One of Australia’s longest, costliest and controversial criminal investigations has come to a spectacular end. And not in anything approaching a good way.
There are no winners here. A man has spent 19 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. A police force and a prosecutor’s office have been left embarrassed and humiliated and a family is wondering if it will ever receive justice.
This story begins in Canberra in 1989 with Colin Winchester the then Chief Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police.
The AFP in some ways could be said to be the Australian equivalent of the American FBI. It is a law enforcement body responsible for the investigation of major crimes like terrorism, organised crime and major drug importations. Winchester is on a day off and returning home after visiting his brother. He lives in a Canberra suburb and his next-door neighbour is a widow who lives alone. She has asked him if he wouldn’t mind parking his car in her driveway. Being a good neighbour, Winchester obliges. He parks the car and as he is exiting a gunman comes up behind him and fires into the back of his head. The first shot is fatal. Winchester is shot a second time through the right cheek, just to make sure. It was brazen and brutal. This was a cold-blooded assassination that shocked the entire country.
As you might expect a crime of this magnitude enraged the AFP.
It quickly established a task force to investigate the murder and the investigating officers were left in no doubt they needed to solve this crime quickly and for the assassin or assassins to be brought to justice. It wasn’t long before they focused on the perfect suspect. A middle-aged public servant with mental problems who’d made death threats against Winchester. He was the perfect fit. The AFP determined the murder weapon to be a Ruger rifle. And they make a major breakthrough in the case. A witness identifies their main suspect, as having bought the murder weapon. Mind you it took the witness six months to come forward. And when a forensic scientist matches gunshot residue from the murder scene to residue found in the boot of the suspect’s car it was game set and match. There was a trial, a guilty verdict and a sentence of life imprisonment and that should have been the end of the matter. Except nothing was as it seemed.
Cut to 19 years later, and an independent inquiry headed by a senior judge has found that the evidence used to convict the prime suspect was dodgy to say the least. The forensic evidence, and the scientist who gathered it, have been totally discredited. The Prosecution should have disclosed information in discovery that would have assisted the defence case and in all probability resulted in an acquittal. But it was withheld. The upshot is that the conviction has been quashed and the suspect is now a free man albeit on bail. A new trial was ordered but that is easier said than done.
The only evidence against the suspect has been discredited. Witnesses have died. How he can now get any kind of trial, let alone a fair one, is beyond me. If the trial fails to proceed the suspect will be entitled to millions of dollars for a wrongful conviction.
The Australian Federal Police have been made to look foolish. There was a hot, alternative line of inquiry that they never followed. A witness came forward to say that Winchester had been murdered in a mafia hit. The Chief Commissioner had disrupted a major drug operation and the mafia who thought they had paid off a corrupt member of the Federal Police suddenly discovered they’d been double-crossed. They had the motive and could easily have hired an overseas triggerman to do the job. But now that the case against their number one suspect has collapsed, it will be interesting to see if the Federal Police follow this line of inquiry.
By taking a one-dimensional blinkered view of the case they have failed the Winchester family. And it has meant that the real killer has very likely got away with murder.