On Saturday August 20 Hobart grandmother Susan Neill-Fraser began her 8th year in Risdon prison. Still the haunting question remains to me – What if she is innocent?
Despite - to me - a total lack of indisputable evidence, and all of it circumstantial, Susan Neill-Fraser was sentenced to 26 years for the murder of her partner of 20 years, Bob Chappell (on appeal reduced to 23 years).
Bob disappeared from the yacht he co-owned with Sue, sometime before it was found sinking in the River Derwent off Sandy Bay on Australia Day, 2009. He has never been found. His friends and family, including Sue, are still wondering what really happened to him. Without a body, there is no proof of how, when or where he might have died - or even if he died. Regardless, the police maintained that he had been murdered and that his partner was responsible, Sue has always vigorously maintained her innocence and so presumably won’t be eligible to be released earlier on parole, despite exemplary behaviour in prison.
Actually, although she has now been in prison for a full seven years Sue is not even a third of the way through her 23 year sentence. In order to raise awareness of this fact vigils were held in and around Hobart on August 19th and 20th to mark the beginning of her eighth year in jail - an appallingly long time indeed if it turns out, as many believe, that she should not have been there in the first place.
Grave concerns that there has been a major miscarriage of justice are held by academic legal expert Bob Moles, Lindy Chamberlain’s lawyer Stuart Tipple, QCs Robert Richter and Tom Percy and many other eminent lawyers as well as members of the public in Tasmania and around Australia.
Despite some national coverage by “60 Minutes”, the “Age” and various magazines Susan’s case has not gained the attention and support it should have - possibly because her background doesn’t flag some of the well-recognised ‘vulnerable’ categories eg: she’s not the victim of domestic abuse, nor is she from a socially or economically disadvantaged group. According to those who knew the couple well, her 20-year relationship with Bob was a lively, loving and equal one. The couple enjoyed many common interests, especially outdoor activities including bushwalking, skiing and sailing. They were also equal partners financially, which is why they chose their new yacht “Four Winds” together and each paid half the cost.
Queen’s Counsel Tom Percy in Perth is currently preparing Susan’s case to be the first one presented under the new Tasmanian “further appeal” legislation passed late last year (similar to that already used in SA).
There is no guarantee that leave to appeal will be granted, nor that the strict requirements of “new and compelling” evidence will be met in a way to satisfy the court. Also, being the first case under the new legislation, there’s no knowing how long such a case may take before resolution.
Meanwhile, as Sue comes to the end of seven years in jail with the prospect of 16 more if her new appeal is not successful, she struggles to maintain a hopeful attitude while separated from her loving family and young grandchildren. One way she does this is by trying to divert her attention from herself as she reaches out to help other women who are in Risdon prison for much shorter terms than hers.
In her recent book “Jail Birds” well-known Australian non-fiction crime writer Robin Bowles devotes a substantial chapter to Susan Neill-Fraser’s case. She also covers the NSW case of Roseanne Beckett (also known as Catt) who spent 10 years in prison before she was finally exonerated when a court accepted that the charges against her, including plotting to have her husband Barry Catt killed, were the result of the corrupt behaviour of a senior police officer in collusion with others.
Years after being cleared, Roseanne was awarded substantial compensation; including costs a final bill of millions of dollars had to be met by the taxpayers of NSW for that shocking miscarriage of justice. Robin Bowles observed wryly that “Roseanne’s struggle for vindication had only taken 26 years”.
*Jennie Herrera: This article was passed to me after the vigil for the 7th anniversary of Sue’s incarceration last Saturday (August 20th) and I feel it’s worth sharing with Tassie Times readers. I’d like to point out that I haven’t read “Jail Birds” myself and I personally believe that Sue is innocent.