The Presumption of Innocence & The Press (Lynette Dawson, Teacher’s Pet Podcast)

The Case: Murder of Lynette Dawson

The investigation into the disappearance and the alleged murder of Lynette Dawson culminated in the arrest of her husband, Chris Dawson, in December 2018. Mr Dawson’s arrest was a dramatic turn of events given that it has been 36 years since Ms Dawson disappeared.

When granting Mr Dawson bail, the presiding magistrate emphasised his right to a presumption of innocence and highlighted the fact that he has “nil criminal history in NSW, or matters of violence in his 70 years”.

Public interest in the case has continued to intensify over the last six months in light of the fact that the case is the subject of a popular podcast, titled The Teacher’s Pet.

The popularity of the podcast and Mr Dawson’s subsequent arrest has shone a light on the impact of the media on the criminal justice system.

The Teacher’s Pet

The case is the subject of The Australian’s podcast series The Teacher’s Pet, which explores the case from the perspective of investigative journalist Hedley Thomas. The podcast, which first aired in May 2018, has gained over 27 million listeners and has trended internationally.

The Teacher’s Pet is the only Australian podcast to reach the number one spot in the US, the UK, Canada and New Zealand. Journalist Hedley Thomas and composer/producer Slade Gibson were awarded the 2018 Gold Walkley Award in recognition of their work on the podcast.

Why the delayed charge?

For some offences, there is a time limit within which proceedings must be brought against an individual. This is sometimes referred to by using the American term ‘statute of limitations’. However, the law in Australia is vastly different from the US.

In NSW, the time limit for the commencement of summary proceedings is outlined in section 179 of the Criminal Procedure Act 1986. The section outlines that proceedings for a summary (minor) offence must be commenced no later than six months from when the offence was alleged to have been committed.

However, there is no time period within which a charge must be brought for indictable (serious) offences. This means that a proceeding for an indictable offence can be brought many years after the alleged crime has been committed, as has occurred in this case,

Two coronial inquests into the disappearance of Ms Dawson, conducted between 2001 and 2003, concluded that it was probable Ms Dawson had been murdered. However, Mr Dawson was not charged as the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) believed there was insufficient evidence to establish the case beyond reasonable doubt. Mr Dawson has always maintained his innocence. One of the central issues with the case, which still remains, is the fact that Ms Dawson’s body has never been found.

Reinvestigation of the case began in 2015. In April 2018 NSW Police supplied a new brief of evidence to the DPP for review, which culminated in the arrest of Mr Dawson in December last year. He was arrested in Queensland before being extradited to NSW and charged with murder.

The Commander of the NSW Homicide Squad, Detective Superintendent Scott Cook said: “two new witness statements helped to piece the evidence together”.

Impact of the media

The public’s fascination with ‘true crime’ media is a double-edged sword in the criminal justice system. On one hand, it can bring important community issues to light and profoundly affect the way the public understands the criminal justice system. However, pre-emptive commentary on legal issues may adversely affect an individual’s right to a fair trial.

From a more general legal perspective, sensational accusations may result in media organisations facing legal action themselves, given that Australia has very strict laws against defamation.

Where to now?

Mr Dawson has outlined that he will plead not guilty when he faces trial, which is not likely to occur until 2020.

If you need advice or representation for a criminal matter, please contact Hamilton Janke Lawyers 24 hours a day, seven days a week on 4038 1666 (office hours) or 0422 050 502 (24/7).

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