Miscarriages of Justice

Alan Leahy

Julie-Anne Leahy and Vicki Arnold were killed at Cherry Tree Creek, on the Atherton tableland near Herberton in July 1991. For more than twenty years the crime was labelled a murder-suicide: in the first coronial inquest in 1992 it was held that Vicki Arnold killed her friend Julie-Anne Leahy and then killed herself. This verdict survived a total of two coronial inquests, three police investigations, two Criminal Justice Commission inquiries, and one State Government review.

This murder-suicide verdict was never accepted by the families of both women, nor was it accepted by those people of Atherton who knew them well. Continued public dissatisfaction resulted in the announcement of a third inquest by the state attorney-general, which was to be conducted by the State Coroner, Michael Barnes, in 2011-2013.

The findings of this third inquest were released on 1 March 2013. The coroner, Michael Barnes, criticized the original police investigation in his 127 page report, and the murder-suicide decision that the police investigation came up with. Michael Barnes found that Vicki Arnold had no motive to kill her friend. He also found that there was enough evidence to commit Julie-Anne’s husband Alan Leahy for trial over the two deaths.

Towards the end of his long report into this case, Michael Barnes wrote

“It is clear that a major problem with this case stemmed from the first response (of) police officers leaping to a conclusion and acting on it without sufficient reflection…In (the book) Crucial Errors in Murder Investigations, the author (Ted Duhs) examines how police jumping to conclusions can miss vital evidence as a result of what he terms the “theory-dependence” of observations. Mr Duhs’ central thesis is that if investigators too quickly fix on or commit to a theory explaining a crime they risk failing to see evidence that may disprove it and are liable to subconsciously distort evidence they do find to make it fit into the framework of their favoured theory. I consider there are indications that happened in this case.

He recommends police services examine their detective training courses to assess whether they teach their officers rational criteria to equip them to choose between contending theories and to continue to gather and analyse all evidence that might be relevant until it is shown not to be. Of course competing theories have to be abandoned as evidence disproves them but it is essential that not be done precipitously. I commend that recommendation to the QPS.”

Mr Barnes decided that there was enough evidence to commit Mr Leahy to stand trial , saying that it was more likely that the women were killed by a third party.

Alan Leahy, who now lives in Perth, subsequently filed an application for a judicial review of the State Coroner’s decision to commit him for trial, alleging that it was an ‘improper exercise’ of Mr Barnes’ power under the Coroner’s Act. Alan Leahy alleges that Michael Barnes took into account “irrelevant considerations” when making this decision. Alan Leahy said that he was prepared to sign an affidavit that he would have objected to the coroner hearing the third inquest if he knew that the coroner had contact with author Robert Reid whom he (Alan Leahy) considered to be a representative of the women’s families when Reid wrote two books on the case. Alan Leahy alleges that the coroner should have disclosed any previous communication he may have had with Robert Reid before the inquest began.

A Supreme Court hearing set down for 5 August will decide the matter. Depending on the result of this hearing, the Director of Public Prosecutions has until 1 September to present the indictment.

The result of the Supreme Court hearing will be followed with great interest.

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