The handing down of Justice Harrison's verdict in the murder trial of Chris Dawson has gripped the nation. While most of us probably did not watch the entire judgment, handed down orally by his Honour on 30 August 2022, over five hours, many of us tuned in for the verdict. Or, at the very least have been following the case in the media since the Teacher's Pet podcast was released in 2018.
If you're one of the few who have not followed the decades-long story, in summary, Dawson was charged and convicted of the murder of his wife Lynette Dawson. The murder occurred in 1982 however he was not charged until 2018 and was found guilty of her murder this week by Justice Harrison.
There were many intriguing aspects to this case including that Dawson, a school teacher, had been having an affair with his 17-year old student, who had also worked for the couple as a babysitter. After Lynette disappeared, he would go on to marry his former student in 1984 before their union ended in divorce in the early 1990s. It is also interesting that Lynette's body has never been found, her cause of death is not known and that some might cynically think that it has taken a podcast for this case to be properly investigated and charges to be laid over thirty years later.
This case has been receiving substantial media attention since 2018 when the podcast The Teacher's Pet was released by the Australian newspaper. The podcast has had millions of downloads around the world. It explored the disappearance of Lynette in 1982 as well as the subsequent police investigation and coronial inquests. Further episodes were released when police searched the grounds of the former home of the couple in late 2018 and when Dawson was arrested in December 2018. Additional episodes have also been released during the trial.
Dawson was not charged with Lynette's murder until 2018 where he was extradited from Queensland to New South Wales to stand trial. After being granted bail in December 2018, his case was heard by a judge-alone trial in 2022 with the ruling being handed down this week.
The trial took place as a judge-alone trial which meant that Justice Harrison decided the verdict, after hearing all the evidence, rather than a jury. Dawson elected to have his case heard by a judge alone due to concerns about the publicity surrounding his case. He had also previously applied to have his case permanently stayed, meaning that it would never go to trial, on the basis that the amount of media attention his case had received meant he would be unable to have a fair trial. That application was denied.
The trial took place in the New South Wales Supreme Court with Justice Harrison handing down his ruling along with the verdict on 30 August 2022 with thousands of people watching over the live stream on YouTube.
The Murder Case Without A Body
The prosecution case against Dawson was a circumstantial case. This means there was no direct evidence that he had murdered Lynette. A body has never been found and it is also unknown how Dawson killed Lynette. While these types of cases are rare, they can occur. For example, in Tasmania in 2010 Susan Neill-Fraser was found guilty of the murder of her de facto partner after he disappeared from their yacht. His body was never found. Similarly, in 2018 Borce Ristevski pleaded guilty to a charge of the manslaughter of his wife in circumstances where the cause of death was not known (however in that case the body had been found).
To reach his verdict, His Honour made findings based on the evidence he had heard including that:
- Lynette was no longer alive
- Dawson had developed an infatuation with the 17-year-old student who he would eventually go on to marry
- Dawson had wanted to leave Lynette
- Dawson had told lies following the disappearance of Lynette
- Playing down his interest or infatuation with JC, the schoolgirl with whom he had a relationship
- Telling people that he wanted to resume his relationship with his wife (he had attempted to leave her several times)
- Lynette had called him after her disappearance in January 1982
- Lynette had an 'emotional episode' causing her to walk away from her family. Contrarily, his Honour accepted evidence from other witnesses that Lynette was optimistic about the future of her marriage.
- On the day of the murder, Dawson had made arrangements for his children not to be home and spend the night with their grandmother
Interestingly, he also made findings that seemed to be in support of Dawson including:
- Dawson had not previously been violent towards his wife
- He was a person of prior good character
- Any decision to kill his wife was financially motivated
His Honour also made various findings about the activity that had occurred on or around the date of Lynette's disappearance including that he had arranged for his children not to be home during the afternoon and evening - they had stayed at Lynette's mother's house.
If you're interested in learning more, you can read the entire ruling at R v Dawson - NSW Caselaw.
This Verdict and the Criminal Justice System
This case was unusual for many reasons, including the delay in bringing Dawson to trial, the podcast and the intense media coverage of the trial, not just in Australia but around the world. Most criminal trials do not feature one, let alone all, of these significant elements.
For Dawson, there were many disadvantages to having his trial heard forty years after he was alleged to have murdered his wife. Many witnesses had passed away and people's memories of that time had understandably faded. He has always denied the charge and there has been reporting that he plans to appeal the conviction. Not only that, but the family of Lynette Dawson has been waiting a long time for answers and for action from the police. On top of all of this, the intense media attention stemming from the podcast raises the question of whether this case would have been brought to trial without the attention - the NSW police have insisted this is not the case.
For some criminal lawyers it has raised concerns about how cases are investigated and the unsatisfactory delay in having Dawson's case brought to trial. There are many difficulties that can arise for criminal defence lawyers in trying to do their job and defend their clients where a large amount of time has passed between an allegation of murder, or any other type of crime, and a trial. On top of the issues highlighted above - being the death of witnesses and issues with the memories of witnesses who are still alive - forming a defence can be difficult where a client may not remember where they were at the time of the allegations or if there might be a way to establish an alibi. It is also not ideal for families of loved ones who are complainants in criminal matters waiting years for an answer or for anything to happen. It is in the community's interests, not just the accused, that where a person disappears or where there is an allegation of criminal offending, that an investigation is timely and that any criminal charges are brought as soon as they possibly can be.
For some in the community, they might think it is a good thing that Dawson has finally been brought to justice and that this case has been answered. However, this case leaves some questions about why it has taken so long for the investigation to come to a head and concern that this may become more common in the criminal justice system