Miscarriages of Justice

The Edward Splatt Case and the Shannon Royal Commission

Mrs Rosa Simper had lived alone in her house in the Adelaide industrial suburb of Cheltenham for twenty-three years since her husband had died. Late on Friday night 2 December 1977 she was assaulted and strangled in her bed by someone who had entered the house by removing a screen from a side window, before climbing over the window sill and entering her bedroom. Mrs Simper was 77 years old. Her daughter, who lived next door, discovered her mother’s body next morning sprawled across the blood-soaked bed.

Within two weeks, police attention focused on Edward Splatt, a spray painter who worked at Wilson’s Engineering Works, a factory diagonally opposite Mrs Simper’s home, and only about sixty metres distant. Splatt attracted their interest initially because of paint and metal particles that they found on the bedsheet on which Mrs Simper was killed. As well, fine particles of orange paint were discovered and these appeared to have originated from spray-painting. The police case against Splatt was circumstantial, but a number of circumstances seemed to point to him as the likely killer. Splatt kept budgerigars in a small aviary at his home close by, and a feather found on the bedsheet was similar to that from a green budgerigar. Bird seed was also found on the bedsheet similar to bird seed found at Splatt’s aviary.

Detective Senior Sergeant Barry Cocks, the head of the Technical Services Division of the South Australian police, took charge of the investigation. He discovered that among the debris on the window sill where the murderer entered the house, paint and metal particles were present in a constant ratio of 75% paint to 25% metal particles. Sergeant Cocks then examined the crime scene and discovered that the same ratio of 75% to 25% applied to the paint and metal particles found on the bedsheet. He became convinced that Splatt was the murderer when an examination of Splatt’s work clothes, as well as the clothes that Splatt had worn on the night of Friday 2 December, revealed paint and metal particles again in a 75% paint to 25% metal particles ratio. Cocks theorized that Splatt had entered through the window depositing paint and metal particles from his clothes, and then had carried more paint and metal particles in his clothes to the bedsheet when he committed the murder. Cocks was convinced that the constant ratio of paint to metal particles was a result of Locard’s exchange principle of transference. Cocks was equally certain that the paint and metal particles could not have been carried by the wind from a pollutant source like the factory to the window sill. Cocks noted other points of similarity between the crime scene and Splatt’s clothing: this included seed endosperm, foam spicules and fibres taken from Splatt’s clothing which ‘matched’ seed particles, foam and fibres found on the bedsheet. At Splatt’s trial, the jury accepted Cocks’ explanation of the evidence, and in a unanimous decision, found Splatt guilty of murdering Mrs Simper. Splatt was sentenced to life in prison. Splatt’s appeal, in January 1979, before the Court of Criminal Appeal was dismissed. Splatt now felt that unless he did something to publicise his case he would die in prison. He wrote a detailed account of what he regarded as errors in the police case against him and sent it to Stewart Cockburn, an investigative journalist with The Adelaide Advertiser.

Stewart Cockburn became convinced that the police had misunderstood and misrepresented the scientific evidence in the case. He wrote several articles arguing that Splatt was innocent of the crime, and he called for an independent assessment of the police investigation and also for a Royal Commission. Other people and organizations began to take an interest in the matter. The Legal Services Commission of South Australia asked Mr Frank Moran QC to write a report on the Splatt case. The Moran Report which was completed in late 1981 concluded that the police investigation leading to the conviction of Splatt was “unscientific and slipshod.” (see Flawed Forensics: the Splatt Case and Stewart Cockburn, 2009, Tom Mann, Griffin Press, p.177). The Moran Report called for an immediate examination of the problems inherent in the way forensic evidence was being used in trials, and criticized the methodology employed by the Technical Services Division of the South Australian police. The report questioned whether trace elements at a crime scene should be collected by police officers, whether those police officers should then be able to select samples from that evidence for outside scientific advice, and whether those police officers should be able to give an opinion about that evidence of a quasi-scientific nature. (ibid., p.179).

In November 1982 a change of government resulted in the appointment of the Shannon Royal Commission to enquire into the conviction of Splatt and also the wider issue of the methodology employed by the police to present forensic evidence to the court.

The Shannon Royal Commission met on 196 days over a fourteen month period and was the longest and most expensive in the history of South Australia. The total cost was estimated at $1.5 million. A number of eminent scientists both from Australia and abroad were unanimous in criticizing the methodology of the Technical Services Division of the South Australian police as “unscientific and woefully inadequate.” (ibid., p.178). Detective Sergeant Cocks’ contention that the trace materials found on the bedsheet could not have come from wind-blown industrial pollution was described as “wrong, and should be totally disregarded.” (ibid., p.180 and p.233). And the ‘matching’ of the scientific evidence with Splatt’s clothing was “based on pre-conceived ideas and assumptions” and was “unacceptable from a scientific point of view.”(ibid., p.182). No scientific ‘expert’ who gave evidence at Splatt’s trial was immune from criticism from the eminent scientists who appeared before the Royal Commission. Judge Roma Mitchell’s directions to the jury regarding ‘similarities’ and ‘the absence of dissimilarities’ were also criticized. Judge Shannon believed that the jury took these phrases to imply identification, rather than points of likeness. The Shannon Royal Commission finished hearing evidence on 1 March 1984.(ibid., p.264). Judge Shannon recommended that Splatt should be released from jail because “it would be unjust and dangerous for the verdict of guilty to stand.” (ibid., p.265). Splatt was released on 6 August 1984 after six and a half years in jail. Splatt later received an ex gratia payment of $300,000.

Tom Mann writes “as a consequence of the Splatt case… the government of South Australia…(set up) a new division of forensic science, the State Forensic Science Centre; it would be independent of the police force.” (ibid., p.276).

The Splatt case and the Lindy Chamberlain case were responsible for the setting up of the National Institute of Forensic Science to improve standards in government forensic laboratories.

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