Andrew L. Urban.
If the three judges considering Sue Neill-Fraser’s appeal decide that Meaghan Vass’ DNA was there by secondary transfer (as the Crown argues) and thus she was not at the crime scene on board Four Winds … they have to accept the logical conclusion of their decision: the homeless young Vass took enormous risks by willingly inserting herself into the case after the trial … for what?
The sole ground of appeal that was actually left to be put forward at Sue Neill-Fraser’s appeal in March 2021 was whether Meaghan Vass’ DNA found on the deck of Four Winds (crime scene) was a direct deposit by the homeless 16 year old (in her vomit as she has later explained) or by secondary transfer in some unknown manner. A fight over forensic evidence . . . and the forensic experts did not address how a dinner plate size residue (210cm x 260cm) containing the DNA material would have been transferred; certainly not on a shoe, something the prosecution suggested as a possibility. (There were no prior or subsequent ‘footsteps’ …)
The Crown’s success at protecting the conviction rests on the judges finding that the DNA was somehow transferred to the deck indirectly and Vass was not on the boat to witness what happened on Australia Day 2009.
A finding that it was a direct deposit by Vass would negate the entire case against Neill-Fraser, embarrassing the prosecutor’s accusations of her ‘lies’, his speculation about how she murdered Bob Chappell…and of course ridiculing his dismissal of the DNA issue as a red herring. It would also shine a light on the investigation before and the intimidatory behaviour after the trial by some members of TasPol. So it is not just Sue Neill-Fraser who awaits the decision with trepidation. And of course, whatever the judges’ decision, the repercussions will be significant and long lasting.
The DPP (and TasPol) has always been exercised about Vass, as we explained in our story ‘Keep Vass off the boat’, because her presence on the boat that day was fatal to the charge against Neill-Fraser.
absurd logical conclusion
At the appeal, the DPP argued that the court “has to accept her evidence at trial that she wasn’t on the boat.” But does it?
Accepting that ‘she wasn’t on the boat’ (quite apart from later public admissions by Vass that contradict it) leads to an absurd logical conclusion that is difficult to also accept.
First of all, the judges (and the public) would have to accept that the still homeless young Vass deliberately inserted herself into the case after trial. She had no need to do that. If she had not been on the boat, she had nothing to do with the case, no guilty conscience concerning Sue Neill-Fraser, no fear of having dangerous knowledge.
Her admissions that she WAS on the boat put her in potential danger, and facing considerable discomfort as part of the ongoing appeal process … and she risked being charged with perjury. It was one thing denying her presence at the crime scene as a frightened 16 year old with a volatile boyfriend to worry about, but time and her conscience – and the boyfriend now an ex – the weight of that denial began to grow. (She admitted as much on 60 Minutes.)
Her admission, confirmed by her DNA, would make her an eyewitness to a murder committed not by the accused but by her friends. Would the judges consider that a rational possibility? Vass would have had to accept the consequences of making up the story that she was there. She would become a central figure in the ongoing dispute between Tasmania’s legal establishment and a growing cohort of lawyers and citizens attacking the conviction. Would the judges consider that a likely choice?
A decade after that fateful Australia Day, Vass agreed to a high profile interview on 60 Minutes (March 10, 2019), which probed her story and her reasons for putting herself through the wringer – evident in her obvious emotional behaviour. Would the judges consider that she did that – and in such a raw emotional manner – just to maintain the story that she was on the boat? (Both the producers and Vass have stated there was no payment made to her.)
In a convoluted way, the DPP, no doubt inadvertently, provided the appeal judges with one of the elements that build reasonable doubt in the Crown’s case:
SUPREME COURT OF TASMANIA
CLOSING MR COATES 3/3/21
But, as both Mr Jones and Mr Grosser says (forensic witnesses), even though transference is rare they can’t assess the likelihood of whether she was on the boat – or Ms Vass was on the boat or whether DNA got there by transference. You have to look at – they can’t assess that. ‘Cause you’re looking at different – different things. You’ve got to look at all the evidence to determine that.
The appeal court was not asked to “look at all the evidence”. And to emphasise how desperate the DPP was to negate the threat to the conviction of that DNA, he was prepared to speculate to the appeal judges that well, perhaps she went and spewed on board Four Winds after the boat had been secured at Clean Lift’s Goodwood facility by police on January 27 and before the DNA swab was taken on January 30. But the DPP did not then suggest that the DNA was transferred there by some means unknown. In other words, he was saying that if the DNA was deposited on the deck at Goodwood, it was a direct deposit; if it was a couple of days earlier when the scuffle broke out, it must have been a secondary transfer.
SUPREME COURT OF TASMANIA
CLOSING MR COATES 3/3/21
Mr Ellis also suggested to the jury it was a possibility that Ms Vass had put it on – had got on to the boat when it was at Clean Lift. There was evidence from – there was evidence from Detective Sinnitt that Ms Vass was in the Goodwood area at the time. There was also evidence from Detective Sinnitt at the trial that there’d been break-ins on yachts in the Goodwood area at the time …