This story was first published in Reportage, the online magazine of the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism.
This week, the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal will receive Judge Thomas Davidson's report on his inquiry into the case against Roseanne Catt who was convicted in 1991 of eight crimes against her husband Barry Catt. She served 10 years of her 12 year sentence before the NSW Attorney General Bob Debus ordered a fresh appeal. The court will now decide whether or not Catt is guilty in light of Judge Davidson's findings. An important part of the inquiry into her case has focused on an allegation that she attempted to poison her husband. Wendy Bacon reports
The spectre of the murderous conniving wife lacing her husband's food with poison is a powerful one in the lore of women criminals. It was this image, sold successfully by the prosecution to the jury, which convicted Roseanne Catt in 1991 of attempting to poison her ex-husband, Taree motor mechanic, Barry Catt.
The allegation against Roseanne Catt was that she placed large doses of the drugs Lithium and Rivotril (tradename of Clonazapam) in drinks in her husband's office fridge. Barry took these drugs as treatment for a psychiatric bi-polar condition.
The case against Roseanne Catt is circumstantial. During the inquiry, the defence and the Crown both provided fresh witnesses and documents so that the evidence before Judge Davidson was very different from that before the jury. The defence is arguing that she was framed, and the Crown that she is 'overwhelmingly' guilty.
The key witness in the poisoning case is Barry's close friend, Adrian Newell, also from Taree, who had distrusted Roseanne ever since she married Barry in 1987.
In July 1989, Newell decided to help Barry, who was facing charges of assault on his wife and was on a restraining order to keep away from the house where Roseanne was living with his four children. He was charged with sexually assaulting the children. (He was later acquitted.)
Shortly before Barry was committed for trial on the child abuse charges, Newell met with then Newcastle Detective Peter Thomas and told him that Barry's erratic behaviour led him to conclude that Roseanne was poisoning him. Thomas had been friendly with Barry when he had been stationed earlier in Taree and had crossed swords with Roseanne, who laid complaints against him when he charged her with arson in 1984. The arson case had been discharged.
On July 30, Newell went to Barry's office and collected samples of chocolate milk, plain milk and orange juice from an office fridge. He kept these samples in his own fridge overnight and then poured some of the fluids into sample bottles which he delivered to Barry Catt's psychiatrist, Dr Ray Sandfield. He passed other fluids onto Thomas who kept them in a police fridge.
Dr Sandfield then delivered them to clinical chemist John Dickerson at Royal Newcastle Hospital with a request they be tested for Lithium and Clonazapam . The Crown did not tender the request form at the trial. This became a crucial issue in the inquiry and the trial had proceeded on the basis that Dr Sandfield had only asked for a test for Lithium.
On August 7, Dickerson told Thomas that he had tested the orange juice and found it contained high concentrations of Lithium. Later the same day, Thomas interviewed Barry for the first time. According to evidence given by Newell to the Victim's Compensation Board in 1996, Thomas told Barry Catt that the specimen containers had high levels of Lithium and Rivotril (clonazapam) and that Roseanne Catt had been poisoning him. The Crown argued that the Victims Compensation Board documents should be excluded from this inquiry. Newell was not been asked about the evidence as the records were tendered after he left the witness box.
For tests for Rivotril to be completed, the liquids needed to be sent to the Lidcombe Analytical Laboratories in Sydney . The results from Lidcombe that the liquids contained high concentrations of Lithium came back on August 15, 1989 . But the positive results for Rivotril did not come back until the end of September 1989, almost two months after Thomas told Catt and Newell it had been found in the fluids and more than a month after Roseanne was arrested on August 24.
Another difficulty for the Crown case is that Barry Catt's Lithium levels, which were monitored during the period, were within a normal range throughout 1989.
It was clear that someone spiked the liquids sent for tests with large doses of the drugs. But for even a circumstantial case to succeed, there also needed to be evidence that Roseanne Catt had access to Barry Catt's drugs in July 1989 (they had separated in 1988). The necessary link was provided by Thomas's partner, Newcastle Detective Carl Paget, when he gave evidence at the trial that on August 24 when Roseanne was arrested, he found two pill containers, one labelled Lithium, in a black purse in her bedroom. He said the purse was taken to the police station along with a huge amount of other seized articles.
At the inquiry, scores of police photos of the search and articles seized were examined. None showed the purse or containers which Paget said he found. Although Thomas said all articles seized were later recorded in the exhibit book, there is no mention of the pill containers. Roseanne has consistently denied that the purse or containers were in the house.
After her arrest, Roseanne's solicitor Michael Jones complained to the NSW Police Commissioner and NSW Ombudsman that she was being framed. As a result, Internal Affairs' police interviewed Paget in March 1990 and asked if he was involved in the bedroom search. He answered 'no' and said all property taken was entered in the exhibit book. It is not clear whether Roseanne's defence barrister, Ted O'Laughlin QC, who has since died, was aware of this interview, as it was not raised in evidence on her behalf at the trial.
Roseanne Catt's barrister Tom Molomby SC , argued at the inquiry that Thomas and Paget's finding of the containers has now been shown to be 'very strongly false'.
During the inquiry, Molomby examined Barry's prescription records for Rivotril which showed that Barry only ever dispensed one bottle of the drug. Once this was clear, another strong point in the defence case emerged that was not clear at the trial. Paget's alleged find was not the only bottle. At the trial, Newell said for the first time that he had also found other bottles of pills in Roseanne's house, several weeks after she was arrested. He said he had not mentioned finding the pills to the police at the time because he did not see any significance in his discovery until he was asked about them during his evidence. After he produced the containers, the Crown had them analysed and one bottle was found to contain Rivotril.
Although Barry Catt never had more than one bottle of Rivotril at any time, the impossibility of finding two bottles of Rivotril was not noticed until Tom Molomby SC analysed the prescription records at the inquiry.
The circumstantial Crown case at trial was not a strong one, so why was Roseanne Catt convicted? There was one powerful argument that probably convinced the jury Roseanne was guilty. In her summing-up trial judge Justice Jane Matthews placed an emphasis on "a little objective piece" of evidence that she said could not be manufactured. Her argument to the jury depended on the original request for testing being only for Lithium. She reasoned that if Newell or Thomas had planted the drugs, they would have known that both substances were in the fluids and asked for tests for both drugs. She told the jury that the fact that there was no request for testing for Clonazapam until after Roseanne's arrest provided "strong evidence that the police did find both Rivotril (trade name for Clonazapam) and Lithicarb (trade name for Lithium) during the course of the search ... you might find it difficult to come up with any other really coherent explanation which accounts for the sequence of events."
Justice Matthews made these comments despite the test request form not been tendered in evidence. Now that the original request form has surfaced, specifying tests for both Lithium and Rivotril, this argument is nullified.
The test results showed the liquids contained very high levels of Lithium. At the inquiry, Molomby SC demonstrated that the number of pills required to achieve such concentrations would have required far more than were ever prescribed. As Barry had been taking his regular doses, there were simply not enough pills available to achieve the levels found. The Crown case was that Roseanne had control of the prescribed drugs but whoever laced the liquids must have had another source of pills.
The defence case is that one or more of the prosecution witnesses spiked the containers of liquids, lied about finding the pills in Roseanne's bedroom and withheld crucial evidence about the request form from the court.
But the Crown also is still arguing that its case against Roseanne Catt is "overwhelming". It is relying on the four now grown-up Catt children who originally supported Roseanne. They told the inquiry that on Roseanne's instructions, they often crushed and poured tablets into Barry Catt's food, as well as his drinks. The defence argued that they should not be believed because they are self-confessed perjurers, having told the court they gave false evidence in previous court cases. Also, their evidence is not consistent with other evidence, including the fact that such a large number of pills was not available. One of them was not even living with Roseanne during the relevant period, and two of them made reference to "capsules" and "green tablets", whereas the drugs were all white tablets.
In the eyes of the Crown, Roseanne Catt continues to be an evil woman who conspired to destroy her husband. The defence has always argued that she is the victim of a conspiracy between Thomas, Newell and Barry Catt. This argument was given support at the inquiry by Graham Fellows, a resident of Taree who gave evidence that Barry Catt told him in 1993: "they put some tablets in some milk and sent it out to Adrian Newell's farmhouse ... and they kept them in a fridge there and then he said a detective from Taree went out and picked the milk up and took it to a lab to get tested." Fellows said he did not know Roseanne when he came forward with this evidence and knew nothing of her trial. He admitted that he did not like Barry Catt who he said was responsible for him being beaten him up severely on one occasion. He said Catt also told him, "What we done, it was done so well."
The case will resume on Wednesday October 27, 2004 in the Court of Criminal Appeal