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Shadow of Doubt is the latest documentary from Melbourne filmmaker Eve Ash; she wanted to understand why a jury would be convinced beyond reasonable doubt that Hobart grandmother Sue Neill-Fraser was guilty of her partner’s murder, when there was so much doubt. On the eve of the film’s release, Ash talks to Andrew L. Urban.

Don’t bother trying to get tickets for the premiere screening of Shadow of Doubt at Hobart’s State Cinema on July 31, 2013 – they sold out almost immediately it was announced. But there will be more screenings – and Eve Ash’s cool-headed, forensically precise doco about a hot issue of Tasmanian justice – or injustice - is also the main event on FOXTELS’s Ci channel the same night (with repeat screenings through August).

In 2010 Susan Neill-Fraser, a Tasmanian grandmother was jailed for 26 years for killing her partner Bob Chappell on Australia Day 2009, on board their yacht, Four Winds, anchored in Sandy Bay. There were no witnesses, no weapon, no forensic evidence linking her to the scene, no confession and Chappell's body has never been found. The police focused on one suspect - Neill-Fraser. Why was a jury convinced beyond reasonable doubt? Her family tries to 'prove' she is innocent. The documentary shows how the more they investigate the more they uncover flawed assumptions, inaccuracies and misrepresentation.  

The story landed in Ash’s lap. “Sue's son-in-law, Mark Bowles used to work with me for years,” she says, “after starting out doing work experience back in the 90s. I was always impressed by his integrity, wisdom, values and his annual volunteering at Legacy camps. His girlfriend Sarah was also impressive and a great match for Mark – they married and moved to Tasmania to be closer to her family.

“On 22 February 2009 I was at my grandson’s first birthday, along with my newly discovered (biological) father - an amazing family secret about which I was making a documentary. Mark called to say Sarah’s step-father Bob (Sue’s partner) had disappeared off a yacht on Australia Day, and was believed murdered. I was horrified.” 

"arrested for his murder"

When Bowles rang again sometime later to tell Ash in disbelief that Bob’s partner Sue had been arrested for his murder, “I just said straight away, ‘we have to make a film’. But I thought it would be just a story of how she was arrested and then the investigation would show she was not a suspect…. And even when it got to the point of going to trial, which was bad enough, I never thought she’d be found guilty.”

Ash says that “Bob’s side of the family, who believed Sue was guilty, had cut ties and I didn’t want to cause them any further upset. And the police refused any interviews over the period of the appeals. Finally after almost two years I was granted an interview with the Police Inspector (Peter Powell) who headed the case, enabling me to have the balance needed to tell the story.”

Ash continued filming, paying for it out of her own pocket. When she approached FOXTEL with the doco, “they were fabulous. I bow to them for their incredible support and for caring. They were fantastic.”

Jim Buchan, GM of Factual Channels at FOXTEL, says Ash was “very persuasive and passionate about this project when she pitched it, it was like a quest… and the subject matter coincides with a rising tide of interest among our audience who are increasingly concerned about the operations of our justice system; they want to know how these decisions are made. Especially in a case like this where the convicted woman’s sentence is longer than most serial rapists and killers get … and 10 years more than the mother who murdered her own daughter.”

But Buchan says FOXTEL is careful not to promote any views “about who is right or wrong” when marketing the film.

"a lever for making a difference"

Superbly crafted in all departments, Shadow of Doubt shows the power of filmmaking as a lever for making a difference.

Hobart’s State Cinema wouldn’t normally run a movie that was to screen on TV (free to air or FOXTEL) “but because this is a Hobart story they agreed to see how it went.”

Cinema manager John Kelly says the inaugural screening sold out within two days, “just on word of mouth. We haven’t advertised it. “It’s a big local story and it’s very controversial; it has polarised the community.”

Kelly says he is probably fairly typical of locals in that he “had a bit of faith in the system … but the film presents a lot of evidence that the casual observer would be unaware of. I expect the film to have a huge impact here, and we’ll run a season of it – as long as people want it.”

Detective Inspector Peter Powell was invited to the cinema screening but declined, says Ash, preferring to watch it at home. Powell was in charge of Hobart Criminal Investigation Branch in 2009. He headed up the police investigation although never testified in court during the trial. If this were a drama movie, he’d be one of the two main baddies, the other being Tasmania’s DPP, Tim Ellis SC, who pushed the prosecution’s case.

(Ellis now faces a wait of weeks to know whether he will himself face criminal charges over a fatal road accident at 6.15pm on Sunday, March 24, 2013, when a 27 year old Launceston woman died instantly. Police confirmed to The Hobart Mercury that “witnesses had reported a blue 2011 Mercedes sedan understood to be driven by Mr Ellis was on the wrong side of double white lines before the head-on collision.”)

"the most challenging and rewarding production"

Shadow Of Doubt is “the most challenging and rewarding production” of Ash’s career. She has spent four years “talking with the family, studying legal and police documents, and building a film story that suggests a possible wrongful conviction and miscarriage of justice in Australia.”

After viewing Shadow of Doubt, the CEO of Civil Liberties Australia, Bill Rowlings OAM, remarked: “Police filter the truth. Forensic science is abused. The prosecutor invents a murder weapon, and the judge agrees. A miscarriage of justice so blatant you won't believe it possible in 21st Century Australia.”

Eminent QC Robert Richter is likewise concerned and says “If half of what is alleged [in the film] is well founded, this case requires a full judicial inquiry into the investigation and prosecution of the case.”

Dr Robert N. Moles, retired professor of law, has investigated alleged miscarriages of justice for 30 years, and is the author of Forensic Investigations and Miscarriages of Justice, (Irwin Law, Toronto, 2010): “In the book, I set out the law on miscarriages of justice in Australia. I can say with confidence that the conviction of Sue Neil-Fraser does not comply with the Australian law on this topic.”

Bob Chappell

Published July 25, 2013

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Eve Ash
* Eve Ash is a psychologist, author and filmmaker. She is the founder of Seven Dimensions (7d-tv.com), a world leader in the production of communication and business films. Eve has been a national winner Telstra Businesswoman of the Year – Business Owner, and in the 2000 Australian Businesswomen’s Hall of Fame.


Shadow of Doubt, screens 8.30pm Hobart State Cinema & 7.30pm Ci Network, FOXTEL, from July 31, 2013

Sue Neill-Fraser on the day of the disappearance of her partner, Bob Chappell, from their yacht, Four Winds, anchored in Sandy Bay, Hobart

An online petition to the Attorney-General and Parliament of Tasmania has been started

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