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.

 

 

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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

Australian Heist by James Phelps

Australian heistAustralian Heist is partially “local” history.

In 1862 a gang of bushrangers held up the gold escort travelling from the gold fields of Forbes to the town of Orange, stealing a large amount of gold and banknotes; the largest single robbery in Australian history.

The gang hid among the Eugowra rocks, after partially blocking the nearby road with an overturned bullock dray. As the poorly guarded gold escort diverted closer to the rocks to avoid the obstacle, the bushrangers opened fire on the coach, wounding two of the police guards, before escaping with its gold and money.

They were led by Frank Gardiner.  His accomplices are assumed to have included Ben Hall, John Gilbert and John O’Meally. Gardiner “retired” from his life of crime after the robbery, but was soon replaced, and perhaps surpassed, in Australian bushranger mythology by those three, whose criminal exploits extended over a wide territory including the towns of Forbes, Bathurst, Carcoar, Lambing Flats (now Young) Murrumburrah, and Jugiong.

After covering the robbery itself and the ensuing trial of the few gang members who were apprehended,  Phelps continues with a highly abridged account of the survivors, including the Hall/Gilbert gang and its changing membership. The book culminates with the fate of Frank Gardiner and rumours about his share of the stolen treasure.

Hall and Gilbert Graves

Ben Hall’s grave at Forbes and  John Gilbert’s grave at Binalong. (photos by Onesimus)

Phelp’s book comes across as a semi-fictionalised account of a true story. He draws on historical documents about the event , in particular accounts of trials that followed the robbery, but clearly uses his imagination to recreate interaction between the participants during parts of the story where there would be no record of their conversations or their specific actions. He acknowledges this in the Author’s note preceding the story, by saying:

I have also used and recreated historically accurate dialogue based on court transcripts and police reports where available. Some details and scenes have, however, been re-imagined, with  a deliberately modern spin.

While that approach is probably intended to make the story more compelling, it raises questions about what is truth and what has been assumed. That question regularly came to mind as I was reading.  The “deliberately modern spin” didn’t work for me, at times created a jarring anachronistic effect.

One day I hope to read a more authoritative, historical account of the Eugowra robbery that will hopefully help me to distinguish the line between history and Phelps’ embellishments. 

Some time ago I read Game, a fictional look at the latter part of Ben Hall’s life. That was also based on historical accounts, but made no claim to be a historical record. However, I found Game had a more convincing authenticity of the period it depicted

I have a slight personal connection to this story. It was during a short trip around the territory of these bushrangers that the possibility of moving from Sydney started to develop as an option, and eventually Gloria and I moved to an area associated with this story.

The following songs portray some of the Hall/Gilbert mythology.

I met Jason and Chloe Roweth many years ago when they performed at a folk club near my then Sydney home. The last time I had contact with them they were living in a town near to my current home, in the region once frequented by the Hall/Gilbert gang.