Australia Day 2009 is forever etched in the memory of Sue-Neill Fraser. On that afternoon Fraser took a dinghy to shore from a yacht she was sharing with her de-facto partner of 18 years, Bob Chappell.
When she turned to look back towards the yacht, she says she had no idea it would be the last time she would see him, either dead or alive.
The body was never found, no murder weapon identified, and no hard evidence presented, but Fraser has spent 11 years of a 23-year sentence behind bars for the murder of her partner. If she loses her final appeal at the end of this year, she is likely to spend the next 13 years in jail.
A reward has been offered for information about the case – but it’s not the usual kind.
It’s not police looking for a conviction, but the community that has raised the money for any evidence that might clear Fraser and free her from jail.
The case has managed to place a spotlight on the usefulness of rewards in murder cases. Do rewards warp memories that lead to false convictions, or do they jog memories and bring justice?
Former Homicide Squad detective Ron Iddles, dubbed “Australia’s greatest detective”, says rewards can do more good than harm.
With a conviction rate of 99 per cent and 43 years of experience on the force, 25 of those dedicated to solving murders, Iddles says rewards are only used where police think someone in the community holds the answer.
“We wouldn’t look at [cold cases] unless there was new information, but you’ve got to basically exhaust it … you’re not going to put $1,000,000 on everyone,” he said.
“You’ve got to try and pick the ones that you think you got the ability to solve.”
One benefit is that monetary rewards bring the case back to the public’s attention – maybe they didn’t realise it hadn’t been solved, or it pricks a guilty conscience.
“Most people who come forward when there’s a reward are genuine,” Iddles says.
“I haven’t had a case where someone’s come forward and dishonestly given information. Realistically, when you see what they go through in a witness box … nine times out of 10, 99 per cent of the time, they don’t want to be there – they’re going [to] get grilled.”
However, Prof Felicity Gerry QC, who specialises in serious and complex crime, says monetary rewards “inevitably end in unreliable evidence … because people will say anything for money”.
Gerry says that in every case she has experienced that involved financial gain, the evidence was unreliable.
The practice of monetary rewards should be stopped, she says.
“I think it is unethical to finance what I consider to be a public duty. It usually just reinforces the prosecution’s opinion”. When it’s linked to “police accountability, and as long as they think it’s useful, it doesn’t get analysed”.
Gerry says there needs to be an independent third party to help regulate and inspect evidence provided by witnesses where there are monetary rewards.
The Crime Stoppers website showcases more than three pages of rewards for information on missing persons or murders. (See breakout)
The information provided by the witness needs to be substantial and the issue with witness statements are that they are often coupled with a heavy reliance on memory.
Eyewitness testimony is more fallible than many people assume.
The Innocence Project, an American wrongful convictions scheme reports that 358 people convicted and sentenced to death since 1989 in America have been acquitted through DNA evidence.
Of these, 71 per cent were convicted through eyewitness misidentification.
If Australia used the American statistics to identify wrongful convictions at any given moment, there are 330 wrongfully convicted people within the District and Supreme Court system, Professor Paul Wilson – a specialist in criminology and forensic psychology wrote in The Conversation in 2011.
Research on the causes of wrongful convictions identify witness error or false witness information as key reasons, along with police tunnel vision.
Sue-Neill Fraser: Guilty or not guilty
Sue-Neill Fraser was found guilty of her partner’s murder, even though neither the body nor a murder weapon have been found.
One witness testified that about midnight they saw a dinghy with what seemed like a female heading in the direction of the yacht.
The person was later identified as a young man with long hair, and he testified that he was going out not to Four Winds but to another boat.
Fraser’s appeal against her 2009 conviction will be overseen by three Tasmanian judges, including the Chief Justice, Alan Bow.
A Sue-Neill Fraser support group urges is calling for any potential witnesses to step forward. Up to $40,000 is being offered.
Journalist and researcher Andrew L. Urban, who has an interest in wrongful conviction cases, said he is frustrated with the Australian Justice System.
“I have managed to lose all my confidence in the Australian criminal justice system in the last two years, completely,” he says.
“Entire lives are thrown into the dustbin because of false memory or bad witnesses … I find [it] deeply disturbing.”
The research on the prevalence of wrongful convictions in Australia is limited as there is no jurisdiction that systematically records or collects that type of information.
A 2015 study by Rachel Dioso-Villa, A repository of wrongful convictions in Australia: First steps toward estimating prevalence and casual contributing factors found substantial evidence of wrongful convictions in the Australian justice system.
Investigations were tainted by police overzealousness, misconduct or tunnel vision, or reliance on circumstantial evidence.
REWARDS ON OFFER IN VICTORIA
• One of the earliest rewards listed on the Crime Stoppers page is for Ricky Balcombe, a 16-year old boy killed with a knife in the middle of a shopping centre at 3.20pm on a Friday afternoon in1995. The reward has risen from $50,000 to $1,000,000.
• In 1997, the family of Jane Thurgood-Dove pushed for and got a $1,000,000 reward. The mother of three was shot dead in her driveway while her children sat in the car, for what the police believe to be a mistake in identity.
Rewards on offer have so far helped neither of these cases, with a witness who stepped forward during the Balcombe case labelled “a gold digger” and no charges laid against Thurgood-Dove’s killers.