Flat White

Death on the Derwent: a new witness cries foul

11 March 2019

7:02 PM

11 March 2019

7:02 PM

In as emotional 60 Minutes interview last night, Meaghan Vass told the truth. ‘The objective evidence backs it up,’ as Robert Richter QC remarked during the segment: she witnessed Bob Chappell’s murder on board Four Winds on Australia Day 2009 in Hobart – and it was not committed by Sue Neill-Fraser, who is serving a 23 year sentence for it.

That crashing noise you hear coming from Tasmania is the sound of the lid ripping off this wrongful conviction.

Vass gave interviewer Liam Bartlett the answers that not only exonerates Neill-Fraser of the murder but identifies the killer/s, whose names she knows but didn’t reveal on air. There was one especially telling answer: when asked if she would now tell the police what she knew, she said ‘no’. But she said she would testify in court.

Vass was a vulnerable, homeless 15 year old mixing with the wrong crowd and taking drugs at the time of the murder. She is still a bit fuzzy about some of the details, and not just because it’s been 10 years since the event.

Well groomed in a crisp white shirt over a T shirt and jeans, with neat, long dark blonde hair, her face often crunched by emotion and wet with tears, Vass (now 25 and still homeless, vulnerable) was heart wrenching. Scared “of the man who killed Bob?” as Bartlett put it, “Yeah,” she replied softly – and guilt-ridden about Neill-Fraser.

Bartlett didn’t have the heart, perhaps, to ask Vass how she felt about that man’s 10-year silence in the face of an innocent woman languishing in prison for his crime, and the position his silence has put her. Nor if she ever sees him these days.

Nor did the program delve into what might happen next in this tortured case. Justice Brett is due any day to announce his decision whether to grant Neill-Fraser leave to appeal her conviction. How hollow and cruel that now seems.

Sue Neill-Fraser was convicted in 2010 of murdering her partner Bob Chappell on their yacht, Four Winds, on Australia Day 2009. A large swab of unexplained DNA on the deck was dismissed, even after it was matched to Meaghan Vass in March 2010.

Alerted to serious doubts about the conviction by Shadow of Doubt, a documentary made by Eve Ash in 2013, I began to investigate, culminating five years later in a book, Murder by the Prosecution (Wilkinson Publishing) which includes other wrongful convictions. (Two other books have since been published on the case, Southern Justice by Colin McLaren (Hachette) and Death on the Derwent (Scribe) by Robyn Bowles, as well as a six-part TV series, Undercurrent, on Seven Network, broadcast in the weeks ahead of 60 Minutes.)

The Neill-Fraser case presented itself as an obvious miscarriage of justice: there was scant circumstantial evidence against the convicted woman, yet a giant DNA deposit from a stranger at the crime scene was dismissed at trial by the DPP, Tim Ellis SC, as ‘a red herring’. Red faces all over Hobart now.

During and since the trial, the DNA evidence which placed Vass on the yacht has been minimised and dismissed by the prosecution, through every court hearing about the case. The DNA match with Vass “would have set off alarm bells,” Robert Richter told 60 Minutes, “but by then Neill-Fraser had already been charged. It would have been pretty horrible for them (police) to come round and say, by God we’ve charged the wrong person.” Richter says he wants to see a Royal Commission into the case.

Neill-Fraser’s request for leave to appeal to the High Court was refused. The request was based on the fact that the prosecution failed to recall Meaghan Vass for fuller cross-examination, only cursorily questioned during the trial, when she claimed she had never been on the boat. Ellis advised the High Court that her DNA was a secondary or transfer sample, perhaps left there from the bottom of a policeman’s shoe. He told the High Court: “The core evidence was … she [the homeless girl] was not on the boat”.

Oh yes she was. And the only people who denied it were the Tasmanian police and the DPP.

Margaret Cunneen SC’s review of Murder by the Prosecution was published in Spectator Australia on September 22 2018.

Illustration: Channel 9.

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