The Tasmanian Coroner's Comments in Relation to Meaghan Vass and the DNA issue Concerning the Death of Bob Chappell
It is useful to consider the findings of the Coroner, where it was decided to not hold a public inquest, in light of the new independent expert report from Victoria which clearly states that the Meaghan Vass DNA was more likely deposited onto the deck of the Four Winds yacht via primary transfer. In hearings in the Supreme Court, the Tasmanian Court of Criminal Appeal and the High Court it had been suggested that the DNA evidence was a "red herring" and that the "core evidence" was that Vass was not on the boat. It was suggested that the DNA was on the deck as a result of a secondary transfer.
The Coroner in his Record of Investigation into Death (Without Inquest) into the death of Bob Chappell dated 17 January 2014 stated (at pages 17-18):
I have previously noted that both appeals rejected submissions that her [Meaghan Vass'] evidence should have been rejected. In my view, whether TasPol did or did not disclose interviews with Ms Vass before the criminal trial has no significance to my considerations. Having considered the available material, there is nothing more usefully to be gained in relation to the evidence of Ms Vass. There is no acceptable evidence to link Vass to any other person linked to the investigation or for any motive for her to be involved with the murder of Mr Chappell. Other than the DNA match there was no other link between Vass and the vessel. It is established that no less than 21 persons, including Police, Fire Officers, civilian witnesses and Ms Neill-Fraser had been on board the vessel between the time the vessel was found sinking to the time the sample of Vass' DNA was taken from the deck on or about the 15 March. In the meantime the vessel had been moored at Constitution Dock and POW Bay. Vass denied having ever seen the Four Winds or been on it and denied having any knowledge of Mr Chappell. Her DNA may well have been placed on board the yacht simply by transference, but of course that is speculation. As Chief Justice Crawford said, Mr Neill-Fraser "had failed to establish that there is a significant possibility, one greater than a merely speculative one, that the jury would have acquitted her if Ms Vass has been recalled". In all of those circumstances this assertion and the submissions in relation to it must be rejected as being not relevant to my considerations. (emphasis added)
(See also comments at p.6 of the Coroner's decision which refers to the Crawford CJ finding).
(It should be noted that the date of the DNA sampling stated in the above quote is not accurate. As recorded in the Sue Neill-Fraser trial Court Transcript, the DNA sample later matched to Ms Meaghan Vass was taken from the Four Winds at Goodwood at 1.40 am on 30 January 2009.)
In the Conclusion at page 26, the Coroner stated:
In regard to how the death occurred, there is no other cogent material to suggest it occurred other than was found in the criminal proceedings. In regards to the identity of persons who may have contributed to the cause of death or assisted in the disposal of the body, there is no acceptable, credible or cogent evidence to suggest any person other than Ms Neill-Fraser was involved. (emphasis added)
And further at page 27:
I can make no findings that any person other than Ms Susan Neill-Fraser, contributed to the cause of death of Mr Chappell.
The Coroner also referred to the finding of the High Court when it rejected the application for special leave to appeal as the Meaghan Vass issue (and the test that was used to refuse the recall of the witness) was not considered a point of substance.
No reference was made in the Coroner's finding to the statement taken from Ms Vass by police on 26 March 2012 after I wrote to the Commissioner of Police requesting that Ms Vass and two of the then identified homeless persons be interviewed.
The Coroner acknowledged in his findings the "fetters" that were placed upon him "by sections 25 and 28 of the Coroners Act 1959" (sic). He also acknowledged that he had not dealt with all the submissions made to him. His Honour stated at page 8:
Later I will set out in some detail examples of the alleged significant and fresh evidence and other submissions. I have not dealt with all of them. Others I did not read as they came embargoed with caveats such as (among others) "personal and in confidence" or "highly confidential" or "legal in confidence". I considered that I could not complete my statutory and public duties by being hamstrung by such caveats and am also of the view it was not my duty to provide advice to Ms Neill-Fraser as to the legal effect upon her or any other person assisting her should I read and take into account and publish any such information. (emphasis added)
It was further stated at page 8:
At the outset I must make it clear that in my view it would be very unusual to hold a public inquest where there has been a full criminal trial followed by a conviction and unsuccessful appeals, as is the case here. This is particularly so given that section 25(4) of the Coroners Act 1995 does not permit a coroner to make any finding inconsistent with the result of the criminal proceedings. In my view a full public inquest could only be contemplated if fresh evidence was forthcoming which either made it unlikely that Mr Chappell was dead and/or that Ms Neill Fraser was his killer and/or that he had died in other circumstances and/or there were others who might be likely to have contributed to the cause of his death and/or it may be reasonably possible to comment on any matter connected with the death including the administration of justice. (emphasis added)
It should be noted that under section 58 of the Coroners Act 1995, any person may apply to the Supreme Court for an order that all or any of the findings of an inquest are void. The Supreme Court may make the order applied for if the court is satisfied that:
a) the inquest was or may have been tainted by fraud; or
b) the inquest was not sufficiently thorough or was compromised by evidentiary or procedural irregularity; or
c) there are mistakes in the record of the findings; or
d) new facts or evidence affecting the findings have come to light; or
e) the findings were not supported by the evidence; or
f) there is another compelling reason to reopen the inquest.