minutes story- neither were broadcast here and Undercurrent is not available on line. However in the past couple of weeks Tasmanians did read what many believe to be an incorrect press report that Meaghan Vas recanted – with the inference that the DPP/Police appear to not be investigating her claims.

      Have you signed the petition?
      ..https://www.change.org/p/find-the-truth-investigate-bob-chappell-s-death-call-for-commission-of-inquiry-or-royal-commission/u/24412992

      • Diane Kemp says:

        Thank you Judy. I can understand the apprehension people feel as it is apparent to outsiders that there are powerful people from the Premier down who will stop at nothing to prevent this matter being investigated. From the initial shoddy police investigation to the DPP prosecutor’s fairy story provided to the jury and the Judge’s incorrect summing up, there continues to be many good people who have been smeared along the way when they have dared to voice concern.
        That Sue has spent 10 years in prison as a result is unbelievable and while she waits for a court date for her appeal she should be on home detention – this has not been offered – no surprises there. I am sorry that Tasmanians continue to be fed deliberate wrong information through the media about Meaghan who has not recanted – this misleading was fed out from police again.
        As more people sign the petition and continue to agitate for a Royal Commission, damage control continues by those in power – the same people who were responsible for the whole miscarriage of justice.
        I continue to hope that many heads will roll and careers will be terminated because of this gross injustice.

  5. PH says:

    I cannot believe the intelligence of these people to dismiss the DNA. Carried on board by somebody else ?, why not talk to those people and find out who had contact with Vas leading up to police going on board , how difficult is that. Yes nobody, well it must be Vass’s DNA . What about the size of the DNA, must have been a hugh amount for somebody to bring it on board by foot print, get real how dumb are you people, it was vomit the size of a shoe box, carried on board by somebody else, how dumb are you to listen to Prosecution without questioning this. You are as guilty as the DPP for selling out SNF and not questioning these points as Defence, so many points no questioned in her defence, I hope you feel good about the 10years of her life in prison you could have saved by a good defence, questioning the most obvious, well thats how I see it.

    The Prosecutor’s statement: someone may have contacted her DNA even enlarge prospects on getting into a car, driven down to, say, Constitution Dock, hopped out of the car and got straight on board. It will not be affected by the fact that someone may have equally contacted on their footsteps or in some other way her DNA and gone to Marieville Esplanade and got on a dinghy and alighted on the Four Winds at any time.
    What a joke if you believe this, try it and see if you can do it, who was it????? …

  6. PH says:

    I cannot believe the intelligence of these people to dismiss the DNA. Carried on board by somebody else ?, why not talk to those people and find out who had contact with Vas leading up to police going on board , how difficult is that. Yes nobody, well it must be Vass’s DNA . What about the size of the DNA, must have been a hugh amount for somebody to bring it on board by foot print, get real how dumb are you people, it was vomit the size of a shoe box, carried on board by somebody else, how dumb are you to listen to Prosecution without questioning this. You are as guilty as the DPP for selling out SNF and not questioning these points as Defence, so many points no questioned in her defence, I hope you feel good about the 10years of her life in prison you could have saved by a good defence, questioning the most obvious, well thats how I see it.

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