Crime Scene Preservation and Contamination in the Sue Neill-Fraser Case

Posted by Barbara Etter APM on 9 September 2014 | 0 Comments

The Sue Neill-Fraser case was undoubtedly troublesome in that it was very difficult for police to preserve the crime scene and prevent contamination. The yacht was partially submerged when found and it was critical to keep the vessel afloat.  (A report by Lean Marine Survey Pty Ltd on 9 March 2009 stated that the vessel had been immersed to approximately 200 mm over the wheelhouse floor and the vessel had been down at the head. Attending police had described the water in the saloon area as approximately “waist deep”). Nevertheless, wherever possible, the preservation of possible homicide scenes is critical to any police investigation.

Brookman in Understanding Homicide Sage Third Edition (2011, p.24) includes the following quote:

Homicide scenes are treated with a reverence that wouldn’t be out of place for a holy shrine. They are protected from the elements, guarded and only the select have a right of entry. (Stelfox, unpublished).

Evidence was given at the trial that more than 21 persons (CT p.750) (not including FSST (or forensic) personnel) had been on the Four Winds before the critical Meaghan Vass DNA sample was taken at 1.40 am on 30 January 2009. The rough handwritten note which lists the 21 persons was disclosed to the Defence but I also have another handwritten list which attempts to detail those persons who boarded the yacht which is different in some respects to this disclosed record. It appears that no formal crime scene log was maintained. There also appears to have been no "Crime Scene Controller" or "Scene Co-ordinator" as required by the latest available Tasmanian Police Manual (Version - 11 November 2010) ( &  Examples of crime scene contamination in the Sue Neill-Fraser matter included:

  • the juice and other drink containers found on the yacht belonging to police or other personnel (although it is unclear which items did represent contamination);
  • water being dripped into blood drops on the steps by Marine Police (CT pp.256-257);
  • the shoe impression on the knife found on the floor of the yacht belonging to a Marine Police officer;
  • DNA samples being linked back to both an attending police officer (Forensic Biology Report dated 1 July 2009 Item No.8), a DPEM staff member (Item No.59) and an FSST staff member (Item No.35); and
  • The black and yellow torch on the boat which had also been inadvertently left by police or other attending personnel at the crime scene (CT pp.844 & 901). (emphasis added)

It would have been of great assistance if important changes to the crime scene had been centrally recorded in some way, although it is acknowledged that the sinking yacht may not have initially been regarded as a major crime scene. For instance, it seems hatches were opened, the boom on the mast was untied, switches may have been turned on or off and there may have been damage or marks caused through the use of pumps by non-police personnel to urgently remove water from the yacht. It also seems that the mobile phone left with Bob Chappell was removed from the scene but the location where it was found was not recorded (which was confirmed by Tasmania Police in an RTI response dated 25 July 2012).

In addition, it appears the most significant photos of the ropes and winches, in relation to the proposed winching exercise, were not taken until 13 February 2009 (although there are rope and winch photos from some time on 27 January 2009). A number of police officers acknowledged at trial that some of the photos tendered as exhibits (particularly taken by Constable Woodhead on 13 February 2013) did not depict the state of the ropes on the early morning of 27 January 2009 (Stockdale at CT pp.267-268; Lawler at CT pp.335-337; Conroy at CT pp.896, 900 & 937-938; and Milazzo at CT pp.292-293).

The Tasmanian Police Manual, which is no longer publicly available despite the publication requirement at s.93 of the Police Service Act 2003, covered the issue of Crime Scenes at 4.5.4. In particular, "INITIAL ACTION - MAJOR CRIMES" states:

(1) The first members attending the scene of a major crime are to:

a) take command until relieved by a senior member or CIB member;

b) establish the extent of the crime scene and give a short and accurate situation report to Radio Dispatch Services;

c) obtain the names and addresses of all persons in attendance or of any witnesses;

d) remove all persons from the crime scene through a common exit point but do not disturb the crime scene, if possible;

e) where possible, designate the crime scene boundary with "Police" tape;

f) prevent entry to the crime scene of any unauthorised persons and set additional guards where appropriate;

g) commence a log containing the name, rank, time of entry, time of exit and reason for entry of all persons who enter the crime scene;

h) establish an access/egress point at the crime scene;

i) take steps to protect evidence especially if it is considered that this evidence will be endangered in some way prior to the arrival of CIB or Forensic Services;

j) give consideration to declaring the area concerned a crime scene as per the Police Offences Act 1935, s. 63 and 63A, when considered necessary for the purposes of preserving, searching or gathering evidence;

k) brief fully the attending CIB member upon their arrival; and

l) where it becomes necessary to move anything, record that movement and advise the senior investigator and Forensic Services upon their arrival. (emphasis added)

The requirements in relation to Crime Scene Controller at also appear not to have been addressed in this case including the requirement to record the transfer of formal control of the crime scene for the purposes of examination on the running sheet or pro-forma slip and to maintain a log of persons who enter, or have entered, the crime scene.

Quality information as to the original state of the crime scene (and particularly important elements such as the state of the ropes and winches for the purpose of determing whether a winching actually occurred) appears to be lacking, given the number of people who had been aboard before forensics arrived and the operations that had been carried out by numerous people in order to save the yacht. Yet the state of the ropes and winches was said in the sentencing comments to be one of the factors which led to the Sue Neill-Fraser conviction. The degree of contamination in the case is also problematic, and some of it clearly avoidable, if appropriate care had been taken and well-known best practice procedures followed by police. For example, Australian Standard Forensic Analysis Part 1: Recognition, recording, recovery, transport and storage of material AS 5388.1 - 2012 covers the "systematic approach to scene examination" and requires a "scene log" as far as practicable (see 5.1). It also requires that scene examination be appropriately planned and documented (see 5.2.1). The standard also requires, for the information of forensic specialists (at para.5.2.1):

  • information regarding who has had contact or association with the scene and for what purpose (and whether anything has been moved or touched in any way); and
  • records relevant to persons at the scene.

Appendix E of the same Standard also outlines what is required in relation to contemporaneous notes taken at the crime scene.

It seems that there are some important lessons to be learned from the Sue Neill-Fraser case. There will be more to come on the "state of the ropes" on the yacht and the alleged involvement of winches, particularly as they formed an important part of the Crown case.





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