The Keli Lane case has captivated Australia for over a decade. The case has recently resurfaced in public discussion in light of the ABC’s three-part documentary series, Exposed: The Case of Keli Lane. While the mini-series largely focuses on the interviews between journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna and Lane, it also sparks questions about key legal principles.
Background (Keli Lane Facts)
Lane gave birth to her daughter, Tegan, in September 1996. Two days after giving birth Lane left the hospital to attend a wedding. She would later tell authorities that when she left the hospital she gave her baby to its father, Andrew Morris or Norris (Lane couldn’t remember which). Years later, a social worker discovered that Tegan’s birth had never been registered. When police were alerted, significant resources were employed in an attempt to locate Tegan and her father. The attempt was unsuccessful.
A coronial inquest into Tegan’s disappearance was held and resulted in Lane being charged with murder. Lane was eventually convicted after a six-month trial.
The documentary sheds light on important legal principles such as establishing guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the right to silence and the role of majority verdicts in the criminal justice system.
Burden and standard of proof (and why it matters in the Keli Lane Case)
One of the central questions put forward by the documentary was whether, given the circumstantial nature of the evidence provided, the prosecution had satisfied the required standard of proof to secure a conviction.
In criminal law, the burden of proof lies with the prosecution, meaning that the prosecution has the responsibility to prove a defendant is guilty. This reflects the important legal principle that an accused is entitled to a presumption of innocence.
The standard of proof in a criminal trial is beyond reasonable doubt. This is a high threshold. A judge or jury can only convict an accused if it has been persuaded, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the charge has been proved.
While the phrase ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ is entrenched in the criminal law, the courts have been reluctant to ascribe a specific definition to the phrase. The leading High Court authority describes it as ‘a doubt which the particular jury entertain in the circumstances. Jurymen themselves set the standard of what is reasonable in the circumstances’. This ruling reinforces the importance of adhering to the phrase’s plain and ordinary meaning.
The prosecution’s case
The prosecution based their case on motive. They argued that Lane’s reproductive history (she had previously terminated two pregnancies and given one child up for adoption), coupled with her desire to compete in the Olympics was sufficient to establish a motive to kill Tegan.
The prosecution was able to have this evidence admitted by attaching charges of perjury to the murder charge.
Initially, the prosecution put forward a theory that Tegan’s body was disposed of at a site in Homebush. This allegation was later withdrawn because there was no evidence to support it.
The defence’s main line of argument was that the prosecution couldn’t prove that Tegan was dead, nor did they have any evidence to demonstrate that if she was dead, Lane was responsible. The defence argued the prosecution’s case was based on theories and not evidence, noting that there was nobody, no DNA evidence and no CCTV footage to incriminate Lane.
Keli Lane’s silence during the trial
Lane followed the advice of her legal counsel and chose not to give evidence during the trial. In doing so, Lane exercised what is colloquially known as the right to silence.
Section 89 of the Evidence Act specifically outlines that an unfavourable inference must not be drawn if a party to a criminal proceeding refuses to give evidence, answer questions or respond to representations.
The exception to this rule is outlined in s 89A, which states that in a criminal proceeding for a serious indictable offence, an unfavourable inference may be drawn if the defendant has failed to mention a fact that they later rely on as their defence in the proceedings, and they could have reasonably been expected to mention said fact in the circumstances.
In NSW, verdicts can take one of two forms: a unanimous verdict or a majority verdict. A ‘hung jury’ results in circumstances where neither a unanimous nor a majority verdict can be reached. In these cases, the jury is discharged, and the prosecution must decide whether to retry the case.
A unanimous verdict occurs when all jurors return the same verdict (either guilty or not guilty).
If the judge is satisfied that a unanimous verdict will not be returned, it may advise the jury that it can return a majority verdict. Certain conditions must be met in order to allow a majority verdict to be returned. One such condition is that deliberations must have occurred for at least eight hours. Majority verdicts may take the form of 11-1 (when 12 jurors are deliberating) or 10-1 (if only 11 jurors are deliberating).
After eight days of deliberations in the Keli Lane case, the jury was still unable to reach a decision, with 11 jurors voting for a guilty verdict and one juror refusing to convict.
Having been satisfied that a unanimous verdict could not be reached, the judge allowed the jury to return a majority verdict of 11-1.
Lane’s attempts to appeal her conviction failed. She will be eligible for parole in 2023.
While the ABC’s documentary raises many questions about the facts and legal principles explored in the Keli Lane case, the conclusion that can be drawn from the series is that the Keli Lane case continues to intrigue the nation.
How We Can Help
If you would like to know more about the legal issues discussed above, or you need advice or representation please contact Hamilton Janke Lawyers 24 hours a day, seven days a week on 4038 1666 (office hours) or 0422 050 502 (24/7).