The Chris Dawson verdict – explained
25,000 people watched on this Wednesday, via the Supreme Court of NSW’s live stream, as Justice Ian Gordon Harrison returned a guilty verdict in the murder trial of Chris Dawson.
Over a five-hour period, Justice Harrison explained his reasons for convicting Dawson, elaborating on the culmination of circumstantial evidence that ultimately led his Honour to the conclusion that Lynette Dawson died on or about 8 January 1982, and was murdered by her husband, Chris Dawson.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock you would know that the missing persons case of Lynette Dawson most recently came into the public eye when a podcast from The Australian, titled The Teacher’s Pet, was released in 2018, amassing millions of listeners. The eminence of the case in the wake of the podcast shone further light on the matter, no doubt contributing to the decision to charge Dawson with murder. It also led to Dawson’s legal representatives successfully applying for a judge alone trial, after he was charged.
In his judgement in the afternoon of 30 August, Justice Harrison repeatedly commented on the unique nature of the case, reiterating the ‘entirely circumstantial’ evidence on which the Crown based their prosecution of Dawson. So how did the prosecution establish that Dawson was responsible for Lynette’s death with no body, no witnesses to the murder and no forensic evidence?
Conviction without a body is an unusual phenomenon. Yet, Australian law provides that a jury does not need a body to be convicted of murder, nor does the prosecution have to prove any circumstances of the death to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant murdered the victim.
The infamous Chamberlain ‘Dingo’ trial, was similarly decided on the basis of circumstantial evidence. Chief Justice Mason and Justice Gibbs of the The High Court stated,
“…the Crown does not bear the onus of solving all the mysteries that may have attended a crime, or of establishing in every detail how it was committed, provided that it is proved satisfactorily that the crime was committed, and that the accused committed it.”
Circumstantial cases can be quite complex. In short, a person cannot be convicted unless the Crown has excluded all reasonable hypotheses consistent with innocence. Circumstantial cases are often described as ‘strands in cable cases’ – the rationale being that many strands of wire (pieces of evidence) are only capable of proving a charge when taken together (the cable).
In recent Australian legal history, there have been several high profile “circumstantial” cases, which evidenced conviction without a body. The trial and conviction of Keli Lane in 2010 was a prominent example of the power of circumstantial evidence in establishing guilt. The Court of Criminal Appeal found that there was a sufficient lack of evidence to suggest that Lane had disposed of her newborn child lawfully, and ruled that she was guilty of her child, Teagan’s, murder.
In a similar vein, Justice Harrison established early in his judgement that there was insufficient evidence to suggest that Lynette Dawson would ‘abandon her family,’ as had been suggested by the defence. One by one, Justice Harrison rejected the ‘lies’ told by Dawson after his wife was murdered. Justice Harrison confirmed that Dawsons ‘lies’, were designed to ‘deflect all or any attention away’ from his involvement in the death.
Several witnesses in the trial were heard testifying to Dawson’s romantic relationship with a former student from Cromer High School, where he was a teacher in 1982, that he maintained before and after Lynette went missing.
The prosecution submitted that Dawson had murdered his wife in 1982, to better maintain an unfettered relationship with his young love interest, whom he later married. The defence further submitted a range of evidence surrounding sighting and calls received from Lynette. In his judgement, Justice Harrison resolved, ‘I’m satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Mr Dawson’s various representations that he spoke to Lynette Dawson by telephone on a call made to the Northbridge Baths on that day is a lie.’ Further, Justice Harrison concluded that no sightings of Lynette, or reports of use of her bank card were ‘legitimate’.
On his own admission, Justice Harrison stated, ‘None of the circumstances considered alone can establish Mr Dawson’s guilt.’ On this basis, he considered the culmination of evidence (all the strands in the cable) in deciding that “the only rational inference [is that] Lynette Dawson died on or about 8 January 1982 as a result of a conscious or voluntary act committed by Christopher Dawson.”
One reason for Justice Harrison’s lengthy judgement was likely to prevent an appeal from the defence, by covering every ground on which he made his judgement. Defence counsel, Greg Walsh, has already made clear his intentions to appeal, as many grounds for appeal ‘come to mind’.
Whilst it is not exactly clear on what grounds the defence will appeal, Mr Dawson remains adamant of his innocence. Over the last two days, Mr Dawson is alleged to have been subject to ‘constant threats’ from fellow prisoners and appears to be ‘still in shock’ as Mr Walsh told the press.
For now, the public will have to wait to see the next step in the 40 year long mystery of Lynette Dawson’s disappearance and murder.