Tasmanian grandmother Sue Neill-Fraser has spent six years in prison for a crime some legal experts believe she didn’t commit.
Susan Horsburgh investigates the case described as the biggest miscarriage of justice since Lindy Chamberlain.
INMATES aren't allowed birthday cakes in Risdon prison, but when Sue Neill-Fraser turned 61 in March, she wasn’t much up for celebration anyway. Her pregnant daughter was being induced that day and the Hobart grandmother was longing to help Sarah through her second labour after a horrific first birth two years before.
Yet again, she was missing the arrival of a grandchild – the third born since she was jailed six years ago for the murder of her partner of 18 years, radiation physicist Bob Chappell.
As her daughter welcomed a baby boy into the world without her, Neill-Fraser sat in a prison cell feeling powerless, excised out of the lives of everyone she loves.
“It feels very like I’ve been sent off to a strange planet and the earth is still turning, but I’ve stepped off it,” she says, speaking to The Weekly on the phone from prison. “It’s absolutely devastating to be separated from my family. I lie awake at night reflecting on that, and it’s soul-destroying.”
Sentenced to 23 years in prison, Neill-Fraser couldn’t hold her mother’s hand last month as she passed away. Sarah sometimes brings two-year-old Lizzie on her fortnightly visits to Risdon, but the toddler clings to her mother, frightened by the razor wire and security guard searches, and the shouting and swearing of other inmates in the visiting room. >
“She knows ‘Susu’ who calls on the phone,” says 31-year-old Sarah Bowles, a nurse, “but she doesn’t have a really connected relationship with her because we only have 40 minutes together.”
Neill-Fraser worries that the prison visits upset her grandchildren, “but I desperately, desperately want to see them and have that contact at the same time”. She says her imprisonment is a sentence for all of them. “It will have a lifelong effect on our family,” she says.
Worst of all, Sue Neill-Fraser insists she’s innocent.
AFTER A three-week trial that polarised Tasmania back in 2010, Neill-Fraser was found guilty of murdering her partner, despite the absence of a body, a weapon, a direct eyewitness or any forensic evidence connecting her to the crime.
In an entirely circumstantial case, a court ruled that she attacked Bob Chappell on board the couple’s 17m yacht, Four Winds, on Hobart’s River Derwent on Australia Day, 2009.
The judge said Neill-Fraser had struck him, “quite likely” with a wrench, single-handedly winched his body onto the deck and manoeuvred it into the dinghy, before dumping it in deep water, weighed down by the boat’s missing fire extinguisher. Her case wasn’t helped by her conflicting accounts of where she was the night of Bob’s disappearance, nor by a former friend who claimed she had asked him to kill Bob more than a decade earlier (both of which Neill-Fraser says she can explain).
In the years since her imprisonment, a passionate and growing group of supporters has doggedly protested her innocence, holding rallies, raising a $40,000 reward and whipping up CDs and bumper stickers. Backed by some of Australia’s top legal minds, including Lindy Chamberlain’s defence lawyer, their grassroots campaign to quash her conviction has recently gained extra momentum with the drafting of new right-to-appeal legislation in Tasmania.
Modelled on legislation that was passed in South Australia in 2013 and which could be adopted in other states, the draft Tasmanian law would give prisoners who have exhausted all avenues of appeal the right to return to court if fresh and compelling evidence arises. In Neill-Fraser’s case, serious doubts about the forensic evidence that secured her conviction could constitute fresh evidence.
According to legal academic Dr Bob Moles, an international expert on wrongful convictions, there are probably half a dozen cases in each state that deserve to be reheard. He calls Neill-Fraser’s case “the worst of the worst”.
“It’s a shocking miscarriage of justice because the errors are so self-evident – you don’t have to be a top QC to work that out,” he says. “It’s right up there with Lindy Chamberlain.”
Dr Moles points to the prosecutor’s wrench theory, which was constructed without any direct evidence. “At least in the Lindy Chamberlain case they thought they’d found blood – something to go on.”
He says at least 1 per cent of convictions are wrongful, but some academics think it’s closer to 4 per cent. That means that, in an Australian prison population of 30,000, at least 300 people could be in jail for crimes they didn’t commit.
Overseas, The Innocence Project in the US has secured the exoneration of 329 people through the use of DNA evidence since the organisation’s inception in 1992; in the UK, more than 370 convictions have been overturned (including about 100 for murder) since the Criminal Cases Review Commission started referring dubious convictions back to court in 1997. In comparison, only a handful of cases in Australia have returned to court via petitions to the state attorneys-general (the only option for prisoners who have exhausted all avenues of appeal).
Most of us trust that the justice system gets it right – and assume we’ll never have to test it anyway – but history has repeatedly shown otherwise, most spectacularly in the case of Lindy Chamberlain. Dr Moles says even scientists can subconsciously “tweak their evidence” to secure a guilty verdict when they are caught up in the emotion of high-profile cases and swayed by damning media reports.
“A baby killed in the outback, a man tossing his beautiful model girlfriend off a cliff – a lot of these cases involve shocking circumstances,” says Dr Moles, co-author of Forensic Investigations and Miscarriages of Justice. “Police see themselves as assuaging public alarm … They have to nudge the evidence one way or the other and they don’t understand the terrible wrong they’re doing.”
Melbourne filmmaker Eve Ash says she spent four years making her 2013 documentary, Shadow of Doubt, to give Neill-Fraser a voice. “Tasmania is sort of off the grid and she’s a grandmother, someone no one cares about,” says Eve. “She’s invisible – and people said, ‘She lied to police, therefore she’s a killer’.”
Since the documentary’s release, high-profile criminal barristers Robert Richter QC and Chester Porter QC have called for an independent inquiry, and Lindy Chamberlain’s defence lawyer, Stuart Tipple, has drawn troubling parallels between the two cases.
Like Chamberlain, Neill-Fraser was a picture of self-containment during her trial. “She’s come from a British background, so she’s been taught to maintain a stiff upper lip,” says Barbara Etter, a former West Australian assistant police commissioner-turned-criminal lawyer who has been leading the charge to release Neill-Fraser.
“Sue would have been better off bursting into tears. She was really upset about losing Bob, but she wasn’t the kind of person to display that – so she was [seen as] cold, evil and uncaring.”
She didn’t win any fans among the detectives either, says Barbara. “The police wouldn’t have liked her because she’s an intelligent, articulate woman who speaks her mind.”
Indeed, in Shadow of Doubt, Inspector Peter Powell, who led the police investigation, describes Neill-Fraser as “full of talk” and “very manipulative”.
In his sentencing comments, Justice Alan Blow said: “She seems to me to be clever, very cool-headed, and well able to control her emotions”.
As a result, he concluded that the murder was not a crime of passion, but rather “an intentional and purposeful killing”, deliberately committed for “financial betterment”.
Inspector Powell has since retired and did not respond to The Weekly’s request for an interview. Meanwhile, Tasmania Police seems to have distanced itself from the investigation, insisting that Powell is the only one who can comment on it.
The prosecutor in the case, Tim Ellis SC, was sacked from his job as Director of Public Prosecutions earlier this year because he was convicted of negligent > driving causing death. He received a four-month suspended jail sentence in December over a car crash that killed 27-year-old Natalia Pearn on the Midland Highway on March 24, 2013.
Mr Ellis has not commented publicly on the Neill-Fraser case before, but agreed to answer The Weekly’s questions via email. “I believe Ms Neill-Fraser was properly convicted on the evidence at trial,” he says.
He disputes criticisms that he created a murder scenario, arguing that “it was not and is not essential to the valid conviction of Ms Neill-Fraser that the prosecution produce a murder weapon or prove a manner of death”.
In this respect, her conviction is no different to that of Bradley Murdoch for the 2001 murder of British tourist Peter Falconio – “a wholly circumstantial case with no weapon or manner of death claimed or proven”, he adds.
The main thing undermining Neill-Fraser’s credibility is that she lied to police about her whereabouts on the night her partner disappeared.
The known facts of the case are these: Neill-Fraser had taken the dinghy ashore that afternoon, while Bob stayed on board doing maintenance work. She originally told police she had gone to Bunnings and stayed browsing until it was starting to get dark, then went home where she stayed all night. Later, when security cameras failed to show her at Bunnings, she said she may have been mistaken. Later still, when told a similar car to hers had been photographed in Sandy Bay, she said she drove down to Marieville Esplanade late that night, looked out to where Four Winds was moored, and drove home.
She could not explain why a call was made from her West Hobart home at 3.08am on January 27 (the day the yacht was found at dawn sabotaged and sinking, with no sign of Bob) to *10#, the number used to retrieve information about the last unanswered call. Neill-Fraser blames her conflicting accounts of where she was on Australia Day on the emotional chaos at the time.
“I thought I had gone to Bunnings that day,” she says. “I was very confused and in shock.”
Sarah remembers giving her mother a Valium the day that Bob went missing. “She was spinning out of control, standing by the door waiting for Bob, pacing up and down the corridors,” she recalls.
As for what happened to Bob, Neill-Fraser has her own theory. “I think he was the victim of a random or opportunistic incident,” she says. “I do believe he’s dead. He would never have allowed me to go through this.”
BARBARA Etter took on Neill-Fraser’s case after she happened to meet the convicted murderer’s former sister-in-law at a dinner party three years ago.
“The first thing I asked was, ‘Why did she lie to police?’ I went in objectively and spent several weeks reading the transcripts,” recalls Barbara, who was a police officer for 30 years. “By the end of it, my antenna was twitching and I thought, something’s wrong.” During the trial, for example, the judge and jury were left with the strong impression that there was blood in the dinghy, says Barbara, even though conclusive testing proved there wasn’t.
In media reports, Neill-Fraser has been described as a “society heiress”, “the best-dressed woman in Risdon Prison” and “a textbook suspect – with pearls and hyphen”. The implication is obvious, Barbara says: “She’s a rich bitch, so she deserved it.”
And just as word spread that “Azaria” supposedly meant “sacrifice in the desert”, a rumour did the rounds that Neill-Fraser killed her ex-husband and father of her two daughters, Brett Meeker. He is alive and well, though, and one of her strongest supporters.
According to Barbara, if Neill-Fraser is guilty of anything, it is naivety. “Does a guilty person give eight hours of interviews without a lawyer?” she asks. “No! Guilty people tend to lawyer up pretty quickly. They don’t go and give police lots of potential ammunition to weave into their narrative.”
It was actually Neill-Fraser who pointed out the winch marks on the > boat and the missing fire extinguisher, says Barbara. “She wanted to find Bob. That was her driving force.”
Yet the police fixated on Neill-Fraser, she argues, especially after Phillip Triffett came forward within 24 hours and claimed she had asked him to kill Bob Chappell more than a decade earlier. In fact, Triffett was facing criminal charges himself and had asked police if testifying against Neill-Fraser would help him. That approach only became known during the trial after an anonymous caller tipped off defence counsel. Triffett was recalled to the stand and admitted asking police, “Will this help me with those charges?” There was a long history of ill-feeling between Triffett and Neill-Fraser, including threats to her and her family’s safety, some of which she detailed during the trial.
The Tasmanian right-to-appeal legislation is expected to pass by the end of September, and Barbara intends to seek leave to appeal soon afterwards. In readiness, she has collected a raft of new expert opinions, including a report from the Victorian Police Forensic Services Department (VPFSD), analysing the DNA sample of a homeless girl found on Four Winds. After the 16-year-old girl claimed she had never been on the boat, the prosecutor dismissed the find as a “red herring” and told the jury the DNA could have been transferred on a police officer’s shoe. The VPFSD report, however, concludes that it was a “relatively large amount of DNA” that was more likely to have been directly deposited: “[T]here is no evidence to support the hypothesis that the DNA detected in sample 20 was the result of a secondary transfer event caused through foot traffic”.
It seems the girl actually was on the yacht, and lied about it. That alone, Barbara argues, should introduce an unacceptable level of doubt.
Neill-Fraser says she can understand a stranger’s reticence to believe her over the judicial system – because she would have been sceptical once, too.
“I had always, for 55 years, believed in the forces of law and order, and I would have thought that this couldn’t happen,” she says. “I now believe it can happen to anyone if the right checks and balances are not in place.”
Now the longest-serving female prisoner in Risdon and confined to a wheelchair, Neill-Fraser vacillates between hope and despair. She spends her days tutoring fellow inmates, tending the prison garden, and looking forward to phone calls with her daughters, which automatically cut out after 10 minutes.
She may be emotionally wrung out, she says, but she is motivated, too.
“I’m more determined than ever to fight on and change the system,” Neill-Fraser says. “I have come to understand that it’s not just about Bob and I and our family anymore. And it’s not really about blaming police or the judicial system for mistakes made. But it should be a search for the truth.”
Wrongful conviction cases in Australia
Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton’s case is the most famous, but there have been other long-running court sagas that have resulted in convictions being overturned.
She was convicted in 1982 of killing her baby, Azaria, on a camping trip to Uluru in 1980, after claiming a dingo had taken her daughter. In 1986, Azaria’s matinee jacket was found near a dingo lair – and Lindy was released from jail five days later. She was exonerated in 1988. The alleged “baby blood” under the dashboard of her car (on which the prosecution case relied so heavily) was found to be a sound-deadening compound applied during the car’s manufacturing process.
In 2008, he was found guilty of murdering his parents, who were stabbed in their Sydney home and set alight in 1993. Their elder son Christopher was also stabbed to death. Jeffrey admitted to killing him, but said he did so in a fit of rage after finding his sibling had killed their parents. Jeffrey was given two consecutive life sentences, but later appealed and presented new expert scientific evidence that cast doubt over part of the prosecution case. In 2011 his conviction was overturned and in 2012, he was formally acquitted.
In 2008, the former chauffeur to flamboyant stockbroker Rene Rivkin was convicted of murdering girlfriend Caroline Byrne, whose body was found in 1995 at the base of a cliff at The Gap in Sydney. He spent more than three years in jail before an appeal court unanimously acquitted him in 2012, saying there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that he had killed her. He is suing the state of NSW for malicious prosecution and false imprisonment.
After spending 20 years behind bars for the 1994 drowning of his fiancée, Anna-Jane Cheney, in the bath at their Adelaide home, his conviction was quashed last December. The Court of Criminal Appeal delivered the landmark judgement under new legislation, which allowed a new appeal to be brought before the court if there was fresh and compelling evidence. It ruled that forensic evidence presented in his trial was seriously flawed and amounted to a miscarriage of justice.
A version of this article first appeared in the July 2015 issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly. Subscribe to the monthly magazine here.