Something Rotten in the State of Tasmania

Southern Justice, by Colin McLaren

Some time late on Australia Day (26th January) 2009, Bob Chappell disappeared from his yacht moored in Sandy Bay, Hobart, Tasmania.
The next day the yacht, Four Winds, seemed to be sinking. Police boarding the boat found it was taking on water. They traced one of the owners, Sue Neill-Fraser, and discovered that her partner Bob had been on the yacht but was now missing.

The presence of blood suggested there had been violence below deck.

Before long Sue Neill-Fraser became the prime (and only) suspect in the murder of her de-facto husband and was later found guilty of clubbing him to death with a large wrench, winching his body from below deck, then dumping him somewhere at sea.

The evidence that made her the suspect, was that she lied to police about some of her actions on the date of the murder. These “lies” were told during an interview she gave straight after hearing of her partner’s apparent death. No consideration was given of the possibility her memory was affected by the shock she inevitably experienced after being told the news.

Lies or confusion?
Police chose to believe it was lies.

And yet, none of those lies actually had any substantive relevance to anything associated with the case.

souther justiceSouthern Justice examines the case and its many short comings. Former detective Colin McLaren was asked by film maker Eve Ash to look at the evidence she had collated about the case over the past several years.
Ash had previously documented the story in a film, Shadow of Doubt.
McLaren was invited to review the collection of evidence for a newer documentary series Undercurrent that has recently screened on TV in Australia.

McLaren’s initial reluctance to get involved gave way to a commitment to find the truth after he’d seen the details of the intriguing case.

“I didn’t care a hoot who killed Bob Chappell, as long as the facts and circumstances supported the theory of who was responsible. If I could prove Sue was guilty, by way of my own reckoning, I would be just as satisfied as if I proved her innocence. I had no loyalty to anyone involved in the case. All I was seeking was the truth.” (Colin McLaren)

The “fact” that she used a wrench to brutally bash her husband to death became a key part of the narrative told in court. Even though no wrench of sufficient size had ever been known on the boat. No wrench was ever found. And Bob’s body remained missing, not allowing any examination to determine how he’d actually died.

There was also no evidence that the winch and the ropes that she’d allegedly utilised to remove the body from below deck had been used on the night of the murder.
McLaren found quite a lot of evidence that another egress point (a skylight) was the likely way that Bob’s body had been taken from below deck. However that exit would require more than a slightly built middle-aged woman to lift a full grown man onto the boats exterior. And that didn’t fit the preferred narrative the police had created.

McLaren has a very readable style and sets out his information clearly and convincingly. The book is as much about his personal investigation, not only of the evidence of the original case, but where that evidence leads him – seeking out things that the police missed (avoided?). He also looks further into things that were found by the police but were considered irrelevant and therefore ignored. McLaren discusses why so much rejected evidence potentially had significant relevance and could have changed the direction of the investigation and widened the pool of suspects to characters more likely to be involved than Sue Neill Fraser.

Despite McLaren’s style and  the engaging nature of the book, I didn’t find it an easy read. The implication of what McLaren shows grows increasingly disturbing, challenging any faith held in the justice system. Each section took time to process, to come to terms with the realisation that those we ought to trust most are not necessarily deserving of that trust.  Reading the book stirred a variety of emotions, frustration, anger, despair – how can such an obvious miscarriage of justice be allowed to happen and be allowed to continue for so many years afterwards.

This case is only one of many possible miscarriages of justice that I’ve learned about recently, and while one or two of the others have a degree of ambiguity or uncertainty, this case leaves me in no doubt at all that either incompetence, corruption, or a blend of the two has played a part in seeing an innocent woman jailed for a lengthy time; with all attempts to right the wrong hitting a wall of bureaucracy and perhaps the self-interest of face-saving.

That bureaucratic involvement goes to the top levels of Tasmania’s government. After McLaren and Ash gave the fruit of their investigation to the state’s Premier, Attorney General and Solicitor General, the request for consideration of the evidence was rebuffed. Then, almost straight away, the police applied pressure on the investigators, raiding the premises of the film production company and a lawyer who had been helping with the case. Charges were laid accusing them and witnesses who had been helping them, of “perverting the course of justice”. McLaren estimates that it has cost the police and courts millions of dollars to pursue those highly questionable charges against those trying to find the truth about Bob Chappell’s murder and Sue Neill-Fraser’s innocence..

This particular case has been the subject of at least three books, a film, a six part TV series and several stories on shows like 60 minutes. Sue Neill-Fraser’s situation has also caught the attention and support of politicians, and senior legal figures, and yet for so long there has been a refusal to face up to the investigative failures that led to an innocent woman being imprisoned for almost a decade, with more than another decade still to serve.

At the end of 2017 an application to have the case appealed was presented to the court. The presiding judge yesterday (21 March 2019) ruled that the appeal could go ahead.

Meanwhile many are calling for a Royal Commission to investigate miscarriages of justice like this one, and the problematical justice system that allows (causes?) them.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-01-28/neill-fraser-call-for-royal-commission-into-tasmanian-justice/10754988

See also: https://wrongfulconvictionsreport.org/category/sue-neill-fraser/

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Apollo Pilot

The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele

apollo pilot

Apollo 7 was the first time I became aware of the American space program. I was 10 years old, and if I recall correctly, my primary school class at the time had a student teacher from Canada, and he made it a topic of interest.

I don’t recall ever knowing about previous NASA space ventures.

Apollo 7  was the first manned mission after the fire that killed the Apollo 1 crew. Another tragic mishap would likely have put an end to American ambitions to reach the moon, or at least set them back sufficiently to let the USSR get there first.

Apollo Pilot tells the inside story of the Apollo 7 mission from the perspective of one of the crew. Donn Eisele’s account is candid, judgemental of his peers and their employers, and at times brutally graphic – like when he describes having to listen to recordings of his deceased colleagues’ death screams when investigating the Apollo 1 fire. As well as his description of having to inspect the burnt out capsule.

Apollo VII

Mission patch

Eisele briefly describes the journey that led to his acceptance as an astronaut. He also details the rigorous selection regime of interviews and health checks that helped to weed out those not physically or temperamentally suitable.

Some of the most interesting and evocative parts of the book are the details he gives of the Apollo 7 mission, from launch through to splashdown; and how it was for three men to live in such close proximity in very restrictive conditions.

There is the sense of wonder at seeing things so few had seen to that point, and the challenges faced in the tasks they needed to carry out in an extended stay in space. An important aspect of the mission was to replicate the time required for future missions to travel to the moon and back, as well as simulating some of the maneuvers those missions may need to carry out.

It’s only a short book, around 180 something pages, but Eisele seems to fit in a lot of experience within those pages. Sadly he died quite young, and maybe if he’d had the time he would have written more. However the last two chapters, one written by his wife Susan Eisele Black , help to fill in a little of what he missed.

The astronaut lifestyle became one of parties and womanising, conducted in private rooms to avoid attention from the press; while their wives were back home in Houston caring for families. While some saw their extra-marital activities as casual affairs, some maintained long-term relationships.

While he doesn’t name those involved, his (2nd) wife’s chapter of the book makes it clear that he was one of the latter kind. His first marriage ended soon after the Apollo 7 mission. He was the first astronaut to divorce, and he married Susan, the woman he’d been seeing during his frequent trips away from home. The divorce seemed to put an and to his career as an astronaut, even though many others later followed the same path without the same kind of recriminations.

 

Bringing Columbia Home

“My fellow Americans, this day has brought terrible news and sadness to our country. At nine a.m., Mission Control in Houston lost contact with our space shuttle Columbia. A short time later, debris was seen falling from the skies above Texas…

“The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors.”

[President George W. Bush 2.04pm, Feb 1, 2003]

columbia.jpg

Bringing Columbia Home tells the difficult story of a tragic milestone of the American space program, the loss of a second space shuttle and its crew.
The scale of the disaster and the challenges that followed are recounted with  candour by the authors.

I have clear memories of the loss of the first shuttle, Challenger.

With an early start at work, I switched on the radio to listen to the news while I ate breakfast.

It was all about the Challenger.

What isn’t so clear in my memory is whether I then turned on the TV. I suspect I did, but can’t say for sure. Footage of the shuttle’s destruction was repeated so often afterwards, that I can’t remember when I first saw it.

Something I do remember thinking, was despite the Challenger’s fate, I’d willingly join a shuttle crew even if it was leaving the day after the Challenger’s disastrous launch. But maybe such attitudes are easy for an Australian with no real chance of putting that willingness to the test.

columbia disasterColumbia was different. I know I heard about it, but for some reason I can’t remember the details of when and how.

Maybe because it wasn’t so  public and sudden. It wasn’t seen live by millions around the world.

The realisation of what happened was gradual, building up over time as disparate facts came together to confirm the worst.

A loss of contact. Empty skies over a Florida runway. A landing strip countdown clock now counting up.

Reports of countless sonic booms over Texas. Suspected plane crash, gas pipeline rupture, train derailment, earthquake – all proposed as explanations for what was experienced on the ground.

And the rain of debris falling across multiple states.

Michael Leinbach was launch director at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida and supervised the launch of Columbia on January 16, 2003. He was also present for the expected return, waiting for the first sight of the returning shuttle prior to landing. The return that didn’t happen.

He then became part of the massive recovery mission when reports of the shuttle’s destruction were confirmed by the discovery of  its wreckage throughout a long, wide debris trail.

In Bringing Columbia Home, with co-author Jonathan Ward, he gives his account of the recovery operation: first priority retrieving the crew, then securing as much wreckage as possible to look for the cause of the shuttle loss.

The logistics of the exercise were unimaginable: coordinating thousands of  personnel from numerous Government departments, supplemented by countless volunteers, and organising for them to be housed, fed and transported.

As  a side issue of the story, one thing that stood out to me was the scale of American bureaucracy, with countless different law enforcement and emergency response organisations – but to their credit potential rivalries between groups were cast aside to get on with the difficult job.

The work of those searching came with a cost beyond the time they committed. The difficult conditions led to the crash of a helicopter and the death of two if its crew.

After weeks of collecting wreckage, came the task of sorting through what had been found, as far as possible reconstructing and examining the parts in a Kennedy Space Centre warehouse, trying to see what had caused the  shuttle’s failure.

Most of the initial damage was on the leading edge of the left wing. That evidence confirmed suspicions that the integrity of the heat shielding had been compromised by an impact with insulating foam that had broken away from the main fuel tank not long after launch.

Subsequent testing showed the unexpected force of such a collision with a lightweight substance. Foam pieces fired at a spare  shuttle wing surprisingly blasted a significant hole in its protective layer.

Despite the tragic nature of the story, the retrieval, reconstruction and examination of Columbia also had it’s poignant (and even humorous moments). Among the wreckage delivered to the KSC warehouse was a plush toy dinosaur, assumed to be a personal item taken on board by a crew member. However it was determined that no one had taken it on board, and the toy had nothing to do with the Columbia or its crew. Staff at the warehouse adopted the toy as a mascot and one of the astronauts on the team took it with her on a later space shuttle mission.

The Columbia accident, with the loss of its seven crew members and the two searchers, was a profound tragedy, but many people felt that divine intervention prevented things from being worse than they were.

Had Columbia disintegrated two or three minutes earlier, much of its debris would have fallen on Dallas and its suburbs, causing untold damage. A breakup a few seconds later would have sent some of the crew members’ remains into Toledo Bend Reservoir or the Gulf of Mexico, from which they would likely never have been recovered. (p 288)

The human face of the Columbia crew lost on re-entry.

Everyone agrees on two remarkable facts: The Columbia recovery was the largest ground search effort in American history: and it was also one with no internal strife, bickering or inter-agency squabbles. Everone involved had a single goal and worked collectively to achieve it – to bring Columbia and her crew home. (p 289)

See the authors’ blog at https://bringingcolumbiahome.wordpress.com/

STS107 Crew

STS-107 crewmembers included, from left, mission specialist David Brown, commander Rick D. Husband, mission specialist Laurel Blair Sutton Clark, mission specialist Kalpona Chawla, mission specialist Michael P. Anderson, pilot William C. McCool and payload specialist Ilan Ramon. (NASA Photo)

https://www.nasa.gov/centers/dryden/news/X-Press/shuttle_tribute/STS-107_crew.html

Another Miscarriage of Justice?

Last night I saw the final episode of Undercurrent, a documentary series investigating the conviction and imprisonment of  Susan Neill-Fraser for the murder of her partner Bob Chappell.

Chappell had been working on his new yacht and stayed on board on the night of Australia Day 2009.  Bystanders saw the yacht seemed to be sinking and alerted authorities. After saving the boat, suspicions were aroused that a violent crime had been committed on board. Bob Chappell was missing and there has been no sign of him or his body since.

Police quickly looked at his partner as being the prime suspect.  Susan Neill-Fraser, a slightly built grandmother was alleged to have struck Chappell on the head with a wrench, winched his body from the lower deck via the main hatch, and disposed of it overboard, weighted down with a missing fire extinguisher. A detailed claim based on no body (therefore no wounds to suggest means of death) no explanation of why a wrench should be suggested as the weapon used, and on the likelihood that a middle-aged grandmother would have the strength to winch the body of a well-built man out of the boat by herself.

Undercurrent introduces former detective Colin McLaren to the investigation, and one of the first things he noticed in a photo of the crime scene was drips of blood on a bench seat immediately beneath a skylight – suggesting that Chappell’s body had been removed from the inside of the boat via that skylight, and not as according to the police report winched via the main hatch.

McLaren conducted a re-enactment in which two people successfully lifted a “body” of the same size as Chappell through that skylight.

Another disturbing aspect of the case was that a DNA sample found at the scene had been discounted as being a secondary transfer from a policeman’s boot. The sample was reportedly the size of a dinner plate, indicating the policeman had exceptionally large boots, or the  secondary transfer claim was false. The DNA was later found to belong to a homeless teenage girl, Meaghan Vass, who denied ever being on the yacht.

McClaren later tracked Vass (now in her twenties) down and attempts to obtain testimony from her made up a large part of the final two episodes. It was a difficult task that seemed to bear some fruit – until all of those involved in this new investigation were individually raided by the police, and either charged, or threatened with charges, of perverting the course of justice.

At the end of the series, Susan Neill-Fraser was still in jail, waiting for the result of her final appeal. That was over a year ago and the result of the appeal hasn’t yet been disclosed.

Accusations were made in court during that appeal, that the investigators and documentary makers had threated and bribed Vass to make a false statement about her being on the yacht the night Chappell went missing. Footage of the interaction between Vass and the investigators show that wasn’t the case. Further confirmation of her involvement (as per her original statement) will seemingly be provided in a 60 Minutes story to be screened on Sunday night.

In addition to the Undercurrent documentary, a previous film Shadow of Doubt was released about this case and 60 Minutes have done a number of earlier reports.

What makes this story relevant to my “book blog” is that I’ve become aware of three different books about the case and its inconsistencies.

Murder by the Prosecution by Andrew L. Urban

Death on the Derwent, by Robin Bowles

Southern Justice, by Colin McLaren

I haven’t had the chance to read any of them yet, but they are all now on my list of books to buy when I can afford it.

Two short, relevant videos.

 

 

 

 

 

No Is Not Enough

noisnotenough

I finally finished this book, published as a response to Donald Trump winning the last presidential election.

It wasn’t easy going, because there’s so much information to take in. And the disturbing nature of a lot of that information made it  a book to tackle bit by bit rather than a book that could be raced through.

Parts of it have quickly become outdated, but instead of undermining Klein’s message, that actually makes it more relevant. Those parts are outdated because of who Trump is, and how he operates. It is outdated because so many of Trump’s appointed staff referred to in the book have all been fired; as if his Presidency has been a continuation of his career as The Apprentice host. A reality TV presidency.

A major point that Klein makes is that Trump is all about Trump. That his presidency has become an extension, and the ultimate expression, of his brand. A  “property developer” who develops no property. Others pay him millions of dollars for the right to affix his name to their buildings. The presidency increases the “value” of that brand.
That has also been one of the issues raised by Michael Cohen’s recent testimony (see below) *

This book  synthesizes the content of her previous major publications: No Logo, The Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything,  showing how Trump’s electoral win ought not to have been unexpected. Instead a Trump presidency  is the logical culmination of the kind of political, social and cultural paths that Klein has been studying and writing about for more than two decades.

No Is Not Enough also lives up to its own title. It does not merely point to problems but leads to a discussion of positive action to bring the change needed to turn us towards a more equitable and sustainable future.

…a plan for tangible improvements in daily life, unafraid of powerful words such as redistribution and reparation, and intent on challenging Western culture’s equation  of a “good life” with ever-escalating creature comforts inside ever-more-isolated consumer cocoons, never mind what the planet can take or whatever leads to our deepest fulfillment”

 

 

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* Article with related content, from Gary Younge, a Guardian columnist:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/feb/28/donald-trump-michael-cohen-racist-conman-america

“Donald Trump is a man who ran for office to make his brand great … He would often say this campaign was going to be the greatest infomercial in political history.”

The presidency was never the point. He had no idea that the political establishment would be so craven and career politicians be so inept that he might prevail. “He never expected to win the primary. He never expected to win the general election. The campaign – for him – was always a marketing opportunity.”