Andrew L. Urban.
The High Court in Canberra adjourned for just four minutes before resuming at 2.45pm on Wednesday, September 11, 2019, with a unanimous decision that Steven Fennell’s appeal against his murder conviction should be allowed. A verdict of acquittal was entered. “I was in my cell about to eat my yoghurt when prison officers came to the door and said, `you’re going’,” he told The Courier-Mail.
Steven Fennell, 60, returned home for the first time in more than six years on Thursday, following the ruling that a jury’s guilty verdict was unreasonable, as The Australian’s David Murray reported on September 12, 2019. Reasons will be delivered later.
Mr Fennell was given a life sentence in 2016 for the murder of 85-year-old Liselotte Watson on Macleay Island in Moreton Bay.
“I’ve said all along I don’t believe anybody intended to kill Mrs Watson, I believe it was a bungled burglary,” he said after rejoining his wife Helen and son Adam.
“I was an easy, simple target. I gambled – I know Mrs Watson – I must have done it.”
Ms Watson was bludgeoned to death in her home in November 2012 and Mr Fennell had been in custody since his arrest in March 2013.
Her granddaughter, Emma Watson, on Thursday thanked police “for their relentless effort and dedication”.
“We have felt nothing but unwavering support and compassion from the entire QPS team for years now and are forever grateful.”
Queensland Law Society president Bill Potts said Mr Fennell could sue the state but his prospects of success were low as a jury had convicted him and the verdict was initially upheld by the Queensland Court of Appeal.
Mr Fennell’s barrister, Saul Holt QC, told the court there was a “genuine prospect that an innocent person has been convicted”.
Most of the strands of the prosecution case were “either gossamer thin or in truth non existent in terms of their evidential weight” or stemmed from Mr Fennell’s close association with Ms Watson.
In lengthy submissions, Mr Holt said the suggestion Mr Fennell stole $5,000 from Ms Watson by altering a number on a withdrawal slip, and then killed her because she was going to find out, was “not sustainable”.
Mr Fennell withdrew money on Ms Watson’s behalf on four previous occasions, and on two of those the bank called Ms Watson to confirm he was authorised to do so.
Ms Watson’s toiletries bag, containing her banking documents, and her TransLink wallet and purse were found near a hammer in a mangroves and tidal area.
An island resident gave evidence he had lent the distinctive hammer to Mr Fennell. Ms Watson’s injuries were consistent with being hit by a hammer.
But Mr Holt said there were “blindingly obvious” problems with the hammer’s identification and nothing else directly linked it to the crime.
“This is just a hammer. There is nothing special about it.”
An alternative scenario was someone else knew Ms Watson held large quantities of cash, was disturbed by her presence while attempting to steal from her, then killed her and left.
Mr Fennell had opportunity only in the sense he didn’t have an alibi at times during the 31 hours between Ms Watson being last seen alive and her body being discovered, he said.
“It is really no more than `he could have done it’.”
Mr Fennell delivered pamphlets in a ute and on a postie bike on Macleay and other islands. He visited Ms Watson up to twice a day to do her shopping, banking and assist around the house.
There was evidence Mr Fennell was on his home computer when prosecutors suggested he was at Ms Watson’s house cleaning up after the murder, he said.
“It was well known that she had told lots of people that she had cash in the house. Regrettably, she was a target.”
Queensland police said in a statement that “any matters relating to yesterday’s decision by the High Court should be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions”.
“Police encourage any person with new information to come forward. Any new information provided will be investigated thoroughly.” The DPP declined to comment.