Andrew L. Urban.
February 3, 2020: The three Tasmanian judges set to hear Sue Neill-Fraser’s new appeal in May 2020 against her 2010 conviction for the 2009 murder of her partner Bob Chappell should disqualify themselves and be replaced by interstate judges, says a former State and Federal court judge thoroughly familiar with the case.
The main rationale for his view is that in the appeal hearings, the Tasmanian judges (Justices Helen Wood, Stephen Estcourt and Robert Pearce) may be called on to consider matters concerning the trial judge, who is now their Chief Justice, Alan Blow AO. This would put them in a conflicted position.
At the trial, the judge had refused leave to recall Meaghan Vass, the homeless 15 year old whose DNA was found on the deck; Vass had earlier denied having been on board.
The then DPP Tim Ellis objected to having Vass recalled: “to get young Ms Vass back in for a bit more nasty badgering about where she was on what night would not only be pointless but totally unfair…”
His Honour agreed with the DPP: “the question of just where Meaghan Vass was and what she did on the night of the 26th of January seems to be peripheral when her version of events is unshakably, or apparently unshakably, that she did not go onto the Four Winds … In my view the prospect of Meaghan Vass giving significant evidence if we called is so slight as not to warrant the time taken to recall her.”
But in her 60 Minutes interview on March 10, 2019, Meaghan Vass admitted that she was on Four Winds with two male friends and witnessed the altercation that led to Bob Chappell’s death; Neill-Fraser was not on board. She also said she had vomited, which would have been the source of her DNA. That admission is the basis for the ‘fresh and compelling’ evidence supporting the primary ground of appeal to be heard in May. Leave to appeal under Tasmania’s new Further Right to Appeal law (passed in November 2015) was granted by Justice Brett on March 21, 2019.
A secondary consideration, says the judge, is the closely knit nature of Tasmania’s legal fraternity. This is not to question the ethics of those involved, but the silken threads of friendship are recognised as a reality of the human condition and could well make the public uneasy – especially so in this matter.
This highly controversial case has polarised Tasmania and has worried many that it is eroding confidence in the legal system, a cornerstone of democracy. Perceptions will be formed about the appeal process and the Tasmanian government would be wise to take precautions – such as outside judges – that this long awaited appeal is seen to be scrupulously fair, says the judge. Neill-Fraser has been incarcerated for more than 10 years; her first appeal was heard in 2011. And roundly criticised
Speaking exclusively to wrongfulconvictionsreport.org, the former judge thinks that the case should never have got to court, but once it did, it should have been dismissed for lack of evidentiary basis. And during the trial, there were several instances where this judge would have ruled against the prosecutor speculating about how the murder was committed. In the end, he would have directed the jury to acquit Neill-Fraser as no case was made out against her. This view is shared by the famed Chester Porter QC, among others.
Timeline of a worst case scenario – the months and years slip by ……
a flawed investigation, a guilty verdict, a failed appeal, a refused appeal, a delayed appeal
26 January 2009 Bob Chappell last seen alive by his sister Anne Sanchez at breakfast and by his partner, Sue, on board their yacht, Four Winds, moored off Sandy Bay, Hobart, early afternoon.
27 January 2009 6am Four Winds low in water on mooring, Bob missing. Four Winds’ dinghy found near rowing shed rocks.
20 August 2009 Sue Neill-Fraser arrested for Bob’s murder, bail refused.
15 March 2010 DNA found on Four Winds matched to homeless 15 year old, Meaghan Vass.
21 September 2010 Trial commences in Hobart Supreme Court; Justice Blow, D. Gunson SC for the defence, T. Ellis SC for the prosecution. A terrified Vass denies she was on Four Winds.
15 October 2010 Sue is found guilty.
27 October 2010 Sue is sentenced to 26 years in prison, non parole of 13 years.
11 August 2011 Court of Criminal Appeal (Crawford CJ, Tennent and Porter JJ) hears Sue’s appeal.
6 March 2012 Appeal dismissed, but sentence reduced from 26 to 23 years.
7 September 2012 Appeal to High Court on ground of stranger’s DNA at crime scene a risk to conviction; High Court refuses to hear appeal when DPP claims that Vass’ DNA was transferred on-board, not direct deposit.
17 January 2014 Coroner’s findings support trial outcome (it has to, by law).
2 November 2015 New Right to Appeal law passed in Tasmania.
31 January 2016 Sue Neill-Fraser lodges new appeal with barrister Tom Percy QC. DPP Darryl Coates SC argues against appeal leave being granted.
20 June 2017 Sue’s lawyer Barbara Etter steps aside from the legal team. Paul Galbally steps in a little later.
21 August 2018 Third hearing before Justice Brett., seeking leave to appeal
10 March 2019 In her 60 Minutes interview, a distraught Meaghan Vass admits that she was on Four Winds and witnessed the altercation that led to Bob Chappell’s death; Neill-Fraser was not on board.
21 March 2019 Leave is granted for a further appeal
2 August 2019 Appeal documents lodged with court (see below)
20 August 2019 10th anniversary of arrest
12 November 2019 Appeal hearing set for March 2, 2020
13 December 2019 Appeal hearing delayed till May 25, 2020
The grounds for appeal are:
|Fresh and compelling evidence establishes that there has been a substantial miscarriage of justice.
There is fresh and compelling evidence that: