Fred's acquittal a 'sobering experience': legal eagle

A NEW England legal professional has welcomed the historic acquittal of former Inverell man Fred McDermott, saying it is a significant moment in the nation’s history.

Paul Sattler, a former criminal lawyer turned University of New England law lecturer, has been following the case and the work of Sydney barrister Tom Molomby who, along with Mr McDermott’s cousin Betty Sheelah, spearheaded the appeal.

Earlier this week shearer Fred McDermott, who was found guilty of killing a farmer more than 60 years ago, became 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.

Mr Sattler has a particular interest in criminal law, evidence and admissibility in criminal trials.

He said the case had proven to be most interesting, “particularly when you don’t have a body”. 

“Given the forensics of the day (the 1930s) it wouldn't have made much difference to the outcome but had there been a body it might have,” Mr Sattler said. “The witness said Mr McDermott was boasting about decapitating the body, but when the body was found in 2004 it wasn't decapitated which suggests his boast was simply that, an idle boast.

“It’s easy to look back to say there were glaring holes in the prosecution case, it depended on two witnesses who later came to be called into some doubt.”

Mr Sattler described the case against Mr McDermott as “very sobering”. “

Had he been hung it would have been a terrible miscarriage of justice, as it was he never really recovered from it,” he said. “It goes to show however good the system is, and ours is good. It’s not perfect and that’ s something to bear in mind.

“If not for Tom Molomby, with a passion for what he perceives as miscarriages of justice, the matter would never have progressed as far as it did.”

Mr Sattler said while it was an historic event, he believed the landmark case would not open the flood gates for other appeals.

“I don’t think it will open the flood gates to an avalanche of new appeals,” he said.

“It was an unusual case which was always perhaps considered a questionable conviction. It was known within the legal fraternity to always be considered, perhaps not sound.” 

Mr Sattler said in his opinion if Mr McDermott was tried in the justice system today the result could well have been different.

The story Fred's acquittal a 'sobering experience': legal eagle first appeared on The Armidale Express.

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