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.
Southern 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.