On August 24, 1989 Roseanne Beckett (then Roseanne Catt) was arrested in the NSW north coast town of Taree and charged with attempted poisoning, conspiracy to murder and seven other offences against her former husband, mechanic Barry Catt. She was described as “evil and manipulative woman” and served nearly all of a 12-year sentence before being released in 2001 after new evidence revealed police had planted a gun in her bedroom.
Today, after a 26-year fight to clear her name, Beckett was awarded $2.3 million in damages for malicious prosecution, plus legal costs, in the NSW Supreme Court.
She sued the state of NSW in an epic miscarriage of justice case that has been in and out for courts for more the two decades, at one stage going all the way to the High Court to allow Beckett to launch her legal action.
Justice Ian Harrison’s decision is just the latest battle in a fight for justice reminiscent of Lindy Chamberlain’s 1982 wrongful conviction for the death of her daughter Azaria at Uluru.
After today’s judgment Beckett described the NSW Department of Public Prosecution (DPP) as “monsters” who “dragged me through hell, court after court, costing the taxpayer”.
Central to her continued persecution was a local detective sergeant, Peter Thomas, now deceased, whom she first met during an unrelated incident in 1983. He was investigating a fire at her delicatessen business in Taree on Christmas Day. She subsequently lodged complaints about DS Thomas and his behaviour, and after that she was charged with arson, but the case did not proceed.
“This was the cauldron out of which the later monumental events would develop,” Justice Harrison said.
She married Barry Catt, four years later, and they separated a year later, but in 1989, when he was facing assault charges against his wife and her children, Thomas charged her with conspiracy to murder her husband.
“Detective Thomas utilised the legal system in a way that did not secure justice but perverted it” in an “act of vengeance”, Justice Harrison said.
Beckett, who now lives in Wollongong, had most of her convictions quashed on appeal in 2005, after a 2004 judicial inquiry found that prosecution witnesses had conspired to frame her. A re-trial was ordered but the DPP decided to not pursue it.
She tried to sue for compensation, but a 90-year-old law meant she had to prove her innocence first. She applied to the High Court against the law and won in 2013.
Her Supreme Court case began in July 2014. By coincidence, Justice Harrison’s judgment was handed down on the 26th anniversary of the day police raided her home at 7.30am and supposedly found the gun.
“Victory, at long last victory,” Beckett said outside the court.
“I have been going to bed with it for 26 years. I have woken up with it for 26 years. I have had nightmares.”
While Beckett outlasted her tormentor, the money was not the compensation she wanted.
“He took that 10 years away from me,” she said. “No amount of money can bring that 10 years back.”
Her scorn for the NSW Department of Public Prosecutions was equally apparent, with Beckett declaring “the DPP is fatally flawed, it is broke, ineffectual”.
“Peter Thomas ran this case right up until he died last year. The public have a right to know how their money is being wasted,” she said.
“Thomas paid not a cent because he had the Crown at his fingertips and that is so wrong.”
The Crown may yet appeal against the decision.
Journalist Wendy Bacon covered Roseanne Beckett’s fight to clear her name for 15 years. You can read all about it here.
— Wendy Bacon (@Wendy_Bacon) August 24, 2015
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