Sue Neill-Fraser – poor start to police investigation

By Andrew L. Urban

It is only with full confidence in our police and the courts that a democracy remains healthy and strong; that’s obvious. In a democracy, neither of these institutions should behave like their counterparts in a police state, where citizens far from being protected by the State, are endangered by it. This is why even a single miscarriage of justice in a serious crime such as murder – with its heavy penalty on the accused – must be avoided at all costs, or urgently corrected if it occurs.

[ The Neill-Fraser case:  In 2010, Sue Neill-Fraser was tried and convicted of the 2009 Australia Day murder of her partner Bob Chappell on board their yacht, Four Winds, anchored in Sandy Bay, Hobart. Chappell’s body has never been found, no murder weapon was produced at her trial, there were no eyewitnesses and there is no forensic evidence linking Neill-Fraser to the murder. ]

We have published many articles on the case of Sue Neill-Fraser over the past 12 months or so (since August 15, 2013), most of them examining or relating to the blatantly unsafe conviction thanks to the multi-flawed trial, and the resulting unsatisfactory appeals decision. Unsatisfactory appeals because of erroneous or incomplete evidence being transferred from the trial court to the appeals courts, notably about the DNA of then homeless teenager Meaghan Vass found on the yacht, which the prosecution claimed was a murder scene.

These articles are all accessible in the section Democracy and Justice, for reference.

The latest investigation by Barbara Etter APM (Neill-Fraser’s lawyer since after the two appeals) is into the crucial start, the beginning of police investigation that eventually led to her arrest seven months later, in August 2009. The quality and thoroughness of the whole investigation was first questioned by documentarian and psychologist Eve Ash in Shadow of Doubt (2014), the film that roused many in the legal community as well as the public at large to seriously question the conviction. Indeed, that was why it was made (first screened on FOXTEL’s Ci Channel on July 31, 2013 and several times subsequently.)

Now, Etter has carefully documented a long list of specific errors of omission made at the very beginning – the crucial beginning – of the police investigation.

These are all matters which the jury are entitled to have expected of the police investigation prior to the trial.

As the chief investigator of the case Detective Inspector Peter Powell (under)stated in Shadow of Doubt: “We’re the first to admit there is never a perfect investigation…”

These errors of omission in the opening of the police investigation as identified by Etter tend to confirm to any reasonably minded person that TasPol suffered from tunnel vision in this investigation, a virus that too often attaches itself to police teams, especially if unguarded against it by police management. By extension it is arguable that had the police completed the investigation more thoroughly, the information on which TasPol built its charge of murder would not have survived such tunnel vision.

For example, the jury might have expected that “a proper forensic examination (including crime scene photography) would have been conducted of the yacht prior to allowing Ms Neill-Fraser and her family to board and examine the yacht on the afternoon of 27 January 2009 at Constitution Dock. It was Sue that actually pointed out that the boat needed further forensic examination as things were amiss,” writes Etter.

The jury might also have expected that “Notes and records would have been kept of key briefing meetings and critical decisions made. An RTI response from Tasmania Police dated 18 September 2012 advised that “All investigation team briefings were verbal and tasks allocated on whiteboard (no permanent record exists)”.

And that “all leads reported to police would have been followed up including that referring to the “girl with dark hair” who had watched Sue Neill-Fraser tie up her dinghy near the RYCT on the afternoon of Australia Day 2009.”

Likewise that “Photos would have been taken of the alleged injury or cut to Sue Neill-Fraser’s thumb which was said to have caused great concern on 27 January 2009.”

As Etter says in her blog, “As is being called for in the high profile Rayney murder case in WA, an independent review of the investigation by someone external to the jurisdiction would be most helpful in identifying overlooked Persons of Interest in the early stages of the investigation. Such a review could also identify important areas for ongoing improvement and may well assist in solving a number of outstanding cold cases in this jurisdiction.”

For the full list of errors of omission in the police investigation, see Etter’s blog The Not So Golden Hour on the subject.


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