Suggestions from Tasmania Police about the Vass DNA

Posted by Barbara Etter APM on 24 August 2014 | 3 Comments

Background - Enlightening new DNA evidence - from Victorian Police Forensic Services Department (VPFSD):

There is no innocent or reasonable explanation at this time for the presence of the Meaghan Vass DNA on the deck of the yacht. We now have an expert opinion which states, contrary to the theory put forward strongly by the DPP in the Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeal and the High Court:

[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 on the deck of “four (sic) Winds”.

The Scientific Report of the Victorian Police Forensic Services Department (VPFSD) dated 11 July 2014 in relation to the DNA sample of the homeless girl (Sample No.20), after viewing the relevant DNA electropherogram from Forensic Science Service Tasmania (FSST), also indicated that the biological substance in sample 20 is indicative of a relatively large amount of DNA, which is more likely to have come from body fluids (blood, saliva, etc.) than a simple skin contact/touching event.

However, the DPP told the High Court that “The core evidence was … she was not on the boat”. There was only one ground of appeal to the High Court in the application for special leave to appeal, which was rejected, and it related to the evidence of Ms Vass (and the test that was used to refuse her recall as a witness) and the associated DNA sample.

The current law on circumstantial cases requires that the circumstances of the case must be such as to be inconsistent with any reasonable hypothesis other than the guilt of the accused”. (See the comments of the High Court in Peacock v The King [1911] HCA 66; (1912) 13 CLR 619, particularly Griffith CJ at para.634).

This significant new evidence seriously calls into question the safety of the Sue Neill-Fraser conviction.

 

Tasmania Police:

It is expected that the Tasmania Police response will be to say that the girl’s DNA was deposited on the yacht whilst it was (on the water) at CleanLIFT at 6 Negara Crescent Goodwood prior to the relevant DNA sample being taken on 30 January 2009.

Indeed, the lead detective in the case in the Eve Ash documentary Shadow of Doubt stated:

As events turned out, the dry dock wasn’t secure. You could get access from the waterside to it. So who knows who may have gained access to the boat out there and certainly Meaghan Vass had some associations with some young male offenders, underage offenders, that have been in the past guilty from breaking into boat yards and stealing things off boats.

In addition, at trial, one of the detectives stated that CleanLIFT had been broken into on “several occasions” around the relevant time (CT p.823).

The same detective also told the court that when he originally spoke to Ms Vass that she indicated she believed that she may have been hanging around the Goodwood area at the time of Mr Chappell’s disappearance (CT p.824).

 

Important Points about the Yacht and the relevant sample:

The Four Winds yacht only arrived from Queensland and docked in Hobart on 23 December 2008.

At the time of the incident on Australia Day 2009, the Four Winds yacht was on its mooring around 400 metres off the Sandy Bay shore near Marieville Esplanade.

The relevant DNA sample, Sample 20, was taken at 1.40 am on 30 January 2009 at Goodwood (CT p.750).

The yacht had been towed to Constitution Dock on 27 January 2009. It was under CCTV surveillance overnight and no person came within 5 metres of the yacht (CT p.782).

The yacht had been moved from Constitution Dock to Goodwood via the water on 28 January 2009.

CleanLIFT at Goodwood is in an area that is fenced and gated (CT p.783).

The swab (Item No. 20 on the Biological Examination spreadsheet) had been taken on the starboard walkway or deck of Four Winds, 9.45 m from the pointy end or bow of the yacht.

The area sampled was near one of the gates used for boarding the yacht. The sample had also been taken after at least 21 people (not including FSST personnel) had been on board (CT p.750).

 

Countering the claim of the sample being deposited at Goodwood:

The date of the sample being taken is important as there were a number of “entries” to boats and associated stealings at or near CleanLIFT in early 2009. However, based on the material disclosed to Defence mid-trial, all such incidents occurred after the Vass DNA sample had been taken and secured in the early morning of 30 January 2009.

  • IDM report No. 200908199 from 3 February 2009 with regard to vessels probably being entered at CleanLIFT. States that incident occurred on 2 February 2009.
  • Offence Report No. 0000358172 for offences committed between 8 and 9 February 2009 at CleanLIFT – stealing and destroy and injure property.
  • Offence Report 0000357601 re an incident at Gepp Parade Goodwood (not CleanLIFT) where property was stolen from a marina sometime between 9 am on 30 January 2009 and 2 pm 1 February 2009.
  • Offence Report 0000357916 re a report of persons possibly entering plastic fabrications at 8 Negara Crescent Goodwood and breaking into a vessel between 5 February 2009 and 6 February 2009.
  • Offence Report 0000360786 re offenders entering the yard of CleanLIFT and entering a vessel in dry dock between 7 March and 10 March 2009.
  • Offence Report 0000359436 re break in to RMD Marina in Negara Crescent between 21 February and 23 February 2009.

There is no apparent opportunity for the Vass DNA sample to have been directly deposited between the finding of the sinking Four Winds yacht on the morning of 27 January 2009 and the taking of the sample based on reports made to Tasmania Police and disclosed to Defence.

In addition to this, on 23 March 2012 a typed statement was actually taken by Tasmania Police from the homeless girl, after Sue Neill-Fraser’s lawyer wrote to the Commissioner of Police in February 2012 requesting that statements be taken from Ms Vass and the two homeless men spoken to by police on the Marieville Esplanade foreshore on 27 January 2009 from whom statements had never been taken. These interviews led to another man being pulled in by police for interview.

In her 2012 statement, only provided to the legal team in 2014, after several requests for access, Ms Vass stated:

  • She had never been to Sandy Bay;
  • She had never been on any yacht in her life;
  • She never went onto the Four Winds;
  • She had no idea how her DNA came to be on the boat;
  • She did not recall having any property stolen or removed that may have had contact with the boat; and
  • She had not been at the waterfront at any time that she could remember.

 

Conclusion:

There is no innocent or reasonable explanation at this time for the presence of the Meaghan Vass DNA on the deck of the yacht. It would also seem that, given the expert report indicates that it is more likely that the DNA was deposited directly, that there was no opportunity for direct deposit between the finding of the sinking Four Winds yacht on the morning of 27 January 2009 and the taking of the relevant sample at 1.40 am on 30 January 2009.

Accordingly, there should now be substantial doubt about the safety of the Sue Neill-Fraser murder conviction. The Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeal and the High Court did not have the benefit of this new expert report.


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Comments

  • VPFSD is a respected NATA accredited laboratory. This is ultimately an issue for the experts in this area.

    Posted by Barbara, 14/04/2015 6:22am (1 year ago)


  •  By stating that "there should now be substantial doubt about the safety of the Sue Neill-Fraser murder conviction." you are assuming that the forensic scientist(s) at the Victoria Police Forensic Services Department made a correct interpretation of the data. 

    I am not a forensic scientist but I very much doubt that  forensic DNA science has advanced to the stage where one can confidently differentiate between a primary and a secondary transfer of DNA. Just because there is a high RFU it does not necessarily exclude SECONDARY TRANSFER VIA A SALIVA IN AN USED CHEWING/BUBBLE GUM STUCK TO A HEAL (OR A SOLE) OF A SHOE. After the first step onto the yacht deck the unwitting carrier may have noticed the shoe (or a thong) sticking to the deck, lifted the foot and pulled off the gum before walking further. Alternatively, the person may have retreated back off the yacht.

    Thus, there exists a plausible physical mechanism by which a strong DNA from the saliva of the homeless girl could have been transferred onto the deck of Four Winds without it being via direct (primary) transfer. The problem is that the police forensic scientists were limited in their imagination.  

    In conclusion, I think it premature for you to conclude on the basis of what I see to be an incomplete DNA study by the police forensic services that "Accordingly, there should now be substantial doubt about the safety of the Sue Neill-Fraser murder conviction."


    Peter Lozo, BSc, PhD
    Applied Physicist/Perceptual Scientist
    Adelaide, SA

    Posted by Dr Peter Lozo, 10/04/2015 11:01pm (1 year ago)

  • Having watched Meaghan Vass give evidence in court and be cross-examined, I found some of her statements ambiguous. She told the court she refused to be interviewed about anything to do with this case. When asked if she felt intimidated by the police, she said "Yes, I've never dealt with something this large before..." Of course, it was because she offended in the first place that the forensic scientists found their 'match' for the unidentified female DNA on the boat, a match we now know was a primary match and not one walked onto the yacht on someone else's shoe. She agreed a second time that she had refused to be interviewed and that she had said she would tell them nothing. While agreeing that it would have been easy to say to the police, "I've never been on board that yacht" instead she took the view, "I'm not saying a word to you police officers". I am not accusing Meaghan Vass of murdering Bob Chappell, in any case it would probably be a manslaughter charge. But having worked as a probation officer for many years, the body language of Ms Vass left me thinking, I believe she could have told the police more, quite a bit more. As I understand it, I believe there are other unidentified DNAs on the boat.

    Posted by Lynn Giddings, 24/08/2014 10:20pm (2 years ago)

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