Criminal Law

By Satomi Hamon


Wrongful Conviction: Australia’s ‘fair’ share

Since its premier in December 2015, popular documentary –  Making a Murderer, has sparked international concern for miscarriages of justice.

The documentary follows the story of convicted murderers Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. After watching the documentary, many people were convinced that the men were wrongfully convicted, and various petitions were signed rallying for their release. In August of this year, Brendan Dassey had his conviction overturned.

Australian viewers were shocked and outraged over the workings of the, far from fair, American legal system and were left to wonder, “Could that happen here?”

The answer is: yes.

Australia’s most infamous wrongful conviction case to date would be that of Lindy Chamberlain, who was wrongfully convicted of murdering her daughter and spent four years in prison before her conviction was overturned.

In 1992, Chamberlain received $1.3 million in compensation.

A short while later in 1994, David Eastman was convicted of shooting and killing ACT police chief, Colin Winchester, and spent 19 years behind bars before his conviction was quashed in 2014. Eastman may be facing retrial in the near future.

High profile cases such as these, call into consideration all of the factors that lead to a wrongful conviction. The most common of these factors have been identified by the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal organisation, as being:

  • eyewitness misidentification;
  • invalidated or improper forensic science;
  • false confessions / admissions;
  • government misconduct;
  • informants or snitches; and
  • bad lawyering.

All but the fifth of these played a significant role in the wrongful conviction of Eastman.  In addition, Eastman was, at times, not legally represented at all.

In Australia, very few avenues exist for individuals who are wrongfully convicted to seek redress. As an exceptionally intelligent and resilient man, Eastman repeatedly challenged his murder conviction until he had exhausted every appeal avenue. Unfortunately, most defendants lack the resources or skills to do this and would have given up long before Eastman finally had his conviction quashed.

David Hamer, the author of several publications on miscarriages of justice, estimates that, “In Australia, we would expect about 350 convictions a year to be factually wrong or left uncorrected by appeal.”

Wrongful convictions do happen in Australia and, under the current system, convicted defendants face extreme difficulties in persuading criminal justice authorities to examine the correctness of a conviction.

If you are charged with an offence, it is extremely important to contact an experienced criminal defence lawyer in order to achieve the best outcome possible.