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.
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 Vass. There 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).
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.
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.