Andrew L. Urban
I suspect* that Hobart grandmother Sue Neill-Fraser, convicted** in 2010 of murdering her partner of 18 years Bob Chappell, whose body has never been found, can’t wait to be injected with the truth drug Sodium Pentothal that has been proposed by two senior barristers as a way to force convicted killers to reveal the bodies of their victims and give closure to the families of victims. Trial judge Alan Blow (now Tasmania’s Chief Justice) handed Sue Neill-Fraser an extra long sentence for not revealing that information. (The appeal court chided him, ever so respectfully, and took three years off the 26 year sentence he imposed.)
As she claims to be innocent of the murder, Neill-Fraser could not disclose the body’s location even with the drug in her veins. She would thus confirm her ignorance of the body’s whereabouts – thus effectively proving her innocence.
The proposal is not primarily aimed at those who are wrongfully convicted but at those killers who defy the court and refuse to reveal the location of their dead victims.
“Two of Australia’s leading criminal defence barristers have backed the use of a chemical truth serum to force convicted murderers to provide details on where they stashed their victims’ bodies,” The Australian reported (24/8/23). “Former NSW crown prosecutor Margaret Cunneen and Victorian barrister Sharon Kermath say governments should at least trial the serum on criminals who have refused to give families peace.”
The drug, which is used by law enforcement in some Indian states but in no other democracies, is a chemical that slows neural connections, lowers inhibitions and reduces one’s capacity to lie.
Margaret Cunneen SC, who now acts as a defence barrister, told The Australian use of the chemical to learn key details about convicted criminals’ offences was “a great idea”.
“I think it might find some favour now … for the good of the victims,” she said. Ms Cunneen emphasised the importance of the chemicals to not be used for “self-incrimination” and said protections should be put in place to ensure it was only used following a conviction. “There could be this protection which covers (the offender) which means it can’t be used to punish them, but it can be used to find information about others or about locations of bodies and so forth,” she said. “If it was my daughter’s body missing forever I’d want it, too. I suppose the fundamental resistance to it comes from people being forced to give evidence against themselves. In a sense, that’s what it is. It goes against the right not to incriminate oneself.”
The flip side of the truth drug idea is the potential for the innocent to show their innocence. In fact, that is an even better use of the serum; it avoids the risk of self incrimination and potentially relieves the justice system of costly and stressful trials that result in wrongful convictions. And any actual killers still at large.
Hypothetically, with no body found during the pretrial phase, with Sue Neill-Fraser claiming her innocence and the case against her purely circumstantial, she would be offered an injection of sodium pentothal prior to questioning about the missing body. Given these very specific circumstances, we’d agree with the use of the drug on the relevant accused.
*I would ask her but she is prohibited from speaking about her case to media as part of her parole conditions.
**Andrew L. Urban’s new book, The Exoneration Papers – Sue Neill-Fraser (Wilkinson) details why the conviction is wrongful.
Urban co-authored with Cunneen The Boxing Butterfly, about Cunneen’s career.