Much has been written in Tasmanian Times on the Susan Neill-Fraser case; both articles and comments on the articles: is she guilty or innocent? There has been persuasive and angry argument going backwards and forwards, some of it quoting from the Transcript of the Trial.
I’m not sure how much the arguments have influenced people’s opinion from either side: each side believing their argument to be compelling, neither side giving ground. I do not want to comment on the legal or forensic issues this time, simply speak from the heart as a spectator who sat through the trial and occasionally visits Sue in prison; this is more about feelings, than facts.
Unlike the trial judge, I do not believe Sue is ‘clever’; I believe she has been naive and foolish. Much of her naivety persuades me of her innocence. Would a person who had killed someone give eight hours of interview, over two sessions, to a group of detectives at a police station, and twice decline the presence of a lawyer? I imagine most killers would not say anything until their lawyer arrived.
In watching the record of these interviews in court, to me, Sue’s demeanour and body language seemed to be saying, “Let’s get on with this interview. Why would I need a lawyer when I can tell you nothing about what’s happened to Bob. I am innocent; just give me time to answer your questions and you will understand that I am not a ‘person of interest’.
Rather, Sue is wanting the police to be able to tell her what happened. She is wanting answers - where is Bob? What has happened to Bob? She did not figure out, until it was too late that, in the minds of the police, she might be the answer!
Her co-operation with the police is probably two-fold: to remove herself from the frame, but also to help the police with their investigation. She wants to know what really happened to Bob. First question: is he alive or dead? She is a woman distraught and in grief and on medication. She does her best to answer the questions and answer frankly. Unfortunately, in doing so, she shoots herself in the foot and has some of her answers turned against her.
Sue must have given the police an honest account of her movements during the day. It seems, after breakfast, she went out with Bob to the Four Winds . She came in at lunch time to have lunch with Bob’s sister at the Yacht Club, then returned around 2 o’clock to rejoin Bob. Bob was working on the electrical panel and it appears Sue was in his way and he snapped at her. She told the police that he was ‘‘snapping at me like a crocodile”, or something to that effect. The sort of exchange of words, many of us would call a ‘tiff’. But the question I have is, “If I had killed a person, would I tell the police that, just before the person disappeared, he was “snapping at me like a crocodile”? I think not; I would be making out that all was ‘lovey-dovey’ between the two of us.
Equally, in a telephone conversation to Bob’s sister, Sue admits she told a lie to the police. Some would call it ‘a white lie’ because she was trying to protect a step-daughter. She felt safe telling Bob’s sister because she would understand what Sue was doing and why. “Off the record” she confessed her ‘lie’ to an ABC journalist who then told Detective Inspector Peter Powell. My question is: “If I had killed someone, would I tell that person’s sister I was near the scene of the crime?”; worse still, would I tell a journalist? Such trust in other people, I call ‘naivety and foolishness’. It supports ‘innocence’ to me.
During the interview, Sue was told that a Crown witness had made a statement about a plan, involving himself, to throw her brother overboard from a previous, smaller yacht years ago. When told this In the interview, Sue looked stunned and puzzled, trying to sort out what the question meant, and after an initial hesitation, in a bewildered voice, asked, “Who? Patrick?” with a quizzical upward inflection of ‘Patrick’. In court, it suggested to me that the statement of the Crown’s witness was baloney. I felt, at the same time, that the police were not very good at reading ‘body language’. Perhaps that is why Inspector Powell had to say that Sue was ‘manipulative’.
As the months wore on, I believe Sue became aware that the police were becoming more hostile towards her and biased against her. She felt they had made up their minds and only wanted information that confirmed their premise. She turned to the Ombudsman for help but he did not have the authority to interfere with the police and advised her to write a letter to the Police Commissioner. Proper advice but not good advice. Had she discussed this with a lawyer, he would undoubtedly have advised against doing this. But she didn’t; she wrote to the Commissioner asking that another officer, unconnected with her case, review the whole procedure. I believe Inspector Powell was asked to review her case and she was arrested and charged soon after.
When I visited Sue in prison, on remand, her words to me about being put on trial were, “Bring it on”. Having lost faith in the police, she had absolute faith that the courts would get it right; they would recognise the poor police investigation for what it was. But her faith in the courts proved misplaced - Supreme, Appeal, the High Court (in refusing her application for an appeal) and finally, the Coroner’s Court - all let her down. The rule of law and the formalities of a court room seemed to override a quest for the truth. Sitting in court, often the room felt more like a gladiatorial spectacle than a place of justice.
I was agog when the prosecutor drew a picture of Sue sailing off into the sunset with someone other than Bob. The basis for this picture must have been the fact that Sue had been on the computer viewing exotic places such as the Galapagos Islands. All this said to me was, as Bob Chappell’s sister, Anne, married a man from Ecuador, and the Galapagos Islands are part of Ecuador, they were planning to visit his sister and brother-in-law. The question is, had Sue been planning to kill her partner, would she simultaneously be planning to visit Bob’s sister with a new boyfriend?
There is a photograph of Sue standing outside the Royal Tasmanian Yacht Club after having lunch with Bob Chappell’s sister, Anne. When I look at Sue in that photo, I find it impossible to think I am looking at a person who plans, in a few hours, to return to a yacht and murder her partner.
My last question is, with no body, no weapon, no eye witness and no plausible motive, how could any jury find Susan Neill-Fraser guilty BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT?