Andrew L. Urban.
For the benefit of members of the public following the Sue Neill-Fraser appeal (against her 2010 conviction for the murder of her partner Bob Chappell) in Hobart’s Supreme Court commencing Monday, March 1, 2021, we have compiled a brief check list to help follow the proceedings – in person or via the media.
This is not a comprehensive summary of the case but a snapshot of the key elements.
On what evidence was Sue Neill-Fraser (SNF) convicted?
There was no primary or direct evidence, such as a weapon or an eye witness to the crime; the body of Bob Chappell has never been found; the prosecution presented the jury with only circumstantial evidence. The prosecutor speculated that SNF murdered Chappell below deck with some weapon like a wrench or a screwdriver, winched him up on deck and into the dinghy and then disposed of the body in the Derwent River, tied to a fire extinguisher.
What new evidence has triggered leave to appeal?
A large volume DNA sample in an area 26 cm x 21 cm (approx. size of an A4 page) on the yacht was matched to then homeless 16 year old Meaghan Vass, who denied at trial (and subsequently) that she had ever been aboard. She has since admitted that she had been there and witnessed an on-board fight between Chappell and two males who boarded the yacht with her, and that SNF was not there. Vass confessed on 60 Minutes (Channel 9, March 10, 2019, not shown in Tasmania) and in a sworn statement to the court. She saw a lot of blood … and claimed the material deposit with her DNA was her vomit. She finally came forward so “the lady could go home to her family”.
Did the prosecution prove that Sue Neill-Fraser was on board the couple’s recently purchased yacht, Four Winds, when Bob Chappell was allegedly murdered?
No. The time of death was also unclear.
Was the body of Bob Chappell found and examined?
Did the prosecution produce evidence of an actual murder weapon?
In his summing up to the jury, what did the prosecutor Tim Ellis SC say about the DNA evidence found on the deck, (in a deposit area 21 x 26 cms) that was matched to then homeless girl, Meaghan Vass?
” … we’ve had Meaghan Vass, a sixteen year old homeless girl, bullied and chased around by Mr Gunson all because some of her DNA was found in the one spot on Four Winds, one spot, one spot only, on the top of the deck – a sixteen year old girl. And the idea was to making you think that she could or was – to make a reasonable doubt in your minds that she was connected to this killing – but that gained her what? “Where were you living on the night of the 26th?”
“Don’t know” – two different stories, oh, homeless girl, two different stories. Treated ferociously, treated ferociously, while all the time it seems that she may have been in the Goodwood area, maybe she had something to do with an entry there, maybe not – probably not, I suggest, but the whole thing is such a red herring because when you realize that the DNA could have been transferred from someone onto Four Winds, and the number of people who were there and where they came from, it’s – it was a refinement of that red herring to say, “Were you down at Constitution Dock then?” as if she had necessarily stepped onboard, or even if someone had necessarily acquired some trace of her DNA, some strong sign of her DNA on their footwear before getting on the yacht. They could have got in – they could have acquired that anyway in Hobart, I suggest, anywhere she might have been, and we don’t know where she’s been, nor can she be expected to remember where she was on the 26th of January.
But it could have been put there at any time before the DNA swab was taken by anyone who had acquired some trace on their footwear.”
In his summing up to the jury, what did the judge say about the DNA?
“Now if Meaghan Vass was homeless in the northern suburbs one of the possibilities that I’d suggest you ought to be considering is whether she’d spat – it’s not a delicate subject, but had urinated or something like that somewhere where a policeman had trodden and then that officer had walked onto the deck or got into the car and driven to the boat and walked onto the deck, is it possible that that’s the mechanism by which her DNA got there and that she wasn’t there. Another possibility is that although she said she wasn’t there really on the night of the 26 January or sometime thereafter – sorry, on the night of the 26 January or sometimes thereafter she was on that boat, and given – if you accept that she didn’t get on at Constitution Dock then you’d need to consider whether it’s plausible that she got aboard while it was at its mooring or is it plausible that she got aboard while it was at Goodwood.
“Well Mr Grosser was cross-examined about the possibilities of transference and about the relative chances of the DNA coming directly from the girl or the DNA coming indirectly from her and being transferred there, perhaps on someone’s shoe. All that he really said was in substance that he couldn’t evaluate the possibilities, he couldn’t say whether one possibility was more likely than the other. He certainly didn’t say that transference – without the girl having got on the boat that transference was not plausible.”