The saga is over. Twelve of David Eastman's peers have judged him. After a six-month trial, six days of deliberation and, at least initially, an inability to agree, the jurors found him not guilty of murdering ACT police chief Colin Winchester in 1989. Mr Eastman is a free man.
Yet his extraordinary legal battle is not quite finished. Mr Eastman spent more than 19 years in jail for the killing and is expected to pursue compensation for that imprisonment, worth potentially tens of millions of dollars. The costs of this crime, and of the botched investigation and prosecution that ensued, continue to mount.
Meanwhile, Mr Winchester's family and friends will likely never see justice served on the police chief's killer. This is no happy ending.
The injustice began with Mr Winchester's murder almost 30 years ago. The federal police, no doubt affected by their comrade's death and craving a conviction, made poor decisions. Confirmation biases undermined their work. Justice Brian Martin, who, years later, inquired into that original investigation, prosecution and trial, called Mr Eastman's conviction a "substantial miscarriage of justice". His decision in 2014 summarised the flaws: "The issue of guilt was determined on the basis of deeply flawed forensic evidence in circumstances where the applicant was denied procedural fairness in respect of a fundamental feature of the trial process concerned with disclosure by the prosecution of all relevant material. In addition, evidence of inadequacies and flaws in the case file and case work of the key forensic scientists were unknown to everyone involved in the investigation and trial."
Justice Martin also chided the police and Office of the ACT Director of Public Prosecutions' inability – even then, almost two decades later – to understand the case's weaknesses. They contended the evidence remained overwhelming; the judge said it clearly wasn't, and that the passing of time had weakened it further. He said a retrial "would not be in the best interests of the community", and recommended that Mr Eastman be pardoned.
Nonetheless, for reasons never adequately explained, the DPP pursued a further trial, despite the warning it was not in the public interest and would likely fail. The ACT government, rightly, supported the DPP's independence. One wonders, though, whether the DPP acted independently from the police, or whether it faced pressure to pursue Mr Eastman over what had become, to many police, a personal matter.
The best way to honour Mr Winchester would have been to recognise, from the start, the potential for the investigation to stray in the way that it did, and to assign the task to disinterested outsiders.
It is now too late for that, but it is not too late to learn. It is time for the police and the DPP to examine, and to admit to, the flaws in their decisions. Neither have yet shown publicly they are prepared to do that; at every step, they have dismissed criticisms of their handling of the case.
Hopefully, Thursday's verdict will change that.
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