Convicted killer cleared posthumously

NSW shearer Fred McDermott, who was found guilty of killing a farmer more than 60 years ago, has become the first Australian ever to be acquitted of murder after death.

The NSW Court of Criminal appeal today overturned the murder conviction of McDermott, who was found guilty of killing farmer Henry Lavers and dumping his body in a paddock in Grenfell in western NSW. Mr McDermott died in 1977.

The verdict marked the end of an extraordinary fight by McDermott's cousin, Betty Sheelah, who pushed to have his conviction overturned after Lavers's remains were found in a cave, not in the paddock, punching a large hole in the Crown case.

"My legs were shaking and I was trying to hold back the tears," Ms Sheelah told Fairfax Digital.

"It is just wonderful we got it through. We didn't expect to get a result today, we expected a judgement later on but it went through.

"It's done and I'm feeling exhilarated  His spirit's free and I dare say he would have been sitting in the court somewhere listening to all of that."

MP pays tribute to Betty Sheelah

Speaking outside court, Ms Sheelah said: "It's a wonderful day for Fred. I wish he was here to share it. This has been a stain on our family history and I wanted his name cleared."

"I think he'd be up there with my dad. It's taken such a long time to get here. I always believed in him. It ruined his life, he couldn't get work, it just ruined his life."

Earlier, the head of the three-judge appeal panel, NSW Chief Justice Justice Tom Bathurst, said that the evidence against McDermott had been undermined and that his conviction had been a "substantial miscarriage of justice".

"In light of these circumstances I quash the conviction that was entered."

This was a response to the arguments and submissions of Ms Sheelah's barrister, Tom Molomby, SC, who said that the three main elements of the prosecution case against Mr McDermott had been "completely destroyed".

The prosecution had relied heavily on a drunken claim by McDermott to his shearer mates and his girlfriend years after the killing that he had been responsible.

A court case in 1944 had been told that, one night at a campfire party, McDermott had said "yeah, I killed Lavers for two gallons of petrol, cut him up and buried him in the sheep yard".

But Mr Molomby said Lavers' body was found in a cave in 2004 some distance from the sheep yard, and a forensic examination showed it had not been dismembered in any way.

This proved that the claims were an idle boast without any truth to them.

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