The key witness in the appeal of Susan Neill-Fraser has been relieved of giving further evidence after the convicted murderer’s lawyers conceded her evidence “cannot support the notion of fresh and compelling evidence”.
Neill-Fraser is serving a 23-year sentence for the murder of her partner Bob Chappell aboard his yacht on the River Derwent off Sandy Bay in 2009.
In 2019 she was granted leave to appeal after a Supreme Court judge found she had fresh and compelling evidence.
The court heard on Monday:
- The DNA of Meaghan Vass, who was aged 15 and homeless at the time of Mr Chappell’s murder, was found on the yacht, the Four Winds;
- During Neill-Fraser’s trial, Ms Vass told the court she had never been on the Four Winds and she had no idea how her DNA could have come to have been on the yacht;
- She has changed her story several times over the years, sometimes sticking with what she said in the trial, and other times saying she had been on the yacht with some men.
On Monday, she told the Court of Criminal Appeal she had been on the yacht that night with her partner and two other men.
She said the men had decided to rob the Four Winds, although she could not say why they had decided to travel to the Hobart suburb of Sandy Bay or why they had chosen that particular yacht.
She said they found Mr Chappell on board, and that he told them “to get off”
Ms Vass told the court one of the men started “flipping out” and the fight turned violent.
During cross-examination on Tuesday, Ms Vass once again appeared emotionally distressed as she began to recant her story.
“I’m leaving before lunch,” she said when her video link first connected.
Ms Vass then told the court there were only two men on the boat with her and that she had “made a mistake” on Monday when she said there was a third.
Director of Public Prosecutions Daryl Coates showed her a transcript of an interview she gave to 60 Minutes in 2019.
He pointed out that she had told the program it was just her and one other man on the boat.
Ms Vass agreed that had been the case, saying there was no second man.
When Mr Coates put it to her that she had never been on the boat at all, she agreed.
He then asked: “You can’t remember being on that boat, can you?”
“No,” Ms Vass said.
Lead counsel for Neill-Fraser, Robert Richter, told the court on Monday Ms Vass was their key witness.
“She’s our case,” he said.
After almost two hours of cross-examination on Tuesday, Mr Richter told the court he wanted to relieve Ms Vass and abandon her evidence, with the exception of the DNA that was found on the yacht.
“We are in a situation which we concede cannot support the notion of fresh and compelling evidence leading to miscarriage of justice,” he said.
He said he did “not want to disturb the possibility” of the DNA being considered evidence of Ms Vass being on the yacht.
It means the appeal will no longer rely on Ms Vass’s oral evidence.
The next witness will give evidence around the DNA.
The court has been adjourned until Wednesday.