By Bill Rowlings, CEO of Civil Liberties Australia
Sue Neill-Fraser (SNF) is asking the High Court of Australia to hear an appeal from the November 2021 rejection of her second Tasmanian Supreme Court appeal for murder.
A decade ago, in a hearing that lasted minutes only, the High Court refused to grant SNF her day before the nation’s top court. She had been convicted by a jury, then a three-judge, first appeal court had rejected her appeal 3-0.
But now her bid for a High Court hearing is backed by a dissenting judgment in the 2-1 appeal court loss she suffered in late-2021.
Judge Stephen Estcourt found there had been a legal failure, a miscarriage of justice against her , in earlier cases. He would have quashed her conviction, and she should at least be entitled to a re-trial, he ruled. But judges Helen Woods and Robert Pearce found against her.
Supporters of SNF are buoyed by their claims that the case against her has always been built on emotion, not logic.
They say that more experienced, non-Tasmanian judges of the High Court will at least guarantee a non-insular approach to the legal logic required to overturn what was an original jury decision based on misunderstanding of forensic and other claims presented to the her first trial in an overly emotional and exaggerated manner.
Large sample of DNA
If she is granted her first chance at a High Court appeal, the legal argument will turn on how a very large sample of DNA belonging to a then-homeless 15-year-old, Meaghan Vass, came to be on the deck of the yacht Four Winds, which was co-owned by SNF and her 18-year common law husband, Bob Chappell.
She was convicted in 2010 of murdering him on the night of Australia Day 2009 when he disappeared while alone on the vessel to work on repairing the lighting system.
Chappell was nowhere to be seen when the vessel was discovered half scuttled on a mooring in Sandy Bay Tasmania early on 27 January 2009. His body has never been found.
Vass has formally denied in courts that she was ever on board the yacht. However, outside courts, to private investigators and in a segment filmed by a 60 Minutes TV crew, she has said she was on the yacht that night and does know what happened to Chappell.
Her non-court admissions include that SNF was not on board the yacht at the time whatever happened to Chappell occurred. Vass identified in court on one day the two men who were on the yacht with her, but the next day recanted her evidence of just 24 hours earlier.
Cardinal Pell shows what’s possible
Given that many observers believe the top court should have heard SNF’s first bid for a High Court appeal, there is hope that she will now receive a better hearing, literally.
In the recent case of Cardinal George Pell, an appeal court rejected Pell’s claim of a miscarriage of justice…but, after granting leave to appeal the decision, the High Court found unanimously that Pell should be acquitted.
SNF supporters believe she should receive no lesser judgement sometime in 2022.
If that happens, the timing will be ironic. She is entitled to ask for parole in August 2022 after serving 13 years in Risdon Prison of a sentence of 23 years handed down by her first appeal hearing.
That sentence was reduced from one of 26 years ordered by Alan Blow, her original trial judge, who is now Tasmania’s chief judge. The appeal court said it had to reduce the sentence because Blow had not understood the law and precedents about sentencing rules.
At every stage of SNF’s case – from police throughout prosecution to the courts and the entire legal system – she has suffered by serious failures in how justice operates in Tasmania, and in Australia.
Whatever happens in the SNF case, Tasmanian a commission of inquiry is needed to get to the bottom of why this one case has been before the courts and the state’s justice system virtually non-stop for more than 12 years.
Ideally, the SNF case and a series of other obvious and potential wrongful convictions should be examined to recalibrate how the justice system functions, or malfunctions, every day of the week throughout Australis, Civil Liberties Australia believes.