Andrew L. Urban.
An uninformed or misinformed jury can’t be expected to arrive at a safe, reliable verdict that serves justice. Did Sue Neill-Fraser’s jury hear the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? It seemed more like speculation, malicious testimony and witness error. A case of garbage in – garbage out?
Sue Neill-Fraser, then 56, was accused of murdering her partner Bob Chappell, 65, on Australia Day 2009, aboard their recently acquired yacht, Four Winds. She has always maintained her innocence. Hi body was never found. No murder weapon was found. The Crown stitched together a wholly circumstantial case. But that wasn’t enough: to make it convincing, the prosecutor, then DPP Tim Ellis SC, speculated in detail about how Neill-Fraser might have murdered her partner of 18 years, using a wrench, perhaps, bashing him on the head below deck, hoisting up and dumping him in the dinghy (single handed), dropping the body in the river … because they weren’t getting along.
If we put aside everything we’ve learnt since the trial that discredits the accusation let alone the verdict, and just focus on what the jury heard, we might reasonably conclude that members of the jury were disrespected all round. They weren’t even taken to examine the Four Winds, where Neill-Fraser was claimed by the prosecution (without evidence) to have performed physical acts even powerful, seasoned sailors would not contemplate.
Prosecutor’s evidence-free speculation
MR ELLIS SC: “Now I’ve suggested that wrenches have been on her mind as a sort of implement that she used to kill Mr Chappell.”
“You crept up behind him with a wrench and you banged him on the head with a wrench or something like that.”
“She’s walking backwards and forwards and delivers blow – a blow or blows, or maybe stabs him with a screwdriver, I don’t know…”
“It was a wrench, wasn’t it, or a similar sort of tool with which you struck Mr Chappell from behind and killed him……..Mr Ellis, I have never struck anybody, let alone somebody I loved dearly.”
Defence counsel elaborating on prosecutor’s speculation:
MR GUNSON SC: Now just continue this speculation …(cross examining a prosecution witness)
Well, let’s think about how you would go about killing somebody on a yacht in these circumstances and the problems you might face one person confronting one other. I suppose you could adopt Mr Ellis’s theory and use the ‘sneak up behind when they’re least expecting and bang them on the head’ (There were no facts to show that a man had been bashed in the head.)
Mr Ellis has raised part of this issue, when he said, “Well obviously, she” – that’s his words – “must have winched the body out of the yacht.” Right. That’s a scenario that’s I suppose is reasonably open, given the marks, which the accused, of course, had pointed out. But what are you going to do though once you get your body out of the yacht?
Prosecution witness poisons the jury with malicious testimony
A malicious witness, Phillip Triffett, and his then partner Maria Hanson, were instrumental in compromising the police investigation into the disappearance of Bob Chappell on Australia Day 2009 – and poisoning the jury’s mind.
At trial in September/October 2010, the prosecutor, Tim Ellis SC, referred to Triffett’s evidence as the ‘sealer’ of the case. This ‘sealer’ evidence consisted of Triffett’s fanciful claim that a decade earlier when they were still on friendly terms, Sue talked to him about murdering her brother Patrick and Bob, too. The police did not disclose before the trial that Triffett had approached them asking if his evidence against Neill-Fraser would be helpful in his own matters due to go to court. That only became known during the trial through an anonymous caller who alerted defence counsel.
On March 9, Detectives Conroy and Puurand had visited Sue’s brother, Patrick, at his home. They said they had information that Sue had previously “plotted to have him murdered” and could be very dangerous. He refuted the proposition, telling detectives, he thought it was “just malicious gossip” and naming Triffett and Hanson as the likely source; they were “at it again”. Once friendly, Bob and Sue had disassociated themselves from Triffett and Hanson a decade earlier in fear of their own safety.
Prosecution witness misidentifies Neill-Fraser
“The prosecutor wanted to paint a picture of a couple fighting. He brought to the court Mrs Zochling who had seen Bob Chappell in heated discussion with a woman, she thought on Australia Day. This was the “fatal friction” the detectives needed in order to accuse Sue of a possible motive for murder and that is what the jury heard. While in the court, Mrs Zochling said, “the lady in the box”, looking at Sue, was not the same lady she saw on the beach arguing with Mr Chappell. There was plainly an identification problem. At the next adjournment, outside the court, Mrs Zochling identified Bob Chappell’s sister to family as being the woman she had seen. Mr Chappell had taken his sister out in the yacht the day before, on 25th January. Mrs Zochling (now sadly deceased) had the wrong woman on the wrong day, something police should have known well before the trial. Her evidence was irrelevant and should never have gone to court.” Letter to the Editor, by Lynn Giddings, who was present at the trial.
Prosecution witness dinghy description contradicts prosecution’s:
The prosecution wanted to show that the dinghy seen beside the Four Winds on the afternoon of Australia Day, 2009, was NOT some strange dark grey, well worn working dinghy but the smaller, white/blue trim leisure class dinghy of the Four Winds herself. That’s because a different dinghy would sink the prosecution’s narrative. It would mean that it wasn’t Sue Neill-Fraser at the crime scene that afternoon. Someone else was. (The grey dinghy has never been found.)
The significance of the grey dinghy cannot be overstated: it was seen by at least four witnesses between 3.55 pm and 5.30 pm on Australia Day. According to the Etter/Selby submission (1), we know that Bob Chappell was not seen alive at 5 pm. “If relevant material had been disclosed to the defence before (or even during the trial), the defence could have presented a much stronger alternative hypothesis to the jury.
“The grey dinghy was seen on the afternoon of Australia Day by: Paul Conde, Thomas Clarke, P36 and Jill Ikin. A grey dinghy was also seen on other occasions by Gary Smith, near the rocks where the Four Winds’ Zodiac was found on the morning of 27 January. Only one of those witnesses, Paul Conde, gave evidence at trial. The statutory declarations of both Thomas Clarke and P36 were read to the court (T 2010 p.223 and p.225).
“Mr Conde in his initial statement described himself as ‘an experienced and competent yachtsman’. His initial description was simply that of ‘a grey inflatable dinghy’. At trial, he went further and described it as a large dark grey rubber dinghy (T 2010 p.426). In cross-examination (T 2010 p.428) he said it was ‘battleship grey’.
“In re-examination Mr Conde said that the Four Winds dinghy was smaller than the one he saw (T 2010 p.431). He also said that the dinghy that he saw had a lee cloth across its bow (raised spray guards which stop water coming into the boat in bad weather) and the Four Winds dinghy’s bow was blunter than the pointed bow of the dinghy he saw. He added (T 2010 p.431): the Quicksilver dinghy in the photographs is not the dinghy I saw at five to four on Australia Day last year.”
(1) The Etter/Selby submission is a dossier of documents tabled in Parliament in August 2021 which details many irregularities about the investigation including evidence withheld.
Exculpatory information withheld from jury:
CT 1486 HIS HONOUR, COUNSEL, JURY ABSENT– SUBMISSIONS, PRIOR TO SUMMING UP, 13.10.10
MR ELLIS SC: The next point is, it was attributed to me that I said it was Mr Chappell’s blood in the dinghy. Now I don’t believe I did.
MR GUNSON SC: Yes, you did.
MR ELLIS SC: Okay – I don’t know why I’d say it
HIS HONOUR: – Well –
MR ELLIS SC: – because I’ve never believed it.
HIS HONOUR: In opening.
MR GUNSON SC: Yeah.
MR ELLIS SC: Oh in opening –
MR GUNSON SC: Yes, in opening.
MR ELLIS SC: Oh okay, I abandon that, if I said it in opening.
HIS HONOUR: All right. Well I’ll do nothing about that point.
(The jury was left with the wrong – inculpatory – impression.)
Taken together with the prosecutor’s dismissal of the DNA evidence (placing Meaghan Vass at the crime scene on the boat) as a ‘red herring’, these examples of what the jury heard is clear indication that the conviction stinks little a rotten dead herring.
“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are. ” – Benjamin Franklin