By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim
Several years after being acquitted of murdering his girlfriend Caroline Byrne, Gordon Wood has commenced civil proceedings against the State of New South Wales, seeking $17.8 million in damages for malicious prosecution and false imprisonment.
In a famous miscarriage of justice, Mr Wood spent more than three years in Goulburn prison after a jury concluded that he had murdered Ms Byrne by throwing her off a cliff at ‘The Gap’ on Sydney’s South Head in June 1995. His conviction was overturned by the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal (NSWCCA) in 2012.
Mr Wood always maintained his innocence, and his belief that Ms Byrne committed suicide. Evidence was presented to the Supreme Court jury at his trial that Ms Byrne had previously attempted suicide and that, in the month preceding her death, she presented to her GP Dr Cindy Pan with severe depression.
Ms Byrne’s suicidal ideation was so severe that Dr Pan arranged an appointment with a psychiatrist the very next day – but Byrne did not attend.
In the NSWCCA
During the appeal hearing, lawyers for Mr Wood criticised the way Crown Prosecutor Mark Tedeschi QC addressed the jury at the end of the trial.
Chief Justice at Common Law Peter McClellan was also critical of Mr Tedeschi’s approach to the case. “The suggested evidence of a motive is so thin that it should never have been left with the jury”, the judge remarked.
Mr Wood’s lawyers additionally attacked the trial testimony of retired University of Sydney physicist and associate professor, Rod Cross. They emphasised that the professor’s background in plasma physics (the behaviour of high temperature gasses) did not qualify him to act as an expert on the physics of bodily movement – specifically, to give an opinion on whether Ms Byrne jumped or was thrown off the cliff.
The NSWCCA accepted that submission, finding that the professor’s evidence had “little if any evidentiary value”.
The barrister for Mr Wood’s claim for damages, Bruce McClintock SC, has told the Supreme Court that a “flawed and biased” investigation caused a miscarriage of justice. “It was always intended to find my client was guilty of murder, not to get to the actual truth,” McClintock submitted.
He told the court that Mr Tedeschi was prepared to “bend the rules” by putting submissions to the jury without supporting evidence, and that the case against his client was fuelled by Ms Byrne’s jealous ex-boyfriend Andrew Blanchette, who was a police officer at the time.
Mr McClintock claimed police detectives “poisoned the mind” of Professor Cross, telling the professor that Mr Wood was guilty before even asking him to write a report. The court heard that the head of the investigation team, Detective Paul Jacob, even told the professor that Wood had asked to see Ms Byrne’s breasts when her body was in Glebe morgue – information which was simply untrue and was designed to paint Wood in a bad light.
McClintock further submitted that police the professor that another crown witness, artist John Doherty, saw two men and a woman arguing at The Gap at arounf the time Byrne died. “It’s obvious that police — whether intentionally or not — poisoned Professor Cross’ mind by putting these things into it,” Mr McClintock submitted, adding that such comments affected the professor’s impartiality. ‘
The barrister suggested that the professor was even “prepared to fabricate evidence”, and that he harboured a motive to see Mr Wood convicted because he was already in the process of writing a book titled “Evidence for Murder: How Physics Convicted a Killer”.
McClintock remarked that if the book had been called “How Dodgy Data Failed to Convict an Innocent Man”, sales would not have as good.
Claims for malicious prosecution
Professor David Rolph from the University of Sydney Law School suggests that it can be difficult to prove claims of malicious prosecution against the state.
He outlines four elements that a claimant must prove to be successful:
- The person [or body] you are suing prosecuted you, usually for a criminal offence,
- The prosecution was terminated in your favour,
- The prosecution acted with malice, and
- The proceedings were brought or maintained without reasonable and probable cause.
The professor does, however, acknowledge that there have been successful claims in the past, including by Roseanne Beckett who, in 2015, was awarded over $4 million in damages after being wrongfully convicted of murdering her husband and spending 10 years in prison.