After two-and-a-half days of twists and turns, Susan Neill-Fraser’s appeal against her murder conviction has wrapped up.
- Sue Neill-Fraser’s lawyers abandoned evidence from a key witness after she gave contradictory evidence
- Supreme Court judges have reserved their decision on whether there is fresh and compelling evidence to warrant a retrial
- Supporters say they will continue the fight to free her from prison
The appeal, which was five years in the making, came to an early end after Neill-Fraser’s lawyers abandoned their star witness.
Neill-Fraser is about halfway through her 23-year prison sentence for the murder of her partner Bob Chappell aboard his yacht in 2009.
In August next year, she will be eligible for parole but supporters say she wants to go free as an innocent woman.
Neill-Fraser’s appeal against her conviction centred on the evidence of Meghan Vass, who was homeless and 15 at the time of Mr Chappell’s disappearance.
Ms Vass’s DNA was found on the boat — in the original trial and this appeal the Crown argued she had never been on the boat and it had been transferred there accidentally by another person.
Meaning, someone might have trod on it and then walked it onto the yacht.
Ms Vass, too, told the trial she had never been to Sandy Bay or on a yacht.
Neill-Fraser’s team maintain that Ms Vass was on the yacht that night and that is the most plausible explanation as to how her DNA got there.
But Ms Vass’s witness testimony during the appeal was contradictory.
On day one, she told the Court of Criminal Appeal she had been on the yacht with three other men, at least one of whom assaulted Mr Chappell.
By day two, in cross-examination, she had changed her story, telling the Director of Public Prosecutions she had never been on the yacht.
Neill-Fraser’s lawyers eventually decided to relieve her and abandon her evidence. Confirming in their closing argument that all of it was irrelevant to the case before the judges. The DPP did the same.
They instead focussed on what they labelled “issues” in the original trial, namely the DNA evidence of Ms Vass.
In closing arguments, Neill-Fraser’s junior counsel Chris Carr SC said reports by DNA expert Max Jones supported their argument that the DNA was deposited by Ms Vass herself.
This was for two reasons:
- His explanation of how it could have got there with a secondary transfer did not match the explanation given by the Crown.
- He said that such a large patch of DNA was more likely to have come from Ms Vass herself.
Neill-Fraser’s team said their explanation of Ms Vass visiting the yacht with some friends was just as plausible as the Crown’s version of events.
Mr Carr told the court that if the jury in the original trial had been given this evidence, there would have been some doubt in her guilt, meaning it was a “substantial miscarriage of justice” and he called for a retrial.
Director of Public Prosecutions Daryl Coates SC maintains that Ms Vass was never on the boat.
He told the court that the Four Winds yacht was not initially treated as a crime scene and therefore it was moved to Constitution Dock and then Goodwood, an area that Ms Vass had earlier told the court she spent time in.
He said at least 21 people had been on the boat before the sample was taken, which is how the secondary transfer could have occurred.
“[There’s the] sheer unlikelihood of Ms Vass being involved. At the same time, there’s overwhelming evidence that the appellant [Susan Neill-Fraser] was,” Mr Coates said.
After the case wrapped up, Neill-Fraser’s daughter Sarah Bowles said she felt very “optimistic” and hoped the judges would recognise the “substantial miscarriage of justice”.
“Mum is innocent and this needs to be rectified so that she can get out and be acquitted,” she said.
Ms Bowles said she would never stop fighting and was prepared to look at other avenues if this failed.
“I have heard many times that this is our last chance and yet here we are again,” she said.
“Whilst in some ways a lot rides on this, we will never stop fighting for this case.”
Neill-Fraser supporter Rosie Crumpton-Cook said “it was going to be a “tough” wait.
“Who knows how long it will be? she said.
“I hope for Sue it’s not too long.”
The judges have reserved their decision.
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