Why did Sue Neill-Fraser get 26 years imprisonment?
A question that came up at the forum in Melbourne on Monday night, 28 October 2013, was why was it that Sue Neill-Fraser received 26 years imprisonment. I thought it would be useful to go over the sentencing comments and the appeal judgement which saw the sentence reduced to 23 years in order to properly understand the reasons for this.
Blow J of the Tasmanian Supreme Court handed down his sentencing comments on 27 October 2010. His Honour stated that a jury had found Sue Neill-Fraser guilty of murder. He also acknowledged that the case was "based entirely on circumstantial evidence". The judge also found that the killing of Mr Chappell involved the implementation of a plan that was concocted by Ms Neill-Fraser long ago, based on the evidence of Mr Phillip Triffett.
The judge commented about Sue Neill-Fraser:
She seems to me to be clever, very cool-headed, and well able to control her emotions. In my view Ms Neill-Fraser would not have attacked Mr Chappell unless she intended to kill him, had a substantial reason for killing him, was confident that she would succeed in killing him, and had a strategy to avoid punishment. This was not a killing that occurred because of a loss of self-control. It was not a crime of passion. It was an intentional and purposeful killing. (emphasis added)
His Honour regarded it as an aggravating factor that Ms Neill-Fraser dumped Mr Chappell's body in the River Derwent, attached to a fire extinguisher, with the result that the body had not been found. She had thereby deprived his family and friends of any opportunity for his remains to be disposed of with dignity in the context of a funeral or a cremation ceremony. His final resting place was unknown.
No victim impact statements were submitted by Mr Chappell's children.
His Honour found that Sue Neill-Fraser made it necessary for the police to undertake a very time-consuming investigation. He regarded the steps that Sue Neill-Fraser took on the night in question to conceal her crime, and the inconvenience and expense of the investigation that she made necessary were aggravating factors that had to be taken into account.
His Honour acknowledged that Ms Neill-Fraser's age, her record of no convictions and her apparently blameless life until the murder of Mr Chappell. His Honour commented that she had not pleaded guilty and had shown no remorse. She had not said or done anything to assist in the finding of the body. His Honour commented "It was a deliberate killing for the purpose of some sort of personal gain. It warrants a heavier sentence than most murders".
His Honour commented that, in all the circumstances, it was appropriate to impose a non-parole period well above the minimum.
Sue Neill-Fraser was convicted to 26 years' imprisonment with effect from her date of arrest on 20 August 2009. The minimum non-parole period was set at 18 years.
There was subsequently an appeal against sentence on two grounds. The first was that the head sentence and non-parole period were manifestly excessive, particularly in view of the circumstances of the offence, the appellant's age and her previous good character. The second was that the judge made an error when he took into account as aggravating factors the inconvenience and expense of the investigation the appellant made necessary by disposing of the body.
It was found on appeal that it was an error by the trial judge to regard the inconvenience and expense of the police investigation as an aggravating factor. It was also found that the converse effect of a plea of not guilty and a denial of guilt must not be used as a circumstance of aggravation. For these reasons, the appeal was upheld on sentence on the second ground of appeal and it was not necessary to consider the first ground, that of manifest excessiveness.
The new sentence was 23 years' imprisonment with a 13 year minimum non-parole period.