Dead Centre by Robin Bowles

dead-centreI’ve had a couple of Robin Bowles books for a while, but this is the first I’ve read. I’m not sure why I haven’t started any of the others yet, but this one gives me clear encouragement to do so.

The first book of hers that I bought was Death on the Derwent, about the disappearance of Bob Chappell and the subsequent conviction of his partner, Sue Neill-Fraser for his murder.

When I bought it I’d only recently finished Colin McLaren’s book Southern Justice, and the TV documentary Undercurrent about the same case, so I probably needed a break from it before starting Bowles’ book on the same subject.

I found this book on the weekend while I was looking for one about the Belanglo Forest “backpacker murders”. I found the book I was looking for, and for some reason I decided to get this one too. I’m not sure why, but I’m glad that I did.

It’s a book that I was reluctant to put down, even though my work day sadly made that necessary.

Bowle’s account is a well paced, well constructed journey through her research and investigation into the disappearance of Peter Falconio and the attempted abduction of his girlfriend Joanne Lees.

She interviewed most of the major players in the investigation as well as a number of meetings with Bradley Murdoch, the man who stood trial and was eventually convicted of Falconio’s murder, visiting him in jail while he was awaiting trial.

The official story is that Lees and Falconio were driving between Alice Springs and Darwin. According to Lees their trip was interrupted when the driver of a white 4WD truck pulled alongside and warned them about a problem with their Kombi van.

While Falconio was checking their vehicle, Lees heard a loud bang and was then confronted by a man with a handgun beside her. She was bound and bundled into the man’s truck, but somehow managed to escape and hide in the scrub alongside the road.

Falconio has never been seen since.

There are many inconsistencies in that official story. These are addressed in Bowles’ book. One that stands out to me is that Lees described her attacker as a man of average height and build, with longish hair.

Bradley Murdoch, the man eventually found guilty of the murder of Falconio and the attempted kidnapping of Lees, is six feet five tall (approx. 195cm) who always had closely cropped hair.

The assailant also reportedly had a blue healer dog as a companion – Murdoch’s had a dalmatian, a dog of distinctly  different appearance.

healer.jpg

Blue Healer

dalmatian

Dalmatian

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although Lees was reportedly pushed into the truck along side the assailant’s dog, no trace of dog hair was found on her clothing, despite both healers and dalmatians being notorious hair shedders.

Lees also claimed to have escaped by crawling through a gap in the truck seats, and out across the covered back tray, dropping from the rear of the truck onto the road. No trucks of the type described were found with that access from the cab to the rear tray.

These and other details in this book bring into question the official story, and left me in no doubt that Murdoch is probably in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.

A podcast including interview with Robin Bowles about the case. [The presenters of this podcast include his warning: “please be advised this episode contains graphic content”].

I have another two books about this case and will be interested to see how two different authors approach this case.

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One minor quibble (or puzzle) – Bowles gives a story of the difficulty she had finding the Dymock’s bookshop in George Street Sydney, where Lees had worked prior to the journey she took through Central Australia with Peter Falconio.

I was very familiar with the shop. I was a frequent visitor to it when I lived and worked in Sydney, and it was in a very prominent central location, easy to find. And the description she gives of the shop after she eventually found it isn’t of the main Dymock’s store which had a wide display window and street level access to the main shop area.

Her description seems more like the Angus and Robertson book shop that used to be in the Pitt Street mall, parallel to George Street. The A & R Shop had a street level display window, but the shop itself was accessed from the mall via descending stairs.

I had also been a frequent visitor to A & R during the late 90s.

I have vague recollection of a secondary Dymocks closer to Circular Quay, but can’t remember whether that one was in George Street, but I think that one was also a street level store, not one accessed by stairs.

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Town With Blood On Its Hands

A real life Derbyshire case of justice denied, mentioned in the Stephen Booth book (Already Dead).

murder-in-the-graveyardIn trying to find out more about this murder case from 1973, that I first saw mentioned in Booth’s 2013 novel,  I discovered that a book about it was published only a couple of months ago and that there’s also recent podcast series available.

I’ve now ordered the book, (Murder in the Graveyard by Don Hale), and when I get the time I’ll try to access the podcast.

Here’s an old Guardian article about the case.

Guilty secrets of town with blood on its hands by Amelia Hill (11 Feb 2001)

Stephen Downing walked free last week, 27 years after being jailed for the murder of Wendy Sewell. His conviction is certain to be quashed. But if he is innocent, then who is guilty? Amelia Hill reports from Bakewell, which has known the truth all along.

For 27 years, the small town of Bakewell has been living with guilt. Children born long after the horrific events of that chilly, sunny day cheerfully rattle off the tale of the young woman with questionable morals who was murdered in the graveyard on the edge of town and how a gentle, mentally disabled boy was fitted up for the crime.

https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2001/feb/11/ameliahill.theobserver
I also found this documentary on YouTube.

Unmaking a Murder

Unmaking a Murder
the mysterious death of Anna-Jane Cheney
by Graham Archer

unmaking-a-murder-the-mysterious-death-of-anna-jane-cheney

“The presumption of innocence is one of those hypocrisies we subscribe to because it’s a fine ideal. Practically it’s a myth.”

When I bought this book, the sales assistant noted the title and asked – “how can you unmake a murder?”

With regard to this book I couldn’t answer. I was unfamiliar with the story it reports.

I bought it because it seemed to be another account of justice gone wrong – of an innocent suffering at the hands of an inept legal system, continuing the theme of a lot of the true crime I’ve  read, heard and seen in recent months.

Harry Keogh found his fiancée, Anna-Jane Cheney, dead in the bath, a victim of drowning. All initial investigations pointed to accidental death, so why was Harry charged with murder and eventually convicted? And why after a long 20 years was he freed from jail with his conviction quashed?

The cause of Ann-Jane’s death, and Keogh’s involvement in it, were determined by forensic evidence presented by Dr Colin Manock. He made the claim there were bruises on her ankles/shins that indicated grip marks. He insisted she had been pulled under the water by her feet, and held until she drowned.

Subsequent investigation raised strong doubts about the presence of those bruises with other examiners failing to find any evidence of them in tests of the tissue samples taken from the “bruise” areas. Also, the value of alleged photographic evidence was diminished because, against usual practice, only black and white photos were taken instead of colour.

Manock became a man of controversy,  apparently unqualified for the position he held. Throughout his career, his evidence resulted in many questionable murder convictions as well as exonerating others who it seemed likely had committed crimes. His failings were eventually partly exposed when his findings of death by natural causes in cases of child abuse, came into question.

His career and his alleged failing became the subject of significant journalistic investigations, one of which involved the author if this book when he worked on a TV current affairs show.

To answer the sales assistant’s question, the way a murder is unmade – is through finding there was no murder. But the process of proving there was no murder in this case, despite the obvious shortcomings in the evidence that led to conviction, took around 20 years, thanks to the political opposition of both legal and South Australian governmental agencies, including (as in the Tasmanian case in the previous post) the highest level of State politicians.

Once again, despite the author writing in a very readable style, and presenting a very interesting case, it wasn’t an easy book to read, for the very same reason I mentioned when writing about Southern Justice. I repeat that impression here:

The implication …  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

Unmaking A Murder exposes a stark example of political expediency undermining justice, where the innocent have no recourse for the wrongs done to them by a privileged legal and political brotherhood, intent on covering their own backs and hiding their mistakes, no matter what the cost to others outside their particular cabal.

 

 

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/

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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Case Against Adnan Syed

I’ve written several posts about Adnan Syed’s conviction and imprisonment for the murder of his former girlfriend Hae Min Lee.
https://outshadows.wordpress.com/category/adnan-syed/

Those posts have been about books and podcasts looking at the case.

Coming soon is a TV series from HBO.

I’m hoping that I’ll eventually get to see it. My best chance of doing so would be if it is released on DVD.

The Case Against Adnan Syed: what happened after Serial?

In a new docuseries, the case at the centre of the phenomenally popular podcast is brought back into the light with sensitivity and insight

https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2019/feb/28/the-case-against-adnan-syed-what-happened-after-serial

Blackened Tanner by Ron Irwin

blackened-tanner.jpg

The principles of natural justice are based on three core rules.

The hearing rule provides the right to a fair hearing. When conducting an investigation, it is important that the person being complained against is advised of the allegations in as much detail as possible and given the opportunity to reply to them before any decision is made.

The bias rule requires that no-one be judge in his or her own case and that investigators and decision-makers act without bias or perception of bias in all procedures; where a person has preconceived opinions, a vested interest or personal or family involvement, they should not investigate the matter.

And the evidence rule provides that decisions must be based on logical proof and evidence, not on mere speculation.

When I set out to look at the cases involving Denis Tanner, I discovered that these principles of natural justice had all been ignored.

This is the beginning of Ron Irwin’s first chapter in his book Blackened Tanner.

Like Denis Tanner, the subject of the book, Ron Irwin had been a police officer in the Victorian police service.  He writes of a man who was identified as a murderer at an inquest into the death of his sister in law- but because there was insufficient evidence to put him to trial, was never given the opportunity to refute the claims made against him.

Denis Tanner and his family had to continue living within a community where he was seen as someone who had literally got away with the murder.

Irwin makes it clear there was something rotten in the state of Victoria, especially within the legal processes and their dealings with Denis Tanner.

https://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/law-order/evidence-backs-jennifer-tanner-suicide-theory-late-cop-ron-irwin-claims/news-story/a6e1853995dbdaf5c94e7380e58560c1