New legislation is set to be introduced in New South Wales Parliament in coming days, which would prohibit the release on parole of those convicted of murder who refuse, fail or are otherwise unable to provide authorities with assistance in locating the deceased’s body.
Conviction of Chris Dawson
Known colloquially as “no body, no parole”, the proposal comes in the wake of former school teacher Chris Dawson being found guilty of murdering his wife Lyn 40 years after she disappeared.
Mr Dawson was convicted by Justice Ian Harrison last month in a judge-alone trial, bringing to an end in the absence of an appeal against conviction to one of Australia’s most intriguing crime mysteries. Mr Dawson is yet to be sentenced.
The case has been heavily reported in the mainstream media, been the subject of several books and a popular podcast.
For decades, Mr Dawson has vehemently maintained his innocence – asserting that wife disappeared in 1982. Suspicions were raised when he moved his girlfriend, a young school student, into the family home, just days after his wife went missing.
The matter led to two separate coronial inquests, both of which concluded that Lyn was murdered and recommended that criminal charges be brought against Mr Dawson.
At the time, the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions determined there was insufficient evidence to ground a criminal prosecution.
The cold case was reopened in 2018 on the strength of new evidence, and Mr Dawson was extradited from Queensland to face a charge of murder.
Justice Ian Harrison ultimately found that he was satisfied the mother-of-two died on or about 8 January, 1982 and “did not voluntarily abandon her home”.
Lyn’s family immediately made a plea to Mr Dawson to reveal the location of Lyn’s body, and thereby give them some sense of closure.
Around the same time, a petition for “Lyn’s law” was launched by the Dawson family’s former family babysitter, who had an intimate relationship with Mr Dawson at the time of Lyn’s disappearance.
The petition received almost 30,000 signatures in a week.
Now, the NSW State Government is set to introduce laws which will mean that convicted murderers will be denied parole unless they provide information or assistance to locate the deceased’s remains.
The new laws will reportedly affect about half a dozen people convicted of murder in our state. One of objectives of the proposed law is to motivate these people to provide information on the whereabouts of the remains of the deceased – thereby providing much-needed closure to their families.
If passed, the laws will mean that the State Parole Authority (SPA) will be prohibited from granting parole until and unless it concludes the inmate has co-operated satisfactorily in identifying the victim’s location.
The SPA will rely on written advice from the police commissioner as well as any other relevant information to determine whether the inmate has cooperated satisfactorily to identify the location of the body.
“No body, no parole” laws already exist in Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria and the Northern Territory.
The New South Wales Government began debating the laws in 2016, but has now publicly stated its commitment to passing them.
While little detail is available about the reforms, the NSW Government has stated that reform will be modelled on existing laws in other states.
Queensland laws passed in 2017, for example, apply to a number of criminal offences – not only murder. These laws include manslaughter, conspiracy to murder, accessory after the fact to murder and unlawful striking causing death.
They were introduced after a Queensland Parole System Review recommended their implementation, determining that ‘…such a measure is consistent with the retributive element of punishment,’ and that ‘punishment is lacking in retribution, and the community would be right to feel indignation, if a convicted killer could expect to be released without telling what he did with the body of the victim.’
In Queensland, the assessment of whether a person convicted of a crime where the deceased’s body has not been located takes into account, ‘the nature, extent and timeliness’ of the prisoner’s cooperation – whether the prisoner provided cooperation before or after being convicted and sentenced to imprisonment, along with the truthfulness, completeness and reliability’ of any information or evidence provided.
The wrongly convicted
But what about those who are wrongly convicted, or who for any other reason are unable to provide sufficient information about locating the body?
Indeed, there are many examples of people being wrongly convicted of murder across Australia – from Lindy Chamberlain, to the Mickelberg brothers, Andrew Mallard, Ronald Ryan, John Button, the list goes on and on.
And this is in the absence of a sufficiently resourced innocence project – many of which exist in the United States – or independent criminal cases review commission, which exists in the United Kingdom.
In the United States, a nation with far better safeguards against the admission of tenuous evidence than Australia – hundreds of people convicted of murder have subsequently been exonerated on new DNA evidence alone.
Many of these people were convicted on circumstantial evidence alone – like all of those listed above, as well as Mr Dawson.
In fact, not only do Australian courts allow the admission of tenuous and often unfairly prejudicial evidence – including tendency, coincidence and illegally obtained evidence – far more readily than those in countries like the US, but Australia lacks sufficient review mechanisms for those wrongly convicted.
So, what of convicted people who are in fact innocent? Or those who, for mental health or other reasons, do not have information that is of suffcient assistance in locating a body?
This is something often ignored by those calling for these types of punitive laws.
It should also be borne in mind that in New South Wales, a grant of parole comes with many conditions – it is not simply a case of releasing a person into the community without supervision and many other rules.
It should also be borne in mind that there are no reported cases of ‘no body, no parole’ laws in other jurisdictions actually being effective; in other words, leading any one to ‘reveal’ the location of a body.
On the balance, it appears that such laws are ineffective and have the potential to cause further injustice to those who have already been unjustly dealt with by the criminal justice system.
If the proposed law is in fact passed, it is hoped the requirements it will at the very least contain safeguards to ensure those who have been wrongly convicted have some chance of achieving a semblance of justice.