The knife, the wrench, the prosecutor and his prejudice

Andrew L. Urban

An observer at the 2010 murder trial of Sue Neill-Fraser has confirmed that early in the trial, the prosecutor, then DPP Tim Ellis SC, held up a large knife – flourishing it inside a plastic bag as if it were evidence – eliciting a gasp from the court. But he never tendered it in evidence, leaving it lying (pun intended) on the bar table in front of him throughout the trial. 

Although that is prejudicial behaviour and strictly impermissible under the code of prosecutorial conduct, it was unremarked by defence barrister (the late) David Gunson QC and ignored by trial judge Alan Blow. (As one legal observer quipped later, Sue Neill-Fraser had three prosecutors…)

The subject has emerged as a result of recent reader comments in which a suggestion was made that it was a wrench so displayed by the prosecutor. It was indeed a hypothetical wrench that was one of the imagined murder implements used to kill Neill-Fraser’s long time partner Bob Chappell on board their new yacht, Four Winds, on Australia Day 2009. A wrench, a screwdriver – and a knife, were all mentioned by Ellis in his unsupported speculation about the killing of Chappell – whose body has never been found. The knife Ellis held aloft like a murder weapon in a fake evidence bag, was in fact the knife found on Four Winds which Neill-Fraser had used – to cut her fruitcake.

The hypothetical wrench was often mentioned in the judge’s sentencing – reflecting perhaps his acceptance of the prosecution’s unproven hypothesis? But for the jury, the threatening presence of the knife throughout the trial was arguably subtle but persistent poison. The act itself is symbolic of the many other incidents of rule breaking by the prosecutor – including the inadmissibility of some forensic testimony and the many prejudicial and demeaning accusations aimed at Neill-Fraser as a liar.

Tim Ellis SC, former Tasmanian DPP – prosecutor at trial

Prosecutors are officers of the court and charged with seeking the truth. Not convictions that disregard the truth.

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21 Responses to The knife, the wrench, the prosecutor and his prejudice

  1. Keith says:

    A wrongfully convicted person released after 13 years in gaol this week. Sadly, this was in WA and not in Tasmania. Why is it that other states can review cases during Covid and Tasmania cannot? It’s beyond a joke now.

  2. J H Slaby says:

    Bass Straight is 100 years wide. This continual train wreck is a stain on every Australian. The Premier with the Attorney General have the power to stop these inhumane actions now.

  3. owen allen says:

    (Interesting comment but not relevant to blog topic. Sorry.)

  4. Jill Sutcliffe says:

    Unbelievable!!! What was the judge doing with this???

  5. Colin McLaren says:

    Andrew,
    ‘…a knife in a fake evidence bag…’
    Surely that antic is the most telling of errors, or theatre, in the SNF trial. It is a shock to me, and to any detective that has worked a homicide case, to see so much invention, presumption lead, courtroom drama unfold, against an ‘innocent’. Obviously the ‘until proven guilty’ mantra had many in that same court room intoxicated with the need of a win. At all costs. Your revelation Andrew only saddens me even more. This is worse than Lindy Chamberlain. Where’s the AG?

    • owen allen says:

      (edited) The AG Colin, is a member of the club. ” The faceless men”, the “old boys club”, call it what you will. And it is worse than you see here. It is their way of life. It is “The Tasmanian Way.”
      A Royal Commission is the only answer. Headed up by some one such as retired Justice Michael Kirby.
      Research Tavistock. They have been in Tasmania for years.

  6. Williambtm says:

    For I have since some many months ago, analyzed the medium or ‘thing’ that had convicted Sue Neill-Fraser (remember there was no material or fact evidence) it was indeed… just the hot breath of former DPP Tim Ellis that had been the responsible medium.
    I now note that the judge that had accepted the DPP hot breath exhortations as sufficient substance to reference in his advice to the jury.
    Justice Alan Blow has since been elevated to the role of Chief Justice in Tasmania.

    In the past, I had challenged every judge in this State to tell me how splendid was the justice delivered through Tasmania’s Supreme Court, not one response.

  7. LB says:

    A drama prop? Are you kidding? This was not a local Amateur Theatre Production? A knife, a screwdriver and a wrench…Where was the chainsaw?! Laughable if it wasn’t so serious. Shaking my head, yet again.

    • andrew says:

      Amateur ?… or unprofessional…?

    • Jerry Fitzsimmons says:

      I have no doubt Andrew that given the many years you have been publishing ‘Wrongful Convictions Report’ that many of the protagonists in Sue Neil-Fraser’s case are reading the comments offered by those of us who continue to be in disbelief of their sordid malfeasance.
      That being so let me further add to Tom Cairn’s wonderful comment of ‘Irish introspection’ and add” Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral”.
      Pauli Freire

  8. Tom Cairns says:

    I have been asked where I learned that a wrench was on display in court and I am still trying to recall, there has been so much weirdness as we all know. In the TV series, UNDERCURRENT, a whole procedure involving the rope used to winch up the victims body was explained, plus the missing fire extinguisher used to weigh down the body etc. Thorough police investigation, all initiated by a mature-aged person’s uncertain recall of her own whereabouts, time and place.
    Or wrench or knife?
    The Irish have an introspective way to put it: ” Does anyone remember what day of the week Pancake Tuesday falls on this year?”

  9. Peter Gill says:

    A similar example of how such prosecutorial shenanigans with a knife are treated by Judges at an appeal is R v Gilham in NSW. The appeal’s full judgement is at http://netk.net.au/Australia/Gilham.pdf. Paragraphs 413 to 419 (especially 419) of the 262 pages are Ground 9 about the prosecutor introducing a knife which had nothing to do with the case. Ground 9 was upheld by the Judges.

    • andrew says:

      But of course, in the Neill-Fraser trial, the knife was just a drama prop, not used for anything like a demonstration, as in the Gilham case you refer to. In my view, putting the knife into a fake evidence bag and leaving it in front of the jury for the trial is an egregious example of prosecutorial misconduct.

      • Peter Gill says:

        OK, you’re right – the craziness of the Sue Neill Fraser trial and appeal tops anything we in NSW can produce.

        Too many Tas-maniacs in their legal and policing professions.

      • Diane Kemp says:

        Totally agree Andrew that this is indeed misconduct by Ellis and not challenged by Blow at all. In fact, His Honour and Ellis mentioned the wrench several times in his summing up despite there being absolutely no evidence of one being used.
        Tragic that Sue continues to be behind bars when it is clear who should be there!!! And don’t get me started on the appalling police so called investigation.

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