By Bill Rowlings, CEO of Civil Liberties Australia
The Sue Neill-Fraser appeal begins on 1 March 2021 in the Court of Criminal Appeal in Hobart, against a conviction for a murder investigated by Tasmanian Police in 2009.
In a dramatic public media announcement – revealed in the local newspaper on Saturday 27 February 2021, just two days before the opening of the Neill-Fraser appeal – the Tasmanian Premier and the state’s Police Commissioner issued unreserved apologies about the failures of police investigative processes and information management from and including the year 2009.*
Their profound apologies bring back to public attention the existence of a “sleeper” 60-page dossier of criticism of TasPol investigations and management in the Neill-Fraser case.
“I want to, as Premier of Tasmania…offer my deepest and most heartfelt apology to all victims of past crimes that have occurred in relation to agencies of the state, where any agency may not have handled information appropriately,” Premier Peter Gutwein said.
Tasmanians warned to brace for more shocking revelations
The Premier warned that Tasmanian should brace themselves for further shocking revelations from the Commission of Inquiry he has announced. He appointed former Victorian judge Marcia Neave to preside.
Tasmania Police Commissioner Darren Hine said: “We are truly sorry for any harm towards the victims who were let down by deficiencies in our investigative processes at the time.”
His apology for deficient processes presumably also covers the police department sub-agency, Forensic Science Service Tasmania, which made crucial observations in the Neill-Fraser murder conviction.
The problems with TasPol investigative processes date from at least as far back as 2009, Gutwein and Hine have admitted publicly.
While Commissioner Hine’s mea maxima culpa was generated by police handling of alleged pedophile offences, there is no reason to believe TasPol’s management of other investigative processes or information holdings was any different, or any better.
During 2009, Tasmanian Police investigated and collected information, later used as evidence in court, around the disappearance of Bob Chappell from the yacht Four Winds on the night of Australia Day, 26 January 2009.
Neill-Fraser was convicted by a jury of murdering Chappell, her husband of 18 years, on the wholly circumstantial evidence collected and collated by TasPol in 2009, then sorted by them and provided to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
The 60-page dossier of alleged widespread failings by TasPol in the Neill-Fraser case emerged in 2014. It was submitted to a coroner’s court during a request for an inquest into the presumed death of Chappell.
However, Coroner Glenn Hay refused to open the dossier, and also refused to hold a full inquest into Chappell’s death. The dossier’s contents have never been revealed publicly.
Appeal court could be better informed by dossier request
Given the startling revelations of Tasmanian Police investigative and management incompetence on Saturday, the appeal court could be much better informed if it examined the dossier.
The dossier was compiled by a former assistant commissioner of police in Western Australia, who is also a qualified lawyer, and who was at the time intimately involved in the Neill-Fraser case.
When the coroner refused to hold a full inquest, Tasmanian federal Independent MP, Andrew Wilkie, called for a Commission of Inquiry into the Neill-Fraser matter. He said that Tasmanian law did not allow the coroner to make a finding at odds with an associated criminal trial.
“A number of the matters that were raised with the coroner during his inquiry were outside of his jurisdiction and he makes the point that he was not able to look at that evidence and inquire into some of those matters,” the federal Member of the House of Representatives said.
Mr Wilkie said at the time that people still had concerns about the conviction. A Commission of Inquiry would give them confidence in the justice system, he said then.
- Page 10, The Mercury, Saturday, February 27, 2021.