A petition calling for an independent judicial inquiry into the conviction of Sue Neill-Fraser has now received over 25,000 signatures (at September 7, 2021), according to a statement by the Sue Neill-Fraser Support Group. It comes on the heels of last month’s tabling of new exculpatory evidence in Parliament.
At the beginning of August 2021, ‘concerned citizens’ Barbara Etter APM (Neill-Fraser’s former lawyer) and barrister Hugh Selby, presented the Attorney-General with documents containing details of several serious breaches of the rules by investigators and prosecutors. That document was tabled in Parliament at the end of August 2021 by the Hon. Michael Gaffney MLC (Ind), Member for Mersey, following his adjournment speech in the Legislative Council. It is freely available online; to access, enter ‘Susan’ into the search box. (Our reports on the documents can be accessed here.)
The Attorney-General would be supported in her decision to establish an inquiry by the Petition, avoiding criticism from those who fear or frown upon such a review. The appointment of an interstate judge and review team would shield the decision from attack on the basis of bias – one way or the other. The benefits of such a review would be realised whether the current appeal (heard March 1 – 3, 2021) is successful or not.
Irrespective of the outcome of the appeal, the review would serve to examine and report on all the serious allegations that have been made in respect of the investigation and the prosecution of the case (see below). This would go a long way to help restore trust in the administration of justice in Tasmania.
In the event that the review finds reasons to recommend further legal action, it would provide its rationale to satisfy the public and the Government that such action is warranted. If it found no evidence to disturb the conviction, it would put to rest once and for all the acrimonious arguments.
REVIEW LONG WARRANTED
Ever since the acclaimed documentary film Shadow of Doubt (d. Eve Ash) was released in July 2013, revealing shortcomings in the police investigation, doubts have grown and expanded surrounding the conviction of Sue Neill-Fraser for the murder of Bob Chappell on Australia Day 2009.
Public discussion that followed canvassed a whole range of issues of concern, in print and electronic media, a TV docu series (Undercurrent), an episode of 60 Minutes (both unseen in Tasmania), a stage play and three books. Legal opinion published in the course of media coverage added weight to the arguments for a review of the case.
The late Chester Porter QC, who was Counsel Assisting the Lindy Chamberlain Morling Royal Commission, said (October 2013): “There are serious doubts about the guilt of Susan Neill-Fraser, so much so, that an enquiry into the case is essential to restore confidence in Tasmanian justice.”
Flinders University legal academic Dr Bob Moles has stated: “This case begs to have a single informed and impartial person to conduct an independent review of it to ensure the manifest failures in its investigation and prosecution are authoritatively determined.
“The correct approach,” commented Dr Moles, “would be to say that certain logical inferences can be derived from the evidence, that they are consistent with the guilt of the accused and not consistent with the involvement of any other person. This case does not come close to complying with those basic rational requirements.”
In August 2013 acclaimed Melbourne barrister Robert Richter QC urged then A-G the Hon Brian Wightman MP to establish an independent judicial inquiry; he suggested that would be preferable to a Royal Commission: “An inquiry approach saves the Court of Criminal Appeal from having to spend a lot of time on an evaluation of additional, new and fresh evidence in its limited context – a task which (we submit) is best carried out in an investigatory and non-adversarial forum which is not limited in that way.”
Her first appeal in 2011/12 was dismissed by the Tasmanian Court of Criminal Appeal. The High Court refused leave to appeal in 2012. Both decisions have been criticised for different reasons.
A further appeal against the conviction was heard March 1 – 3, 2021 in the Tasmanian Court of Criminal Appeal; decision yet to be handed down.