Yesterday the High Court, in a unanimous judgement, cleared the way for Roseanne Beckett, who served 10 years in prison after being convicted of offences against her husband, to pursue malicious procecution proceedings. Wendy Bacon first met Roseanne in 1999 and has followed the case since then. As she reports, there are many unresolved questions hanging over the case.
The Crown case against Roseanne Catt – 1989
When Peter Thomas and a posse of other police stormed into Roseanne Catt’s house at dawn one morning in 1989, she was half way through proceedings for assault against her husband Barry Catt, who had also been committed for trial on charges of sexual abuse.
Roseanne was originally refused bail but was granted it by a Supreme Court judge, who questioned Thomas’s motives for acting against Roseanne. Thomas had been found to have lied during an inquiry into a NSW Ombudsman investigation of a complaint Roseanne had laid against him after her Taree delicatessen had burned down.
When released on bail, Roseanne was not allowed to return to Taree, where witnesses and evidence were being gathered on what became nine separate charges. Her step-children were left in the custody of one of the main prosecution witnesses, Adrian Newell. A judicial inquiry later found he had likely been involved in fabricating evidence against Roseanne.
In summary, the Crown case against Roseanne was that she had set out to destroy her husband and take his business. Barry Catt, a mechanic whose business in the 1980s included fixing police vehicles, had known Peter Thomas for some years. They both had strong motives to “get” Roseanne. The police found a gun in Roseanne’s house which they failed to fingerprint. Roseanne always denied possessing this gun. This was before the days of the NSW Police Royal Commission which found in 1997 that the NSW Police regularly planted guns on their targets.
Before Roseanne’s own trial began, Barry Catt was acquitted of the sexual abuse, although a senior paediatric psychiatrist who had treated three of his alleged victims was convinced that they were abused. The trial judge, Jane Matthews, would not allow the doctor, Sara Williams, who died in 2012, to give evidence in support of the victims’ own evidence for the defence that the abuse did occur. For years, Williams and others tried to convince authorities, including the NSW Attorney General and the Royal Commission, to investigate Thomas’s conduct in not just the Roseanne Catt case but in other frame-ups as well.
Roseanne Catt is convicted
At the end of a three-month trial, during which Roseanne’s barrister was absent because he was being treated for cancer, Roseanne was convicted of eight charges, including committing perjury in the original assault case against her husband. She was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. A witness later gave evidence that Barry Catt told him he had set Roseanne up for a "big fall" and that "what we done it was done so well". The assault case against Barry, which had been part-heard, mysteriously fell off the case list in Taree Local Court.
In her address to the jury, Justice Matthews described Roseanne as either an evil and manipulative woman or the victim of a monstrous conspiracy. This was before the days of the Royal Commission into NSW police, that found police systematically committed perjury and planted evidence on victims. In rejecting the conspiracy theory, jury members may not have appreciated the capacity of the police to organise frame-ups. In sentencing her, the judge described Roseanne as evil and domineering. This laid the groundwork for a double page spread in a women’s magazine featuring Barry’s account of his life with the “evil woman”. After that, Roseanne’s case fell off the media agenda.
Even before the trial, Thomas had been allowed to resign from the police force – although he was under investigation for threatening witnesses and leaving the site of a car accident. He became a private detective specialising in arson in Queensland. Roseanne was now serving a 12-year sentence in Mulawa Women’s Prison. A prisoner who later joined the campaign to free Roseanne later gave evidence that she had been offered money by a prosecution witness to attack Roseanne, who suffered assaults from other prisoners and health problems while in prison. (The story of her years in prison can be found in her book Ten Years).
Roseanne lost her Court of Criminal Appeal case in 1993. In the trial and appeal, the Crown was represented by Patrick Power, who himself was arrested in 2006, convicted and imprisoned for possessing thousands of files of child pornography. At the time, Roseanne called for in inquiry into his role in her case as allegations had been made by defence witnesses that her husband had shown pornographic films to police and others in his house. These witnesses signed statements withdrawing their evidence in the lead up to the appeal. The NSW government found that Power’s trials were not tainted by his own criminal conduct.
A miscarriage of justice – 2000
In 2000, Four Corners produced a program about how, as a policeman and private detective, Peter Thomas had allegedly wrongly accused people of arson without supporting evidence. One of the cases was against Roseanne who he had accused of burning down her own delicatessen in 1983. The charge was later withdrawn.
At the same time, Tracey Pillemer and I produced reports about Peter Thomas, “Fire Trail”, and the Catt case, “Should this woman be in jail?”, for the Sydney Morning Herald. During these investigations, we interviewed two confidential witnesses who were reported to have been told by Peter Thomas that he planted the gun on Roseanne. One of these, Peter Caesar, later provided this “fresh evidence” in a statutory declaration. According to his evidence, Thomas had also described Catt as “the lowest form of slut”. This action led to the case being reopened. Roseanne was released from prison in 2001.
Lee Rhiannon, then a Greens MLC, now a Senator, took up Roseanne’s case in the NSW Parliament. The NSW Attorney General Bob Debus referred her case back to the Court of Criminal Appeal, which in turn referred it to Judge Thomas Davidson to conduct an inquiry to reestablish the “facts” in the case.
By this stage, the NSW DPP and Attorney-General were fully aware of the weaknesses in the case and Thomas’s record, both inside and outside the NSW police force. Despite mounting evidence that she had been framed, the Crown, led by Wayne Roser SC, pursued her vigorously throughout the inquiry, even adding further “fresh evidence” and witnesses, some of whom were found to be extremely unreliable. One witness even described seeing a different gun that had never been mentioned before in a place that did not exist.
The Davidson judgement was a victory for Roseanne. As I reported in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2004, he found that Thomas may have planted the gun and that Thomas, Barry Catt and Adrian Newell may have framed Roseanne on the charge that she spiked her husband's drinks.
While Davidson found there was evidence to support six other convictions, he also found it was possible that the jury's verdict in those cases was substantially influenced by the unreliable evidence of prosecution witnesses. He also found that Thomas used improper methods of investigation, had a "propensity to use his office to damage Ms Catt … and demonstrated a lack of objectivity which descended into malice and abuse of power".
He accepted the evidence of Queensland woman Gina Hart that, in 1999, Thomas offered her $10,000 to sign a false statement that her employer had burnt down his pub. He also accepted evidence that in another 1991 case that Thomas had attempted to coerce a woman to give false evidence against her husband after he charged them both with a bombing in Byron Bay. He found that Thomas had a "propensity to apply pressure … in a way calculated to produce false evidence". That raised the possibility that a number of Crown witnesses may have been pressured by Thomas to give false evidence.
Thomas’s partner, Detective Paget, had given evidence that he found containers of Lithium and Rivotril in a black handbag in Roseanne Catt's bedroom. She had supposedly used these to poison her husband. Davidson found there was a “reasonable possibility” that Paget was lying and that he and Thomas concocted this evidence. It was suspicious that the bag did not appear in police photos of articles seized or in the exhibit book at Taree police station.
In July, Judge Davidson sent evidence of hundreds of phone calls between Thomas, Newell and Barry Catt while they were giving evidence at his inquiry to the Police Commissioner, Ken Moroney, for investigation. No action was taken against Crown witnesses. Defence witnesses complained of harassment and threats.
Another important witness who gave evidence against Roseanne was also found to be unreliable and that acceptance of her evidence "is likely to have had serious adverse repercussions to the case presented on behalf of Ms Catt” on all issues at the trial. After Roseanne's arrest, this witness had independently told NSW Police Internal Affairs, a Taree solicitor and two Family and Community Services officers, that she had been taken to a deserted house by Thomas and Detective Paget. After Detective Paget had pulled out a gun she signed a statement against Roseanne Catt.
The Crown prosecutor Roser argued that the Court of Criminal Appeal (CCA) should reject all Davidson’s findings. In light of the strength of the report, the CCA judgement was disappointing. Roseanne was acquitted of possessing the gun and five other cases were dismissed, leaving a potential retrial open. Two convictions which had not been addressed in the same detail as others were upheld. The defence adopted Davidson’s view that the unreliability of the prosecution witnesses, Thomas' propensity to lie and pressure witnesses, meant that all convictions were unreliable. The case was unresolved. The Crown case was in tatters, so it was no surprise when the DPP informed Roseanne that there would be no second trial. This finally ended the case against her,
New developments – 2007
In Feburary 2007, I reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on a new development. In August 2006, the NSW Labor member for Illawarra, Marianne Saliba, met her constituent Roseanne in a cafe in Shellharbour. As they were talking, Saliba observed a woman approach and tap Roseanne on the shoulder. "Mum, I thought I would never find you again," the woman cried as she and Rosanne hugged. The woman was the cafe's chef, Tracy Taylor.
Taylor later told me she was overjoyed to see Roseanne, whom she had called "Mum" as her own mother died when she was five. "Roseanne gave me a job and taught me to cook when I left school," she said. At that time they both lived in Taree. But Taylor was afraid Roseanne would not talk to her now, because they had not met since she gave evidence for the Crown in the 1991 trial. Taylor told me about the circumstances in which she gave her evidence, and later she signed an affidavit, which was forwarded to the then NSW Attorney-General Debus.
The affidavit states: "Parts of the evidence I gave at the trial are not truthful. I went along with the police because I was frightened. I am very sorry for any harm that was caused but I had no one to help or advise me." At the time of Roseanne’s arrest, Taylor had moved to Queensland. The first she knew of the case was when two detectives arrived at her home at Ingham in 1990 and took her to the police station. "They said I was a prostitute and that Roseanne was the madam and that I was the one who kept the guns," her statement says. "I said I knew nothing about guns. I had never seen Roseanne with a gun. They also said I was going to be charged with conspiring to murder Barry Catt." She adds: "I was threatened into signing a statement that was not mine. I was terrified … I feared for my life and my baby's life."
Taylor’s evidence was just a small part of the jigsaw created to support the complicated case against Roseanne. This statement was new fresh evidence in the case and should have been used to lead to further inquiries. Debus referred the statement to the police who contacted Taylor but, according to my investigations, failed to take her evidence seriously. Taylor was concerned for her safety and moved. When Saliba raised the dramatic meeting between the two women in the NSW Parliament, she called for authorities to compensate Roseanne Catt for the "horrific injustice".
In 2006, the NSW Attorney-General’s Department appeared to be considering compensation. When when this failed to eventuate, Roseanne was left with no choice to engage in the massive and costly task of pursuing malicious prosecution proceedings, which were the subject of the High Court case this week.
For 24 years, Roseanne has insisted she is innocent. In 2011, Channel 7 organised for her to take a lie detector test. Roseanne passed the test with flying colours. Her ex-husband, who had said he would take the test, backed out. In an interview, he appeared incoherent and distracted.
I have no doubt that the NSW DPP were hoping that Roseanne’s case would lapse. Organising a pro bono team – necessary for a person such as Roseanne to take proceedings against the state – is difficult. Marshalling the required admissible evidence is a huge task. Without her own tenacity and a support group of women, Roseanne's campaign would never have come this far .The core of the group are Mary Court and Catholic nun Claudette Palmer who began visiting Roseanne as religious visitors in the 1990s. Palmer prepared thousands of pages of briefs of evidence for lawyers, although she herself was harassed and insulted.
The current NSW Attorney-General and Justice Minister, Greg Smith, was the Deputy of the NSW DPP Prosecutions until he was elected to parliament in 2007. As a senior person in the DPP office, he was part of decisions about how the office would handle the case after fresh evidence emerged.
It’s good news that future victims of malicious prosecution proceedings will not be asked to prove their innocence, a proposition that made no sense in the first place. Rather than wasting further public money, the malicious prosecutions proceedings should stop. Instead Roseanne should be compensated for the damage to her life and family.
Who was involved in child abuse in Taree and why was it not vigorously prosecuted? Why did the Crown continue to conduct itself in such a ruthless fashion and rely on the evidence of witnesses already found to be unreliable? Who threatened Tracy Taylor and why was her story ignored by police? A judicial inquiry into how and why Roseanne Catt was arrested would be a better use of the public's time and money – and provide better answers to these questions and others.
Wendy Bacon reported on this case for the Sydney Morning Herald. Links to her previous stories and other material, some of which is not available in digital form, will be posted on her blog. Tomorrow, South Australian miscarriage of justice expert Bob Moles will report on the implications of the High Court case. On Monday, Wendy Bacon will report further on some of the unresolved aspects of the case, including ones involving sexual abuse of Aboriginal girls in Taree.