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Wheels of justice continue to grind in David Eastman case

Date

Richard Ackland

David Eastman was a familiar figure on the Canberra landscape decades ago. 

Politicians, public servants, journalists and lawyers have all been subject to his trademark persistence and anger. 

His father was an Australian diplomat for many years and Eastman also joined the public service and wound up in the Treasury, but his interests ranged well beyond the chilly confines of the exchequer. 

I think most were surprised when he was found guilty in 1995 of shooting and killing the assistant ACT police commissioner, Colin Winchester. 

He was sentenced to life imprisonment and for the past 19 years has been in the clink. 

Winchester was the most senior police officer to have been killed in this country and his name lives on at the Winchester Police Centre in Belconnen. 

Eastman was certainly a volcanic character, but shooting a senior copper over some grievance about the police seemed a step too far. 

In any event, Eastman has made numerous appeals against his conviction and launched ancillary applications before the High Court. 

His trial lasted five-and-a-half months, with Michael Adams prosecuting, now Justice Adams of the NSW Supreme Court. For part of the trial Eastman represented himself. 

There has also been a tangled history of inquiries into his conviction. 

In June 2000 ACT Chief Justice Jeffrey Miles rejected Eastman's first application for an inquiry under the Crimes Act. 

In May 2001, the prisoner made a second application and this time the chief justice ordered an inquiry into his fitness to plead. The DPP successfully challenged the order, but the High Court later reinstated the CJ's original decision.

In February 2005 Eastman again applied to the Supreme Court under new provisions in the Crimes Act. In October that year Miles published his findings from the 2001 inquiry, finding that Eastman was fit to plead. 

In April 2008 Justice Anthony Besanko declined to order a new inquiry that had been the subject of Eastman's 2005 application. The prisoner applied unsuccessfully for a judicial review of that decision. 

In April 2011, there was a fourth application, but Justice Shane Marshall found that there cannot be another inquiry because to have one would not fulfil one of the conditions in the Crimes Act, namely that there had been no previous application relating to a doubtful conviction.

In July 2012 the Full Court of the ACT found that Marshall has misconstrued the Crimes Act and ordered him to reconsider the application. 

In August that year Marshall ordered an inquiry, saying that he is "skipping" the provision that sought to prohibit new inquiries where previous applications had failed. 

In July 2013 Acting Justice Brian Martin, the former chief justice of the Northern Territory, and the judge who presided at Bradley Murdoch's trial, was appointed as the board of inquiry into Eastman's conviction. 

This is where the interesting stuff starts. 

Martin has now completed his inquiry and handed his findings to the ACT Supreme Court, which has yet to release them. The word from those who've paid close attention to the proceedings is that Martin will find that Eastman's trial did not conform to the rules, that there has been a miscarriage of justice and that he should be released from the ACT's Alexander Maconochie Correctional Centre. 

If this is so, it will be one of the great miscarriages of justice in Australia and there'll be hell to pay. 

The heat was on the ballistics expert, Robert Barnes, who provided the gunshot residue analysis linking Eastman to the murder scene. Barnes admitted that some of his evidence may have been misleading. There was also an issue whether the prosecution and the AFP unintentionally failed to disclose the work of overseas experts who had critically reviewed Barnes work.

Then was the issue of police tactics which resulted in Eastman making confessions to himself in his bugged home. 

Counsel assisting the inquiry, Liesl Chapman, submitted that evidence should have been excluded. 

The DPP and the police maintain that even if the forensic evidence and bugged statements were removed from the equation, there is still a strong circumstantial case against Eastman. There were his threats against Winchester, access to firearms and the fact that the morning after the shooting he couldn't remember his whereabouts. 

The DPP launched proceedings in November last year seeking to halt the inquiry on the ground that it had not been properly authorised under the Crimes Act. 

Last week the Full Court of the ACT Supreme Court found that Marshall's order had been tainted by judicial error and the inquiry had been wrongly established. 

Nonetheless, by then Martin was well advanced with his work, so the appeal judges shrugged and said let it proceed because there are issues "which cry out for resolution". 

For years judges had said that the verdict against Eastman is safe. It's taken a long time for learned heads to come around to the view that it it could be quite unsafe. Behold the beauty of the justice system.  

Twitter: @JustinianNews

10 comments so far

  • Acting Justice Martin is no slouch. His report has been written and delivered in a timely manner. Regsrdless of his recommendations, he will have brought his considerable legal skills to bring a conclusion to this case. Perhaps ASADA should seek his help.

    Commenter
    Pineapple
    Location
    Canberra
    Date and time
    May 30, 2014, 5:17AM
    • I believe there is a significant level of concern in the community about Eastman's conviction. Certainly, I have such concerns. That aside, why is it so difficult for our system of justice to consider if an error has been made? Surely that indicates bias? And why is the DPP apparently so intent on avoiding reassessment? Is it not incumbent on a prosecutor to support a court's search for truth?

      We seem to have got to the point, in major cases, where the fact that a convicted person maintains their innocence over many years is a strong indicator that they were in fact wrongly convicted. There have been many recent examples in murder cases, where you may like to think the gold standard was applied. For me it raises very serious concerns about the integrity of the system.

      I was not impressed by the 2001 inquiry either.

      Commenter
      RichardJ
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      May 30, 2014, 7:31AM
      • This is only my second hearing of the Eastman case. At the time, a sister who was in the Canberra Public Service told me that no-body believed that he was guilty, but that many were pleased to see him go.

        I don't know how widespread that view was.

        Commenter
        Ross
        Location
        MALLABULA
        Date and time
        May 30, 2014, 7:35AM
        • As for a miscarriage of justice , Brian Martin himself presided over one ,the Bradley Murdoch fiasco , in no sense should this Kangaroo court held in Darwin ever be referred to as a trial. .
          Perhaps the Murdoch trial (sic) should be referred to as the second greatest miscarriage of justice in this country

          Commenter
          srg
          Location
          nambucca heads
          Date and time
          May 30, 2014, 8:20AM
          • Eastman was a violent and obnoxious bully with a history in the workplace and his neighbourhood for becoming easily and violently enraged if he didn't get his own way, even over the most trivial of things. If he is released it will prove the theory that if you tell a lie for long enough until you believe it yourself, others will begin to believe it as well. There is no doubt in my mind that Eastman did murder Colin Winchester. The travesty of justice would be to release him onto an unsuspecting public. He is a dangerous nutter.

            Commenter
            Jack Richards
            Location
            Snowy Mountains
            Date and time
            May 30, 2014, 8:36AM
            • My father wrote a book about this case "The Winchester Scandal" - well worth a read. There were so many people with an axe to grind with Winchester - whilst Eastman is a nasty nutbag - I dont believe they proved beyond reasonable doubt that he's a killer.

              Commenter
              Sera
              Location
              Sydney
              Date and time
              May 30, 2014, 10:37AM
              • 30/05

                I didn't even finish reading your 5* article. This is a humphronic can of worms that I do not want to re-visit.

                Sj.

                Commenter
                ScaryMan88
                Location
                Sydney
                Date and time
                May 30, 2014, 10:50AM
                • 19 years is long enough even if is guilty. He should be out anyway.

                  Commenter
                  Bam Bam
                  Location
                  Bedrock
                  Date and time
                  May 30, 2014, 11:37AM
                  • What is sad about this example is that the parties involved (including previous court dealing with the procedural issues) have been blocking the review, enquiries and appeals not on the basis of those procedural issues rather than the question of justice.
                    And we keep reassuring ourselves that our legal system is superior to that of the rest of the world and in particular that of any country that has a system based on anything other than the British rule of law.

                    Commenter
                    Bernie
                    Date and time
                    May 30, 2014, 11:51AM
                    • I heard from a reliable source a few years ago that Winchester was shot by rogue cops involved in drugs with local mafia.

                      Commenter
                      Alex Mac
                      Location
                      Brisbane
                      Date and time
                      May 30, 2014, 12:41PM

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