On the 26th of January, 2009, Bob Chappell disappeared from his yacht, moored off the Hobart suburb of Sandy Bay. He was never seen again.
There was no body, no murder weapon and to this day the events of that evening remain unclear.
But for the 12 jurors who sat through the trial of Susan Neill-Fraser, there was enough circumstantial evidence to unanimously convict her of the murder of her partner of almost 20 years.
Neill-Fraser has always maintained her innocence.
Twelve years later, one of Tasmania’s highest-profile murder cases will be back before the court in an appeal that could see the judges order a re-trial or Neill-Fraser walk free.
The original case
Neill-Fraser and Mr Chappell had been on the yacht together that afternoon.
According to Neill-Fraser, she left the yacht to go to Bunnings and then headed to her West Hobart home where she remained for the rest of the evening.
During the original trial in 2010, the Crown argued Neill-Fraser had returned to the yacht, known as the Four Winds, via its dinghy.
They argued she then bludgeoned her partner with a wrench, disposed of his body in the River Derwent and scuttled the yacht, which was later found half submerged.
The trial also heard she had decided their relationship was over and was aware she would be financially better off in the event of his death, rather than separation.
She was convicted of his murder and sentenced to 26 years in prison with a non-parole period of 18 years. Both were later reduced by three years.
In his reasons for allowing the leave to appeal, Supreme Court Justice Michael Brett described the case against Neill-Fraser as “entirely circumstantial”.
He said one of the substantial aspects of the case was the “series of lies told by the applicant to investigating police, principally in relation to her whereabouts and movements on the night in question”.
What’s the appeal based around?
This is not the first time Neill-Fraser has tried to appeal her murder conviction, but it is the first time she has actually been granted leave for an appeal against her conviction.
That is due to laws introduced in 2015 which allow appeals in cases where there is “fresh and compelling evidence”.
In 2019, Neill-Fraser’s legal team was able to convince Supreme Court Justice Brett they had “fresh and compelling” evidence which should be heard.
The “fresh and compelling” evidence came in the form of Meghan Vass, who was 15 and homeless at the time of Mr Chappell’s disappearance.
Justice Brett’s judgment states that Ms Vass’s DNA was found on the yacht, but at the time of the trial she denied having ever having been aboard the Four Winds.
Ms Vass has since changed her story, swearing in an affidavit that she was on the yacht on that night — this was backed up by a 60 Minutes interview that was not aired in Tasmania.
“In particular, Ms Vass states that she was present on the yacht then with two identified male companions,” wrote Justice Brett.
“She witnessed at least one of the males assault Mr Chappell. She recalls seeing a lot of blood.”
Her affidavit does not address what happened to Mr Chappell and she said she cannot remember leaving the yacht or what happened after the alleged assault.
While there are questions around the reliability of Ms Vass’s evidence, Justice Brett simply needed to take into consideration whether there was a possibility it could be considered credible when he was granting the appeal.
Neill-Fraser’s appeal notice shows her case will also call into question “evidence led by the prosecution at trial in relation to the results of, and inferences that could be drawn from DNA [and luminol testing]” and a “winching reconstruction on the Four Winds” which Neill-Fraser’s team said was “misleading”.
It also argues the “dinghy seen near the Four Winds around the time the deceased was attacked was not the Four Winds’ tender”.
What could happen?
Neill-Fraser’s appeal will be heard before the full bench of the Supreme Court, which means three judges will hear the evidence.
The appeal begins on March 1 and is expected to run for five days. The judges will then likely reserve their decision.
It could go three ways from there.
If Neill-Fraser’s appeal is successful, she could face a re-trial.
This means convincing a fresh jury she is innocent, or at least proving there is some doubt in her guilt — to be convicted, the burden of proof should be beyond reasonable doubt.
As it is such a high-profile case, the jury is likely to be familiar with her story, which could create questions around their impartiality.
Tasmania does not currently allow judge only trials, but there is legislation in the works.
Secondly, her conviction could be quashed by the judges and she could walk free.
Or her appeal could fail, but it is not necessarily her last chance.
If it is rejected, Neill-Fraser can challenge the conviction again, provided she finds more fresh and compelling evidence.
Of course, there is one final path.
In less than 18 months, Neill-Fraser will be eligible for parole, having served almost 12 years of her 23-year sentence.
But supporters say if she is going to walk free, she would rather do it as an innocent woman.
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