Wrongful Convictions in Australia

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Our criminal justice system has been centuries in the making.

Generation after generation has taken pride in the safeguards that our system provides to minimise the chance of innocent people being convicted of crimes, with English jurist William Blackstone famously declaring in 1765 that it is “better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer.”

But unfortunately, our justice system does get it wrong, and innocent people spend lengthy periods in prison as a result, or worse.

With safeguards like the ‘right to silence’ and ‘presumption of innocence’ being eroded in recent years – and given the dangers posed by laws that prevent the defence from accessing evidence in certain types of cases (eg terrorism and sexual assault cases) and in light of the dangers posed by civil incursions like the new meta-data laws – we can expect there to be many more wrongful convictions in the future.

Here are five of the most famous examples of wrongful convictions in Australia.

1. Ronald Ryan

Ronald Ryan was the last person to be executed in Australia.

He had a troubled childhood, and his run-ins with the law ultimately landed him behind bars.

On the fateful day of December 19, 1965 Ryan and his fellow inmate Peter John Walker attempted to escape from prison.

It was during the attempt that prison guard George Hodgson was shot and killed.

Over a dozen witnesses swore at Ryan’s trial that they saw him fire the fatal shot – and he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Ryan was hanged in Pentridge Prison, Victoria on 3 February 1967.

There was always doubt about the identity of the person who shot the hapless prison guard. Two other guards admitted firing several shots, and in 2007, fellow escapee Walker admitted that it would have been impossible for Ryan to have shot the guard because his rifle had jammed.

Ryan’s death was the turning point in Australian attitudes towards the death penalty.

2. Andrew Mallard

Imagine spending 12 years in prison for a crime you did not commit.

This was the reality for Andrew Mallard, who was convicted of killing Perth woman Pamela Lawrence.

Ms Lawrence was violently bludgeoned to death in 1994 in her Mosman Park jewellery shop.

Mallard quickly became a police suspect – but it was later shown that police had withheld vital evidence from Mallard’s criminal defence lawyers during the trial, and that he had in fact been framed for the crime.

During a thorough investigation into the mishandling of the investigation, multiple adverse findings were handed-down against two of Western Australia’s most prominent police officers.

Journalist Colleen Egan had been closely following the trial when it occurred, and came to the view that it was obvious that a miscarriage of justice had occurred.

Her persistence eventually convinced Shadow Attorney General John Quigley to push for the conviction to be challenged, and the analysis of forensic evidence linked the crime to a man who was serving time in prison for the murder of his girlfriend.

Mallard’s convictions was ultimately quashed in 2006.

Mallard should never have been behind bars in the first place, and he still suffers from the torment of being wrongfully convicted and spending 12 years incarcerated.

Understandably, he says that he will never fully recover from the ordeal.

3. The Mickelberg brothers

It was 1982, and the Perth Mint had just been robbed – $650,000 worth of gold bullion being taken.

Ray, Peter and Brian Mickelberg were arrested and charged just weeks later. They were convicted of the crime and imprisoned – Peter spent eight years in prison and Ray spent six.

It wasn’t until 20 years later, in 2002, that one of the arresting police officers, Tony Lewandowski, admitted that he and another officer had framed the brothers, and stripped and beaten Peter Mickelberg whilst in custody. By that time, Brian had already passed away.

Lewandowski committed suicide two years later. But even after the brothers released from prison, attempts to re-implicate them did not stop.

A large amount of gold bullion was dumped at Channel Seven’s Perth Network right after Peter’s release, although investigations showed that the gold was from South Africa and totally unrelated to the case. Speculation is rife as to the identity of those who dumped the gold in a desperate attempt to incriminate the him.

All three convictions were quashed in 2004. The remaining brothers were offered $500,000 each by the state, but that offer hardly begins to cover what they went through, or what they lost.

The brothers wanted the compensation to come directly from the police officers involved and not the taxpayer, but realised that individual officers can get away with a lot more than they should.

4. Lindy and Michael Chamberlain

Perhaps the most wrongful convictions were those of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, whose baby Azaria disappeared near Ayers Rock during a family holiday.

Lindy Chamberlain was convicted of murder in 1982, and her husband Michael was convicted of being an accessory.

Lindy always maintained her innocence, insisting that “a dingo took my baby”. She was nevertheless found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, while Michael was given an 18 month suspended sentence.

But this investigation was poorly conducted. One of the most glaring errors was the alleged “blood” found in the Chamberlain’s car, which turned out to be a sound-proofing compound that had been applied at the time of manufacture.

The police investigation had ignored vital other evidence, such as the observations of other campers and dingo tracks surrounding the tent where little Azaria was snatched.

But it was not until Azaria’s matinee jacket was found during a search for a lost hiker in a dingo lair that serious questions were raised about the reliability of the convictions.

Lindy was released from prison in 1986 and the couple was acquitted in 1988.

Unfortunately, their marriage did not last under the immense strain caused by losing a child, the public scrutiny and the prosecution, conviction and sentencing – and the couple divorced in 1991.

5. John Button

John Button was unfortunate enough to be convicted and imprisoned for a murder, even after the real killer had confessed.

Button was just 19 years old in 1963, celebrating his birthday with his parents and 17-year-old girlfriend Rosemary Anderson. But his girlfriend left the house after the couple had a fight.

As he had done in the past following an argument, Button followed Anderson in his car as she walked away, trying to persuade her to return.

Thinking he would give her some time to calm down, Button pulled over, had a cigarette and then continued driving. But when he later approached, he saw Anderson lying by the side of the road. He grabbed and took her to the family doctor who lived just minutes away. She tragically died just hours later and, naturally, suspicion fell on Button.

It didn’t help that Button had crashed his car not long before the fateful evening, and the scratches led police to believe that he had run Anderson down.

Serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke confessed several murders before his death, including the murder of Anderson. But despite the confession, Button was convicted and spent five years in prison.

Button was allowed to appeal his conviction 37 years after the murder occurred, and it was finally overturned in 2002, when he was 56 years old.

He never had the opportunity to learn a trade, seek further education or have a job. After finally being acquitted, Button joined the Innocence Project in Western Australia to help exonerate others who have been wrongly convicted.

These are just five stories of those who have had the misfortune of being wrongfully convicted.

Sadly, there are unquestionably many others currently spending time in prison that have not been fortunate enough to have a journalist push for the re-examination of forensic evidence, or a killer come forward to confess to the crime, or a corrupt police officer finally admit his wrongdoing.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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