Andrew L. Urban
The Tasmanian police community is smarting – not to be confused with acting smart – from the latest revelations of incompetence (and worse) that ruined the investigation into the disappearance of Bob Chappell on Australia Day 2009. After papers tabled in the Legislative Council by Mersey MLC Mike Gaffney (August 31, 2021) that detailed new evidence of incompetence and malpractice both the Police Commissioner and the Police Association have made defensive and disparaging public statements.
Why this was not a smart act by either is that they precede the court’s decision in the Sue Neill-Fraser appeal against her conviction of murdering Bob Chappell, her partner. If it is upheld, the reputation and credibility of these spokesmen will be destroyed, along with public confidence in the legal system. If the appeal is dismissed, it will raise uneasy questions as to what was known by whom in advance of the announcement.
Their unwise remarks also served to amplify the existence of fundamental flaws – and they both incorrectly included the Coroner’s report as part of their defence of the conviction. The Coroner is obliged by law to agree with the court results. Ignorance or mischief to suggest otherwise? Smarting because they are under greater scrutiny than they are used to? Smarting because if the conviction is overturned, so are many reputations?
Referring to “public discussion of unsubstantiated material” as “reckless and attention seeking”, Colin Riley of the Police Association repeated as proof of the conviction’s reliability the sad legal history of the case over the past 12 years, namely the trial, the first appeal and (incorrectly) the High Court appeal – which never took place because the High Court refused leave to appeal.
Riley also issued what looks like a threat, saying “We are not …prepared to remain silent as individuals make unfounded allegations against our members without reprisal.”
Police spokesmen and the public are able to read those ‘unfounded allegations’ as they appear on the Parliamentary website by entering ‘Susan’ into the search box. These papers attract absolute privilege.
The conviction is currently under appeal again, but none of the new evidence that has come to light (as outlined in the papers tabled by Gaffney) has been presented in court before. To call that material ‘unsubstantiated’ is a gross misuse of the word, used in ignorance of the content.
The very reason there is an appellate process is to correct miscarriages of justice; they happen, as history shows no more dramatically than with the case of Lindy Chamberlain almost 40 years ago. The history of that trial and guilty verdict, the appeals and a Royal Commission stand as proof that The System is prone to errors. There are more examples, of course, of convictions overturned.
Tunnel vision, flawed forensic evidence and other obstacles to justice need to be addressed and claiming that the jury verdict must be allowed to stand in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is neither smart nor acceptable.
To top it off, for reasons yet to be articulated, Risdon prison authorities have moved Neill-Fraser from the minimum section into solitary for five days, planning to move her into the prison’s maximum section, depriving her of all contact for 21 days … adding brutality to the history of incompetence and malpractice that put her in jail – and The System above the law.