Failure to Follow Up Leads in the Sue Neill-Fraser Case

Posted by Barbara Etter APM on 18 February 2013 | 3 Comments

The DPP, Tim Ellis SC, in his closing address at the trial of Sue Neill-Fraser in 2010 stated (at Court Transcript (CT) p.1400):

I mean these police have come in here and given evidence of what I – well what you might consider to be a very very thorough investigation …

A hallmark of an effective, efficient and impartial investigation is the prompt following up of legitimate leads. A failure to do so could well lead to allegations of "tunnel vision" in a case.

In addition to the previous deficiencies, in my opinion, highlighted in the Sue Neill-Fraser case in relation to doorknocking, call-taking, the inadequate use of intelligence and record keeping, there would appear to have been a number of potential leads or avenues of investigation that were not properly pursued by police. It is hard to know, given the lack of access to the full police investigation file, whether there are other leads from the Australia Day 2009 incident which should have been followed up.

On the material available, some examples of Tasmania Police not following up what appear to be legitimate and valuable leads in the investigation, based on the material available to Defence, include:

  • the failure to try to properly identify the “weatherbeaten” man (described in significant detail) in an early eyewitness account (i.e. 27 January 2009). The  male person was seen in a dinghy with an outboard similar to that of the Four Winds yacht, in the vicinity of the moored Four Winds, around 7.45 pm to 8.30 pm on Australia Day. Whilst an attempt was made, a person wrongly identified by the eyewitness on 28 January 2009 as possibly being the person involved clearly stated that his dinghy did not have an outboard and he was nowhere near Battery Point on Australia Day. Police were later to claim in their timeline that the well described "weatherbeaten" man was in fact Sue Neill-Fraser;
  • the failure to attempt to locate the girl with "dark hair" seen by Sue Neill-Fraser when she tied up the Four Winds dinghy near the RYCT on the afternoon of Australia Day (CT p.816), particularly given that the dinghy was taken from this location later that day;
  • information from an informant about a White Magna seen in the vicinity of the Marieville Esplanade foreshore on the evening of Australia Day, when police had specifically noted a vehicle of this description when talking to one of the homeless people (as noted on p.29 of the Police Investigation Log (PIL)). Police failed to take a statement from this person or the other homeless person (about whom intelligence had also been received), until 2012 after prompting from Sue's legal team;
  • the failure to include important details which had been relayed to police (e.g. the colour of the dinghy “yellow/white” or "whitish cream to yellow" seen by Lorraine at 5 pm on Australia Day. At CT p.914 the relevant police officer states that he “neglected” to include it in Lorraine’s statement and admits that it was a “very major omission” in the circumstances (CT p.919)). This, of course, also meant that police did not follow up on dinghies of this colour in the vicinity at the time;
  • the grey dinghy seen by Paul Conde tied to the Four Winds at 3.55 pm on Australia Day and the lack of inquiries to determine whether anybody could identify such a dinghy (see CT p.935) - Conde actually had to be interviewed again by police mid-trial and was able to provide a much fuller description of a dinghy seemingly very different to that of the Four Winds dinghy. It is interesting that he described the dinghy in his second statement as "charcoal grey";
  • the acknowledged lack of follow up to confirm whether the portion of a Ford vehicle captured in the CCTV at 12.25 am on 27 January 2009 was indeed similar to Bob Chappell and Sue Neill-Fraser’s Ford car (CT p.1015). Sue’s position at trial was that this was not her vehicle (CT p.36);
  • The failure to interview the persons who were on board a yacht that went within 50 metres of the Four Winds around 5 pm on Australia Day at a time when the unnamed witness, P36, who was very taken with the boat and looked at it through binoculars, said that she saw a large mid grey inflatable dinghy attached to the stern. One of the persons on board with her is reported as saying that the boat was "sitting low in the water", which could have well meant that the yacht was taking on water at that time, which is consistent with the evidence given in court about the sinkage rate of the sabotaged yacht (see CT pp. 625 & 1441). No attempt was made to locate and speak to the other persons on the boat with P36; and
  • the new Person of Interest who came to police attention in late April after he reportedly made a significant threat to a person along the lines of "I killed the bloke off the yacht for cash but I’ll do you for free". It would appear from the PIL that a proper investigation into the man did not occur until September 2009, after Sue Neill-Fraser's arrest.

These points, combined with the other issues highlighted to date, should be cause for significant community concern about the thoroughness and objectivity of the police investigation in this case.

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  • I echo the comments already made. Every lead should be followed up in a thorough investigation. It is time for the Australian police services to move to an eliminative investigation process rather than the current nominative system used. A change to the more progressive eliminative process [now used in the UK] would ensure that every lead WAS follow up rather than the current tendency to nominate one possible suspect and ignore leads or evidence not consistent with the guilt of the nominated suspect. The police conduct in the Andrew Mallard case in WA is a classic case of what goes wrong when the police focus on one suspect and ignore exculpatory evidence. And the Sue Neill-Fraser case is another. There can be no sensible argument to keep using a policing system that can get things so wrong. I, for one, would prefer to see the tax I pay invested in a new policing approach that is less flawed than the one we currently have in Australia.

    Posted by Jackie Schmidt, 20/07/2013 5:34pm (5 years ago)

  • Any Police Commissioner alerted to these deficiencies would normally insist such investigations be completed thoroughly, otherwise there is a stain on his police force – as well as an innocent women possibly spending decades in jail – when the Commissioner is sworn to uphold justice and the rule of law in Tasmania.

    Posted by Bill Rowlings, 18/02/2013 4:02pm (5 years ago)

  • Bearing in mind the listed failures, DPP Ellis SC’s assurance to the jury as quoted above gives rise to sizeable concern. I reiterate my oft stated opinion that if I was a jury member on this matter, I would so furious that I was assured thus believed, “… a very very thorough investigation …" had occurred when in reality that was misleading and hence I was duped.

    Furthermore, because I am witness to similar and additional, failures and omissions in a separate criminal case resulting in a ‘successful’ conviction of innocent persons, I endorse your comment that this “should be cause for significant community concern about the thoroughness and objectivity of the police investigation in this case”.

    I add not only this case to my mind — if we are to believe several other complainants (and I do), an overall community concern ought be heightened about the awful state of injustice in Tasmania.

    Posted by Geraldine Allan, 18/02/2013 2:28pm (5 years ago)

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