Roseanne Beckett spent an unimaginable decade in prison for crimes she did not commit.
Ms Beckett was accused of soliciting others to kill her husband, Barry Catt, as well as attempting to poison him with lithium. She was also charged with assaulting her husband, wounding him, perjury and drug possession.
She was convicted and sent to prison in 1991, where she spent a full 10 years.
While in prison, she was subjected to bashings and other forms of abuse, and it wasn’t until 2005 that her conviction was quashed. In light of the court’s damning findings, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) decided that it would not pursue a retrial.
But how could an innocent woman spend a decade of her life behind bars for crimes she never committed?
The injustice was not put down to missing evidence, the unavailability of DNA technology or a less-than-competent defence lawyer.
Rather, the court found that a police officer, Detective Sergeant Peter Thomas, had a personal vendetta against Ms Beckett. The proceedings revealed that the officer made advances towards Ms Beckett, which she refused. Ms Beckett lodged complaints about the officer’s inappropriate conduct, which sparked the officer’s relentless pursuit of the bereaved woman, including the planting of a gun in her bedroom.
These revelations led to her convictions being quashed. But when she wanted to sue for malicious prosecution, Ms Beckett found out that this would not only involve her establishing that the prosecution was malicious, but proving that she was completely innocent – which can be practically impossible so long after an event.
Ms Beckett fought this archaic rule in court– arguing against the 91-year-old notion that she must present evidence to prove her innocence in order to receive compensation. And just this week, the NSW Supreme Court released its judgment. Justice Harrison decided in Ms Beckett’s favour, awarding her $2,310,350 plus interest and legal costs.
In his judgment, the Judge had the following to say about Detective Sergeant Thomas’ character:
“One of the strands running through Ms Beckett’s case had been that Detective Thomas was a corrupt bully who intimidated witnesses with a view to getting them to give evidence or not as the case may be, or to change their story if it did not suit Detective Thomas’ aims or interests…Each of the people [who gave evidence] had a story to tell about Detective Thomas and the often extraordinary and overbearing methods he used when dealing with people.”
Thomas was not alive to hear the judge’s damning words, as he passed away last year.
And at the end of the day, the taxpayer will foot the bill for the Detective’s reprehensible, criminal behaviour – as is always the way with corrupt police and prosecution misconduct. Detective Thomas must have been overjoyed at getting the bereaved woman who rejected him put behind bars for a decade, consequence-free.
Despite her harrowing ordeal, Ms Beckett expressed relief that the right result finally prevailed, but no amount of money could ever bring back her years of loss and suffering. She says of the prosecution:
“They are monsters. They have dragged me through hell, court after court, costing the taxpayer… Peter Thomas had his own legal team. My legal team, my bills are enormous, many millions. Thomas paid not a cent because he had the crown at his fingertips and that is so wrong.”
The Prosecution’s Role
Many believe that the job of Australian prosecutors is to fight for a conviction – as is often the case with “district attorneys” in the United States. And some Australian prosecutors do indeed have a “win at all costs” attitude.
But according to our law, the prosecutor’s duty is not to secure a conviction, but to “fairly assist the court to arrive at the truth, and seek impartially to have the whole of the relevant evidence placed intelligibly before the court.”
Indeed, it is quite clear that prosecutors should not aim to obtain a conviction at any cost, or to have notions of ‘winning’ and ‘losing’.
Prosecutors are not meant to pick and choose which relevant evidence to present, which witnesses to call, or other decisions that would give them a similar forensic advantage. All relevant evidence is meant to be presented at court, favourable or otherwise. And the prosecution is required serve the defence with all evidence that is favourable to the accused person – including that which would tend to prove his or her innocence.
All in all, far from pushing for a conviction in every case, the prosecutor’s job is to impartially present all of the relevant evidence – and they should actively prevent individual police officers or the police force generally from using the courts as a vehicle for personal vendettas.
Sadly, the current practice in NSW – especially in the Local Courts – is that individual police officers (especially ‘officers in charge’) have enormous power when it comes to choosing which prosecutions to pursue, how they are pursued, which evidence is gathered and what is given to prosecutors. Indeed, prosecutors in court will often ‘take the instructions’ of police officers and run cases in the way that the officers want them to be run, regardless of any unfairness.
Ms Beckett’s case is just one example of how easily the police can use their immense power and influence to put innocent people behind bars, even for the most heinous of crimes. In the words of Justice Harrison:
“Detective Thomas utilised the legal system in a way that did not secure justice but perverted it… [in an] act of vengeance” against Ms Beckett.