Andrew L. Urban.
After eight years of studying the case of mild mannered Hobart grandmother Sue Neill-Fraser, convicted of murdering her partner Bob Chappell on Australia Day, 2009, we have learnt that administering the law in Tasmania doesn’t always work as it should. Indeed, rules to ensure that justice is served were too often broken – with terrible consequences. Such as a 23 year prison sentence …
Tasmania’s criminal justice system seems to have been thwarted by a crime it could not solve in the usual manner; a thorough investigation. Instead, the law took a short cut. That’s how it looks (and has looked all along) with its handling of what seemed like the disappearance of Bob Chappell – later known to have been murder, but not by the accused. For a detailed summary of key facts, please see the report of our ENQUIRY
The usual safeguards were broken every step of the way:
– giving credence to Phillip Triffett’s self-serving, unproven and risible historic allegations against Sue Neill-Fraser (that she had asked him to murder Chappell and her brother) as the trigger to target her as the only suspect
– ‘Tammy’ Hanson rings Constable Deayton (Sept 23, 2009) to alert TasPol of unreliability of Phillip Triffett as a witness (ignored)
– Stephan Catchpool, a member of the public living near Battery Point, rang police on January 27, 2009 to report illegal boating activity and ‘dodgy characters’ in the area; Detective Sinnitt interviewed him at his home but months later when following up, Neill-Fraser’s barrister was told Sinnitt had denied being told about them
– a failure to fully investigate how third party DNA was deposited at the crime scene, despite knowing whose it was – Meaghan Vass
– Neill-Fraser’s ex husband was never interviewed
– Neill-Fraser complained to Ombudsman about the investigation, who advised her to lodge a written complaint to Police Commissioner & Police Internal Investigations (July 30, 2009) asking for independent review of evidence (ignored)
– several persons of interest were not interviewed until years after the event
At trial (Sept-Oct, 2010):
– no credible evidence was presented to place Neill-Fraser at the crime scene
– no evidence was presented to establish the death of Chappell
– without Chappell’s body and without a weapon having been found, the prosecution speculated how Neill-Fraser killed him and disposed of his body; the judge permitted and reinforced the speculative scenario
– the prosecutor dismissed Meaghan Vass’ DNA at the crime scene as a ‘red herring’
– the prosecutor argued against recalling witness Meaghan Vass & the judge refused permission
– the prosecutor called as a witness Phillip Triffett who testified against Neill-Fraser that a decade earlier she asked him to kill her brother and Chappell (see above – denied, unproven)
– inadmissible forensic evidence was presented
– the prosecutor attempted to exaggerate conflict between Chappell and Neill-Fraser via witness, Barbara Zockling, but Zockling realised it was not Neill-Fraser but Chappell’s sister she saw arguing dockside with Chappell – no correction was made to the jury
– the prosecutor told the jury that Neill-Fraser’s DNA was found inside a latex glove which he claimed (without evidence) was used to clean up the crime scene; it turned out to be Chappell’s son’s DNA, but the jury never heard that
– trial judge delivered prejudicial summing up referring to imaginary wrench eight times
At first appeal (2012):
– the three appeal judges dismissed the complaint (Ground 1) that defence request to recall Vass was refused, speculating what her evidence and its usefulness to the jury might have been
(The judges in Neill-Fraser’s second appeal (March 1-3, 2021) have reserved their decision.)
At seeking special leave to appeal to High Court (2011-12)
– the DPP convinced the High Court that the DNA evidence (on which the appeal rested) was a ‘red herring’, being a secondary transfer; leave was not granted
NOTICE the public-confidence-sapping determination with which this conviction was pursued and protected in the face of much reasonable doubt. Over a decade of its process through the system, nobody in Tasmania’s legal or political leadership raised a concern or said a single word in public to halt the process while an independent enquiry considered the evidence.
That’s what we’ve learned about Tasmania’s criminal justice system as revealed by the case of Sue Neill-Fraser: saving face trumps serving justice. Too embarrassed and/or intimidated by peer pressure? Bonded by guilt, shame and fear? Or plain old hubris? The law should protect innocent citizens – even from itself.
Sadly, it should be acknowledged that Tasmania is not the only jurisdiction to suffer from malpractice, incompetence and lies in a criminal justice system long overdue for reform. But what sets Tasmania apart in this regard is the stubborn resistance to correcting the error of this conviction in the face of overwhelming public pressure – mostly from the mainland. Why? Because the legal establishment is isolated and impenetrable, protected by its self-governing status.
But other states have their own legal blemishes: South Australia, for instance, sets the bar pretty high with its history of failures, peaking with the nation’s greatest forensic disaster.
It could be the start of a black joke: ‘Have you heard the one about the chief forensic pathologist of a modern Australian state who was not qualified to do his job, was discredited by the legal establishment, yet he continued over decades to perform thousands of autopsies and the like, including in 400 serious criminal cases….the punch line is that nothing has been done about it.
Western Australia, now a pariah state over cynical border closures (aka vote harvesting), has its own dirty little and not so little secrets in this regard – starting with an appeal court decision that defied the rule of law…
Derek Bromley was convicted of murder in 1984, wrongfully, in the opinion of several legal experts; now, his latest appeal (June 2018) floundered when South Australia’s appeal court “fundamentally failed to pay due regard to the rule of law and to the well-established principles governing criminal appeals,” according to legal academics Dr Bob Moles and Bibi Sangha. “The principles espoused in the Bromley decision are not only contrary to established authority but have never before appeared in any legal judgment in Australia, Britain or Canada.”
In NSW, a bloody massacre of five people in 2009 – a major crime – has been blamed on the most unlikely of suspects, who has been dragged through four trials and an appeal against his life sentence (over 11 years in all). “The Crown does not know exactly what time it was that the murders occurred,” said the prosecution in the opening address, “but our case is that it must have occurred after 2 o’clock in the morning, because you will hear that it is accepted that the accused had been at home with his wife using the internet until around this time. So it is at some point after 2 o’clock and before 5.30am.”
In other words, the Crown case is based on circular reasoning. The Crown asked the jury to accept that the deaths occurred after 2am – without any evidence – to fit their accusation against Robert Xie. Xie and his wife provided an alibi: they were in bed all night, together, after 2am. The victims were family members.
NOTE: The cases mentioned above are only some of the most egregious examples of justice gone awry.