Andrew L. Urban.
As the late author and thinker Christopher Hitchens famously noted, ‘What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.’ Not in the Tasmanian legal system, it can’t. Hence the tortuous, 11-year legal journey of Sue Neill-Fraser, convicted in 2010 of murdering her partner Bob Chappell on Australia Day 2009. Now it’s up to the three appeal judges. So while we wait …
Many readers have engaged with the various elements of this case over the years, many making common sense observations, some obsessively claiming specialist expertise, some commenting from the heart and expressing sympathy for Sue Neill-Fraser. Here is the skeleton of the legal case – as presented to the jury.
At trial, prosecutor then DPP Tim Ellis SC speculated – all without evidence :-
* how Sue Neill-Fraser might have got back to the Four Winds after lunching with Bob Chappell’s sister at the Sandy Bay Yacht Club;
* how she must have attacked him from behind below deck with a wrench or screwdriver (no weapon ever found) – because had she been a stranger he would have turned round;
* how she must have winched him up to the deck;
* how she must have dumped his body, bound to a heavy fire extinguisher, in the dinghy;
* how she then got into the dinghy and took it out somewhere to dispose of the body into the water (no body ever found);
These propositions are all part of a dark fantasy, and there is little point assessing or even discussing their feasibility in the real world (commenters please note). Like, for example, whether Sue Neill-Fraser was physically capable of doing any or all those things. Why bother talking about the winching? About the unknown murder weapon? Or the logistics of manipulating a body on a yacht and in a dinghy? She certainly shouldn’t have to prove their impossibility in a legal system that prides itself (perhaps not always) on the presumption of innocence. It’s the Crown’s task to prove its case BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT.
What IS worth talking about though, is how the presumption of innocence was effectively negated by repeated accusations of her lying, on matters that were presented as circumstantial evidence. The jury were encouraged to consider that (for example) ‘If you say you were at Bunnings that day and can’t prove it on the CCTV footage … you must be lying and hiding your real activity, which was murdering Bob Chappell.’
The first appeal against the conviction was heard in 2012; it is depressing to note the failure of the Criminal Court of Appeal to take that opportunity to correct errors made at trial. The decision to reject all grounds of appeal is arguably (and obviously) wrong; see for yourself
And now (since March 1-3, 2021), the new appeal judges have retired to consider their verdict after hearing from counsel from the applicant (Neill-Fraser) and the respondent (the Crown). Was the DNA matched to Meaghan Vass on the deck a primary transfer by her – as testified post-trial by the expert witness from the Victorian Police forensic service; or a secondary transfer simply walked onto the deck on someone’s shoe, after the murder, as always claimed by the Crown?
Imagine if the appeal court were to dismiss her appeal, believing that the new DNA evidence is not conclusive or not fresh. We know where that would leave Neill-Fraser: in jail, having to embark on a massive new fight to get her case before the High Court.
But where would that leave the reputation of Tasmania’s legal system, and the public’s confidence in it, given the absence of any primary evidence presented to the jury to justify the conviction? Talk all you want, but I’m with Hitchens.