Next Sunday, a quarter of a century will have passed since the events that lie behind Roseanne Beckett’s malicious prosecution case.
On 24 August 1989 Roseanne Catt, as she was then known, was arrested at her home, hand cuffed and made to wait while her small house in a back street of the NSW town of Taree was turned upside down by a team of police led by then NSW detective Peter Thomas. They removed a huge amount of her personal papers, photographs and belongings—and most crucially found a gun in a drawer near her bedroom.
Before Roseanne had even gone to trial, her solicitor wrote to NSW authorities warning that she would launch on action for abuse of process. But committal proceedings, three month trial and first appeal against eight convictions exhausted her financial resources. She was locked away for ten years until she was released in 2001 after the NSW Attorney General received fresh evidence that led to her case being reopened. Finally, after another fourteen years, her malicious prosecution case is underway before Supreme Court Judge Justice Ian Harrison.
(I use the name Roseanne to avoid clumsiness over the change in name).
Reporters are scarce on the ground at the Supreme Court, not because they're not interested but because these days, regular reporters are stretched over so many cases and courts that they must make hard choices between cases. My aim is to provide some reports on my blog.
The first step in the trial which began on July 28 was for Paul Blacket SC, who represents Roseanne, to provide an opening overview of her case. The address went for two days. This is an account of the first day.
Paul Blacket SC opens the case for Roseanne
Blackett SC opened the case for the plaintiff by walking Justice Harrison through the 'complex factual matrix' from which the case must be constructed.
Oral evidence is a minor part of this case as much of the evidence lies in volumes of documents and transcripts from other hearings. The Crown is objecting to a large amount of the Plaintiff's evidence and its admissibility will not be decided by the Judge until later in the case.
Roseanne's lawyers have to prove that Thomas was driven by malice and lacked any 'reasonable or probable cause' for prosecuting her. By the time of the trial in 1991, Thomas had resigned for the NSW police force and Carl Paget—nicknamed 'Bulldog Growler'—became the main prosecuting officer. Nevertheless, Blacket told the court that 'Thomas, even though a civilian by now, continued to assist in the prosecution even agitating after the decision of the 2005 Court of Criminal Appeal was handed down, which resulted in the quashing of all but two of Roseanne's eight convictions.
Blacket and junior barrister Nick Broadbent must prove that at the time of her arrest, Detective Thomas's belief in her guilt was "not soundly and reasonably based." Rather than being reasonable, Blacket described Thomas as having "an irrational and pathological hatred for the plaintiff" and being incapable of "any objective analysis of evidence." In the pursuit of convictions, Thomas "did not hesitate to lie and mislead Courts..." His "antipathy and lack of objectivity" continued long after he left the police force. When seven prosecutions ultimately failed, he blamed the incompetence of Crown lawyers.
An interesting aspect of Thomas's conduct is the way he leaked information to the press with the purpose of discrediting his target Roseanne. He demonstrably lied to acting District Court Judge Thomas Davidson about one of these media reports.
Blacket explained that all the evidence that Thomas collected against Roseanne before and after her arrest emanated from one of three characters—her former husband, Barry Catt, his lifelong friend Adrian Newell or Thomas himself. There were many other witnesses but the plaintiff's case is that these people were coopted or coerced into being part of the plot against Roseanne.
Over the weeks of the trial, a detailed analysis of the evidence used in each charge will be used to prove that "Thomas always knew where the truth lay"and knew that the 'legitimate process of the law, that is without his manipulation would not have proved her guilty." But before he got to the evidence in the 1989 charges against Roseanne, Blacket backtracked to the origins of Thomas's malice.
How Thomas came to hate Roseanne
The key events in the case began six years before her arrest in the early morning of Christmas Day 1983 when a fire broke out in a Roseanne's Deli and cafe, a business she operated with her then partner Douglas Annetts.
On duty in Taree that night, Thomas was the fire investigator. Roseanne's first formal interview took place on Boxing Day. In a later complaint, she said that Thomas's personal remarks about her in this interview made her feel "extremely uncomfortable". She later alleged that she saw Thomas assault Douglas Annetts.
In 1984, Roseanne complained to internal affairs about "an assault on my husband and myself." She wrote, "Thomas told me that if I would make a statement that my husband lit the fire, I would be exonerated. He told my husband that if he would make a statement that I lit the fire, that he would be exonerated". She also complained Thomas made sexual suggestions to her when he visited her home.
In April 1984, Roseanne and Douglas Annetts were arrested and charged with lighting the fire and were committed for trial. Her solicitor made a detailed application to the Attorney General Terry Sheahan setting out the defects in the Crown case. He decided that the case should not go to trial.
Afterwards, Roseanne renewed her complaint about Thomas's conduct which led to an investigation by the NSW Ombudsman. In laying her complaint, she was assisted by Errol Taylor, a man who lived on a rural property in the Taree area. Taylor had also been arrested by Thomas and charged with cultivating marijuana in a State Forest area at the back of his property. His place was ransacked by police and a large amount of personal property was removed. He also alleged he was severely assaulted by Thomas.
Taylor was acquitted of all charges and later complained that Thomas retained and refused to return some of his business records, including his bank savings passbook which made his life difficult.
Thomas was upset by these complaints and wrote to the officer in charge of the Regional Crime Squad in Newcastle about "unfounded complaints made against him" and what he described as "an obvious attempt to interfere with the course of pending criminal trials" of Taylor and Roseanne. He accused them of deliberately turning people against him. In other words, Blacket explained, Taylor and Roseanne were "clearly in the frame so far as he was concerned".
Roseanne backed up her complaints about the arson investigation by supplying statements by two businessmen who claimed that Thomas had approached them to provide evidence about the delicatessen business that would help convict her of arson. They said that the facts as they understood them did not fit Thomas's accusations so they refused to cooperate. One said that Thomas didn't understand the business figures but had said the "charge is going to stick, we've got them".
John Maconachie SC who leads a team of three barristers defending the Crown objected to a large part of this section of Blacket's address on the grounds that it introduced evidence about internal police complaints that he argues shouldn't even be raised in a public courtroom let alone admitted into evidence. Rather than deal with this issue in this report, I will return to it when it comes up later in the case.
Even if reports about complaints are not admitted into evidence, Blackett went on to explain that there is no shortage of evidence that Thomas bitterly resented the complaints against him which he believed had a negative impact on his career.
Blacket read an exchange from an earlier court proceeding:
Q. In fact, as a result of complaints you were interviewed on numerous occasions by members of the internal security of the Police Force?
Q. And that caused you concern?
Q. Would this be a fair proposition, that you spent as of December 1990 the last six years of your life ducking the internal security police and justifying your existence?
A. Yes, on and off I had, yes.
Despite his antagonistic relationship with Roseanne, Blacket said Thomas pursued the case although "there was no more inappropriate member of the New South Wales Police Force than Mr Thomas to investigate" and that he persisted even after he was severely criticised by a Supreme Court Justice Allen who heard Roseanne's bail application.
Blacket then read piece another piece of evidence Thomas gave during the trial of Roseanne's ex-husband Barry Catt for sexual assault in 1990 (Barry was acquitted).
Q. Did you see her ( Roseanne) regularly when were stationed here as a detective?
A. I met her for the first time on 23 December 1983 at the scene of the fire. I have been interviewed by the internal police security branch some 50 times since then as a result of allegations made by this lady and persons she is associated with. I have seen a lot of her over the years. That includes everything from murder to the last growing of marijuana, to the stealing of money from prostitutes. It is just too numerous for me to think about number. I have had documents tabled in Parliament concerning my conduct and it started again after 24 August 1989.
Blacket described these as “wide ranging outrageous allegations" against a woman with no criminal record given by a man, a serving police officer, giving evidence in ...circumstances where he bore personal animus, clearly personal animus”.
He also read a quote in which Thomas described Roseanne as "a vexatious complainant motivated by another vexatious complainant, both of whom use rather than misuse political influence to pervert the course of justice." As Blacket put it, "Very strong stuff, your Honour".
Blacket will later tender a document setting out a history of complaints against Thomas who misled a court when he gave evidence that prior to Roseanne's complaints he had no complaints against him.
Justice Allen, who granted Roseanne bail in 1989, was not the only one concerned about Thomas's role very early in this long saga. When a senior officer also instructed him cease involvement in the case, he wrote a long document explaining why he refused to withdraw. Rather than being a malicious prosecution, he predicted that "his involvement will be vindicated, he will be found to have acted openly, honestly, lawfully and with the best interests of the community and justice in mind." That is highly unlikely to be Justice Harrison's finding whether or not Roseanne wins her case.
Relationship between Thomas and Roseanne's ex-husband Barry Catt
Like his relationship with Roseanne, Thomas's relationship with Roseanne's ex-husband Barry Catt who ran a Taree panel beating and tow truck business also lies at the heart of this case. Barry was on charges of assaulting Roseanne and sexually assaulting his own four children at time Roseanne was arrested in August 1989 (he was not convicted).
Blacket said that the plaintiff's case is that Thomas consistently minimised the extent of the relationship. At the committal proceedings, Thomas admitted that he had known Barry Catt for a number of years and saw him on occasions in association with his police work. He ran into Barry Catt at motor vehicle accidents and Catt conducted repairs on one of Thomas' motor vehicles. Catt stored a ski boat owned by Thomas at his business which he subsequently bought.
Blackett compared Thomas's account with Barry Catt's evidence at Roseanne's committal proceedings when he said "he was not a mate of Peter Thomas, he had never once in his life had any social contact with him". But elsewhere he also said Thomas brought him work in his capacity as a police officer.
Relationship between Roseanne and Barry Catt
The history of the relationship between Roseanne and Barry Catt is also crucial.
Blacket described the circumstances in which Roseanne met Barry. Her son Peter Bridge was interested in being a motor mechanic and became apprenticed to Barry Catt. Barry then attended Roseanne's house for dinner. He and his four children, who were in neglected state, came to stay at Roseanne's house. Roseanne invested money and worked in the panel beating business. She started to take care of Barry's children and eventually married Barry in 1987.
Thomas and Barry accused Roseanne of manipulating health professionals to have him scheduled and admitted to psychiatric wards after their marriage. But Blacket said that the plaintiff's case is that Barry Catt had a well documented history of mental health episodes. The plaintiff will call a psychiatrist who will give evidence that he arranged for Catt to be admitted to a psychiatric clinic at least three years before he met Roseanne.
There is also evidence that after Roseanne and Barry Catt were married, Barry was scheduled after he broke down a door and assaulted and threatened his wife and children. He had been diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder and mania and was prescribed the drugs lithium and Rivotril. (This is significant because Roseanne was charged with attempting to poison Catt with these drugs.)
Blacket explained that the "relevance and importance of Barry Catt’s psychiatric condition is two-fold: firstly, it is something that was documented and available to police officers and at all times. Detective Thomas is aware of it. Secondly, lithium is a prescription drug and can only be dispensed by certain persons within the medical community. Mr Catt’s intake was administered and monitored by Dr Sandfield, his treating psychiatrist, up to the time of Roseanne’s arrest". During the period when Roseanne was meant to have overdosed Barry with lithium, the test results were within a normal range.
Barry Catt is charged with sexually assaulting his children
The Crown's case at the trial was that Roseanne manipulated Catt's children into making sexual allegations against him and lied about him assaulting her. Blacket outlined a very different history.
As a result of physical assaults and emotional abuse by their father, a complaint of incompetent guardianship was made and the four children came under the care of the Family Community Services in Taree. They were then released into the care of Roseanne.
From early in May 1988, Barry moved out of the home and slept in the office across the road. Roseanne continued to be involved in the business, working there everyday and attending medical examinations with him. He was admitted for some time to the Northside Clinic in Sydney.
While they were under the care of FACS, the children were interviewed independently of Roseanne. FACS officers became involved in dealing with the sexual assaults and extensive investigations were carried out by the Child Mistreatment Unit attached to Newcastle Police and by a number of doctors, including "Dr Rack and Dr Cooper, who examined the children and determined, at least with respect to the two female children, that they had been sexually abused."
As a result of these investigations, in May 1988, Barry Catt was charged with a number of sexual assaults of his children, as was Robert Tisdale, his nephew. Nearly all of the charges related to a period when Roseanne had not yet met Barry.
Why are these charges relevant now, especially since both men were acquitted after Roseanne's arrest in 1990?
Blacket put it this way: "This case is not about the children and Barry Catt's sexual charges, except for how they shed light on my client’s attitude to her husband and in relation to friends mentioned by some of the children as being involved in activities with their father...."
He went on, "What is very clear is that evidence that the children had been sexually abused was available - as to whether it was Barry Catt or some other person is of no interest to the Court"
Blacket explained that although the acquittal is a matter of record that cannot 'be relitigated, the sexual assault proceedings provided the context for the hostility towards Roseanne by Barry Catt and some of his friends who had also been named by the children. It also explains some of her hostility to Barry.
State of play in July 1989, shortly before Roseanne's arrest
Before her arrest, Roseanne had charged Barry Catt with assaulting her by punching her during an altercation outside his sister Mary's house. This case was part heard by local magistrate Gary O'Keefe on July 3. Her son Peter Bridge, fellow apprentice Shane Golds, and two of the Catt children gave evidence supporting her case which was adjourned until September.
(This violent episode, which became known as the 'rock incident', was reversed when Roseanne was arrested six weeks later and charged with hitting Barry on the head with a five kilogram rock. Different rocks have been produced in different proceedings. Her prosecution of Barry Catt simply lapsed.)
Roseanne started proceedings in the Family Court on August 4, 1989. Michael Jones, a solicitor from the nearby town of Gloucester. represented her. She applied and was granted interim orders restraining Barry from entering the home and operating the business or bank accounts for twelve months.
The Family Law court case was adjourned on August 7. At this stage, Blackett told the judge, "Barry Catt had lost pretty much everything" at least until final Family Court orders. It was at this point of time that the main players in mounting the charges against Roseanne "sprang into action".
Adrian Newell visits NSW Independent Commission against Corruption
On 25 July 1989, Barry's close friend Adrian Newell took a very dramatic step. He attended ICAC and met with a person called Mr Matthews who interviewed him. Before this current case, this crucial record of interview had never previously been shown to Roseanne or her legal team. "This document that I'm about to show your Honour was provided by the defendant last week for the first time. It's an extremely important document explaining the genesis of the charges that were laid," Blackett told the court.
Mr Newell,a lifelong friend of Barry Catt's, has managed and been involved in the case against Roseanne from the beginning. During the interview, Newell makes extraordinary accusations including that Roseanne had lit not one fire but others as well and that the Deli arson case was only dropped because she had a relationship with the then NSW Attorney General Terry Sheahan.
Newell told Matthews that Roseanne was involved in fraud and drugs and had "connections with Lebanese people"; and that she had Gary O'Keefe removed from a case in Taree. As Blacket explained this did not happen.
Newell told the ICAC that Thomas hated Roseanne, although the source of that information was not clear. He appeared not to know Thomas although the plaintiff's case is that they did know each other.
This extraordinary Newell interview provides a missing link in the plaintiff's case pointing to a developing conspiracy before her arrest. According to Blacket, "It's salacious, it's hearsay, it's unsupported by anything tangible"
Lithium poisoning, a crucial part of the frame-up
One of the charges against Roseanne was that she attempted to poison Barry by putting lithium in his milk.
Several days after the ICAC interview on July 29, Thomas met Newell. On the following day Newell went to Barry Catt's office and removed containers of liquids which were later found to contain lithium.
Blacket made particular note of the 'serious and significant" fact that Newell did not mention the issue of lithium poisoning during the ICAC interview. Yet only "two days later Newell meets with Thomas and tells him he thinks that Catt is being poisoned and that he's had this belief for several months." Newell was then involved in collecting samples of milk from Barry's office which were later found to contain lithium and rivotril.
"This is absolutely fundamentally important to this case," Blacket told the court.
Barry Catt meets Thomas after the Family Court Hearing
Following the August 7 Family Court proceedings, Barry Catt was interviewed by Thomas at Newcastle Police Station where he says for the first time that he had been told that Roseanne might be poisoning him.
This is significant, Blacket argues, because if you "think about it for more than five seconds ... (Roseanne) was attempting to administer noxious substances and poison him." Yet Newell and Thomas say they had not told Barry Catt about this. So this means that on a daily basis between 30 July (when the samples were collected) and 7 August, "Barry was potentially being poisoned without anybody letting him know".
At this point, Justice Harrison commented, "On your case it wasn't allowed to happen because it wasn't true". Blacket responded, "That is why you might not be worried about it too much, your Honour....."
During the rest of the address on Day One and Two of the trial, Blacket provided a detailed account of the evidence he will rely on to argue that the poisoning case was fabricated.
(The author has previously written about the poisoning charge which was dismissed by the Court of Criminal Appeal. It was a major feature of the 2004 Davison inquiry. Just before Davison's findings were announced, I wrote an analysis of the evidence that had been given at the Inquiry. Since then, even more information and perspectives on how the plaintiff argues she was framed has emerged.)
In my next post, I will return to Blacket's opening address and Maconachie's brief opening of the Crown case.
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During the first day's proceedings, two suppressions orders were issued under NSW Court Suppression and Non‑Publication Orders Act 2010. I will be returning to the issue of suppression orders and excluded evidence later in my coverage of the trial.