Sue Neill-Fraser – a wrongful arrest and 11 years later Part 2: a remedy

Andrew L. Urban.

The police investigation that led to Neill-Fraser’s arrest was irredeemably flawed, as we reported in Part 1 and it led to a train wreck of a trial that mocks the integrity of the criminal justice system. There is a remedy even now, says a legal academic: “the prosecution should concede that appealable error has occurred and make a joint request with defence counsel that the conviction be set aside … as has been done (before and) in many cases in the UK”. 

That wrongful arrest led to then DPP Tim Ellis SC accepting the police ‘brief of evidence’ and proceeding to trial. The original sin of the arrest without probable cause turned rancid in a trial that broke almost every relevant rule of criminal justice in court. (See ‘inadmissible evidence’ below) We have reported extensively on many of them, not least the prosecution’s speculation about Neill-Fraser’s imagined method of murdering and disposing of Chappell without any evidence to support that scenario – unchallenged by trial judge, now Chief Justice Blow.

misleading evidence

Extract from the Closing address by Ellis SC:
You lowered his body into the dinghy and you took it somewhere into the deeper channels of the Derwent ….
… you completed the work and disposed of Mr Chappell’s body by using winches to haul him out and the fire extinguisher and other things. You wrapped him up in some form of doona or cloth or a sail cloth or something with the carpet pieces which were bloody and which you’d removed …..

In his own closing address, defending barrister Gunson SC said to the jury: “Now Mr Ellis at some stage, I think it was in his Opening, said to you that there was Mr Chappell’s blood found in the dinghy.”

A little later came this exchange, jury absent:

MR ELLIS SC: The next point is, it was attributed to me that I said it was Mr Chappell’s blood in the dinghy. Now I don’t believe I did.
MR GUNSON SC: Yes, you did.
MR ELLIS SC: Okay – I don’t know why I’d say it
HIS HONOUR: – Well –
MR ELLIS SC: – because I’ve never believed it.
HIS HONOUR: In opening.
MR ELLIS SC: Oh in opening –
MR GUNSON SC: Yes, in opening.
MR ELLIS SC: Oh okay, I abandon that, if I said it in opening.
HIS HONOUR: All right. Well I’ll do nothing about that point. What’s the next point?

Had Blow J erred? Should he not have recognised that the prosecutor had misled the jury – as well as His Honour. And should he not have done something about ‘that point’?

‘inadmissible’ evidence

But that wasn’t all, as legal academic Dr Bob Moles of Flinders University has explained: After Sue Neill-Fraser was convicted and had been unsuccessful in her appeal I was asked to have a look at her case. 

Upon reviewing the transcript of her trial it was manifestly obvious that there had been a number of very significant errors in the conduct of her trial. 

For example, a forensic scientist gave evidence to the effect that she had found traces of blood in and about the boat. The test she had used to determine the presence of blood was a “Luminol” test.

The scientist acknowledged that this was only a preliminary screening test, and she should also have known that it could not have been probative of the existence of blood without a follow-up confirmatory test. She said that confirmatory tests were not done. This means that her assertions about the presence of blood should not have been admitted into evidence. The fact that they were admitted constituted an appealable error, and would, in and of itself provide sufficient grounds upon which the appeal should be allowed. 

‘entirely irrational’

In addition, the prosecutor stated that the jury could infer from the injuries that Mr Chappell would have had that he must have been attacked by someone known to him and not by a stranger. Apart from being entirely irrational, there was no evidential basis to establish that Mr Chappell had any injuries and if so what their nature was. A prosecutor is not allowed to put submissions to the jury unless the facts upon which they are based has been established by properly admitted evidence. 

The prosecutor also stated that the jury could infer that Mr Chappell had been attacked by someone known to him and not by a stranger because a stranger would not have bothered disposing of his body – he said that would make no sense at all. The only thing here which did not make sense was that submission by the prosecutor. There is no rational basis upon which it could be said that strangers do not bother to dispose of bodies in murder cases. Of course there was at the time the submission was made no evidential basis to establish that there was in fact a body which had been disposed of. 

It is clear to me that such submissions by the prosecutor were in error and would of themselves have provided a sufficient basis upon which an appeal would and should have been allowed. 

The wrongly admitted evidence by the forensic scientist, along with the erroneous submissions by the prosecutor provide a compelling case for the overturning of this conviction. 

a remedy

The above opinions have been set out in further detail in our research report which is available at 

Daryl Coates SC, current Tasmanian DPP

It is my view that the prosecution should concede that appealable error has occurred and make a joint request with defence counsel that the conviction be set aside. If that were to be done, as has been done in many cases in the UK, the conviction could be overturned within a week or two. 

Tim Ellis SC, former Tasmanian DPP – prosecutor at trial

As attractive as this remedy is, it is unlikely that the DPP would countenance that course of action, given the history of official resistance to any review.

So the appeal court may not hear (or want to hear) the above failures at trial that cast doubt not only on the conviction but on the court itself – their fellows in the legal fraternity. But they should not be allowed to forget what prominent Melbourne barrister Robert Richter QC says about Meaghan Vass’ DNA: it “anchors her to the crime scene”.

There are a number of other active lawyers, barristers, judges past and present who join her family and friends in expressing their deep concerns over Sue Neill-Fraser’s conviction. By contrast, we have not heard from any member of the legal establishment (other than the Tasmanian DPP’s office) speaking out in support of the guilty verdict.

First it was March 24, then it might have been August 17, then November 2, but Sue Neill-Fraser’s last chance to appeal her controversial murder conviction has once again been deferred to a date beyond December 1, after Tasmania last week extended its border closure, due to Victoria’s latest outbreak. Her pro bono legal team reside interstate: instructing lawyer Paul Galbally in Melbourne, barrister Tom Percy QC in Perth. At a directions hearing in July both her team and the DPP agreed that the appeal hearing needs to be held in person, not on video links.

This is an especially disturbing example of the destructive ripple effect of state border closures spreading through every aspect of the community.

The new date for Neill-Fraser’s appeal may be set at the next directions hearing, scheduled for September 28, 2020.

Petition for review of the case

The Mercury 22 March 2019

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8 Responses to Sue Neill-Fraser – a wrongful arrest and 11 years later Part 2: a remedy

  1. Keith says:

    The conspiracy theorist in me is thinking that the Premier’s decision today to extend the state of emergency in Tasmania for another two months is a ploy to avoid the state’s inevitable accountability for the wrongful conviction of SNF.

  2. Deb Drummond says:

    In some ways SNF’s trial resembles my grandfather’s murder trial e.g. the prosecutor, in his opening address, named a prospective witness and outlined his so called damning evidence. Justice Alan Mansfield wrote said name in his notebook. Named witness never appeared in court. No objection raised. However, most disturbingly in SNF’s case is that my grandfather’s trial was conducted in 1947!

    • Ross says:

      Maybe read some of Andrew Rules case studies. And write to him about your grandfather’s case. You will need an historical summation. You wrote that it was in 1947, some time 75 years ago!
      How it may apply to SNF I do not know. Justice A Mansfield’s notebook would be a start, if you have it. “Named witnesses never appeared in Court”?
      And, Deb, given that your grandfather’s trial was conducted in 1947 it makes you, Deb, a great stayer. And much, much younger than me.
      Go for it.

      • Deb Drummond says:

        Thank you Ross. My grandfather’s case is outlined in detail in my book Lingering Doubts – Going inside Brisbane’s Arcade Murder. Dr Bob Moles wrote a brilliant summation of the case and offered his support by appearing on ABC Australian Story.

  3. Ross says:

    If the Family Law Court under Covid-19 limitations permits visitation rights between estranged parents’ (even those with convictions) children, then surely the gravity of this case deserves similar flexibility – after all, SNF has been estranged from her own grandchildren.

    Maybe AFL-fixated Tasmania could create a “hub” for the SNF legal team from Melbourne, as WA, NT and SA are so doing. I guess a Sherrin trumps a Sue.

  4. owen allen says:

    Great work Andrew. I have guff on Chief Justice Blow from the media.
    I believe he is not fit to be on a bench. And talk about protection in the ranks.
    I refer to Tim Ellis.

    We are not fools, or spools in the water whirl you jokers.
    We are ANZAC children.

    Cooee Michael Phelan of the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission.
    And Prime Minister, what’s your name again, lagging behind worlds best practice in anti corruption and human rights?
    Talk to me.

  5. Ruth Graham says:

    A cruel, wasteful and inept mess. Shame on Tasmania.
    Right this wrong.

    • Rob Angus says:

      Shame on Tasmania. They have joined the ranks with Northern Territory with their sham court cases with poorly qualified legal personnel and codemming the wrong person. No one will forgive you.

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