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The man who didn’t kill Colin Winchester (part one)

Dec 9, 2019 • 17m 48s

David Eastman was thought of as a serial pest, until he was convicted of killing Australia’s police chief. The problem was, he didn’t do it.

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The man who didn’t kill Colin Winchester (part one)

138 • Dec 9, 2019

The man who didn’t kill Colin Winchester (part one)

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

In Canberra in the 1970s and ’80s, David Eastman was thought of as a serial pest. That was until he was convicted of murdering the assistant commissioner of the Australian Federal Police. The problem was, he didn’t do it. Sam Vincent on a case that sent the wrong man to prison for 19 years.

This is part one of a two-part episode.

ELIZABETH:

So Sam, you've been reporting on the retrial of David Eastman for close to a year now. Let's start with him as a person. What kind of person is he?

SAM:

So he's now 74 years old. And for the majority of his life, he's been well-known in the Canberra community. He's from a privileged upbringing. His dad was a decorated ambassador who headed diplomatic missions in places like Singapore and Sri Lanka. So Eastman was what Canberrans refer to as a diplo brat. He grew up in this kind of very served upon environment between Canberra and embassies around the world. And then Eastman goes to school in Canberra. He follows in the footsteps of Gough Whitlam and is dux of Canberra Grammar. He studies economics at university and gets a job at the Department of Treasury. And it appears that he is heading for a successful career in the public service.

ELIZABETH:

Sam Vincent is a writer and author. His coverage of the Eastman trial for The Monthly won a Walkley award this year.

SAM:

But he's also quite an eccentric man and he suffers from a paranoid personality disorder, which is diagnosed in the 1970s and by all accounts he’s quite difficult to work with during this time. And in 1977 he is passed over for promotion in Treasury and he quits in protest. And he immediately, successfully, has his resignation reclassified as caused by stress. And he's put on an invalidity pension. And then soon after that, he seeks to have that pension overturned and he seeks to have his mental health approved so he can return to the Treasury. And this is really when Eastman's life starts to descend into chaos. For the next 10 years he embarks on this crusade to get his job back. And he comes to believe that there's a conspiracy to keep him out of the public service.

ELIZABETH:

And so here's a person who quits his job, and then spends years and years trying to get back into the public service. What does that attempt amount to?

SAM:

In meetings with bureaucrats about having his mental health approved, he loses his temper easily. In one example, he pours orange juice over a bureaucrat. But also outside of this process, he's very abusive. He's thrown out of various libraries at ANU for insisting on borrowing arcane legislation. And when that's refused, he, he loses his temper. He he goes to ANU public lectures and argues with speakers. And in one example, he punches a speaker to the ground.

So it's full on and it reaches the stage where basically in 70s and 80s Canberra, everyone who is anyone has heard from David Eastman. Whether you're a senior public servant, a journalist, a politician, he calls in the middle of the night and abuses you or knocks on your door. I heard stories of him ringing random public servants at 4.58 pm on weekdays to check if they were at their desk and if they weren't he would then start yelling and leaving abusive messages about what a waste of taxpayer money this was. He’s really all pervasive - a public nuisance.

But there's a serious side to this shit stirring. He threatened to kill federal Liberal Senator Margaret Reid. And then ACT Labor Attorney General Terry Connolly, and he even threatened to kill the assistant commissioner of the AFP, Colin Winchester. And that's when people started to take him a little more seriously because Colin Winchester was gunned down outside his home in January 1989.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified reporter:

“Colin Winchester is the highest ranking police officer assassinated in Australia. The AFP assistant police commissioner was shot twice in the head outside his Canberra home…”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified reporter:

“For a senior police officer to be assassinated in the haven of his own home, in the driveway, off duty, is a new element in Australian criminal annals. And for that reason every resource has to be mustered to deal with it quickly.”

ELIZABETH:

And so what was Eastman's connection to Colin Winchester? How does he get to the point where he threatens to kill him?

SAM:

So this whole decade, 77 to the late 80s, Eastman is trying to get back into the public service. And in 1988, he finally receives good news.

His mental health has been approved to return to the public service. But there's a potential snag. The previous December, Eastman had been involved in a scuffle with a neighbor at the public flats where they both lived. And Eastman was charged with assault and this was potentially an impediment to him returning to the public service. And so Eastman is basically asking Winchester to have the assault charge overturned. By all reports, it's a pretty heated meeting. Winchester refuses. He says at this stage it's out of his hands. And the meeting ends with Colin Winchester proffering his hand and Eastman refuses to shake it. And then there are allegations of threats on Winchester's life. So right from January 1989, after the murder, David Eastman is considered a prime suspect.

ELIZABETH:

So Eastman becomes a prime suspect in the murder of Colin Winchester. Winchester is basically the ACT’s top cop until that point. What happens next?

SAM:

Well, Eastman refuses to account for his whereabouts. He's very vague. That murder window between about 8:00 and 10:00 p.m. on January 10, 1989, he's never accounted for it. So this looks pretty suss for the police.

So the first thing that's held is a coronial inquest which takes 125 days over three years, but it returns an open finding. Despite circumstantial evidence against David Eastman, the threats, the lack of an alibi - the coroner says that the fatal flaw in the hypothesis of Eastman as a murderer is that there's no evidence linking him to the murder weapon.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified person:

“The position of the shells indicates that the offender was outside the car. The first shot was fired from behind the assistant commissioner at close range… “

SAM:

The murder weapon was never found. But some spent cartridge cases from the murder weapon were found at the scene.

In 1992 a witness comes forward and says that he saw David Eastman leaving the house where the murder weapon was sold by private seller shortly before the murder. And on that evidence, David Eastman is arrested.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified reporter:

“The eccentric and polarising character was arrested three years after the brutal killing.”

Archival Tape -- David Eastman:

“This is an outrageous frameup, I’m completely innocent.”

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

Okay, so we're in 1992 and the police have arrested David Eastman for what they believe is the murder of AFP Assistant Commissioner, Colin Winchester. Tell me about that police investigation.

SAM:

So Eastman is really harassed by the police.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified reporter:

“Police attention was quickly on David Eastman… I initially thought it was a drug raid, they just swooped in”

SAM:

They know that he has a paranoid personality disorder and they've sought psychological advice to crack him. At one stage, they have 10 or 12 people working full time, surveilling him, walking around, following him on foot, on bicycle.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified reporter:

“David it’s Naomi Beazley from ABC television - we’re interested in talking to you now if you’d like to come and talk to us.“

SAM:

And Eastman actually starts to fight back. He throws rocks at them. He's psychologically at a breaking point, but he never admits to the murder.

So in 1995, the trial begins and it's a chaotic trial. It takes seven months. And over those seven months, Eastman sacks his legal counsel 12 times. So he's often representing himself. He's yelling and abusing witnesses. He's swearing at the judge.

The prosecution's case against him is largely circumstantial. A policeman says that he saw Eastman looking into police cars in the city police station where Colin Winchester worked the day of the murder. There are the threats. One man says that he saw Eastman leaving the gun seller’s house the weekend that the gun was sold, the murder weapon.

But the key plank of evidence is the forensic evidence. The prosecution's chief forensic witness claims to have matched gunpowder residue found at the crime scene with gunpowder residue found in Eastman's boot. And crucially, Eastman at this stage is self-representing and he doesn't cross-examine this witness. And it's really considered as irrefutable evidence. And in fact, when the jury finds Eastman guilty at sentencing Justice Carruthers concludes that this was one of the most skilled, sophisticated and determined forensic investigations in Australia's history.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified reporter:

“His late wife heard the crack of the rifle that night.”

Archival Tape -- Winchester’s Wife:

“Colin can rest in peace, knowing that the creaking wheels of justice will incarcerate his assassin…”

SAM:

And when Eastman is led away, he's yelling, as he has been throughout much of the trial, and he yells that this is a miscarriage of justice. He says this is the biggest miscarriage of justice in Australia since Lindy Chamberlain.

ELIZABETH:

And then what happens?

SAM:

So Eastman continues to maintain his innocence and he appeals again and again. And these appeals are rejected.

But finally, in 2010, a man comes forward and he says that in the late 1980s, he borrowed his friend David Eastman's car and went rabbit shooting and he stored his rifle in Eastman's car boot.

ELIZABETH:

Hmm.

SAM:

So suddenly there's this possible alternative explanation for how the gunpowder residues came to be in the boot.

And it prompts the calling of a judicial inquiry. And they pretty quickly determine that this guy, the rabbit shooter, is untrustworthy. But they've already opened the judicial inquiry. And this is when they find that Robert Barnes, the prosecution's forensic expert, was extremely unprofessional in the way he went about things. He was averse to peer review. He only worked alone. It emerged in the judicial inquiry that he was really biased in the way he went about things. And forensic evidence at the time was pretty novel part of investigations and he was found to have overplayed basically the supposed match.

ELIZABETH:

And by the match, you mean the gunpowder that was in Eastman's car, as well as the gunpowder that was found at the crime scene in 1989?

SAM:

Exactly. So Robert Barnes had argued that they had come from the same weapon, the murder weapon. But even from the early days, the investigation, the night of the investigation, there were problems with the way the forensic evidence was collected. 81 people trampled over the crime scene that night. They may well have destroyed crucial evidence.

And in the judicial inquiry, Acting Justice Brian Martin did wonder whether a skilled barrister could have revealed these problems. But the fact is, Eastman was representing himself, so that didn't happen. And the judicial inquiry ends in 2014 with Justice Martin concluding that a miscarriage of justice had occurred because the conviction, murder conviction of David Eastman had come about largely because of forensic evidence, which was unreliable. He concluded that he thought Eastman was quote “probably guilty, but a nagging doubt remains.” So because of the time that had elapsed, he quashed Eastman's conviction and he recommended that Eastman be pardoned. But instead, the full court of the ACT Supreme Court decided to hold a retrial, which started in June of 2018.

So even though Eastman was released from prison at the end of the judicial inquiry, after 19 years, he still had to face this retrial.

ELIZABETH:

And that's what you followed. What happened as a result of that retrial?

SAM:

Yeah. So it was basically the exact same trial of 1995 with two huge differences. One was that the forensic element was simply removed. The other major difference was that Eastman was extremely calm. He didn't carry on once. He had a very skilled barrister who represented him the whole time. And the same witnesses were called, 127 witnesses were called. But a lot of time had now elapsed and Eastman's barrister took great delight in pointing out that these witnesses were now deafer, vaguer, older. Their memories quite weren't quite what they were back in 1995 when they first gave evidence. And this time, after deliberating for six days, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified reporter:

“Hiding his face for the last time, David Eastman always claimed he was innocent and today a 12 member jury agreed”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified reporter:

After a second trial a jury today found him not guilty”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified reporter:

“Not guilty of shooting assistant police commissioner Colin Winchester”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified reporter:

“As the verdict was read out an audible gasp could be heard within the courtroom…”

SAM:

I'll never forget that moment. For five months, there weren't many people in the courtroom. It was just me and a few court reporters. Sometimes I was the only person in the public gallery. But the morning of the verdict, it was completely packed. I think the whole ACT DPP was sitting in the public gallery and Eastman when he stood to hear the verdict, he was bright red. And when the verdict of not guilty came, he mouthed, “thank you” to the jury. And then he thanked the judge. And it was all over. He was suddenly a free man.

ELIZABETH:

Tomorrow: the second part in the story of David Eastman’s wrongful conviction.

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

Fires continue to burn across New South Wales and Queensland. In all more than 140 fires are still active. There is a megafire at Gospers mountain on Sydney's northwestern edge, it is now too large to manage and is expected to burn until the end of January, when rain is forecast. A heatwave is expected this week, and temperatures could reach 43 degrees in Sydney.

And in the United States, the house judiciary committee has released a 55 page report outlining the legal case for president Donald Trump's impeachment. The committee chairman Jerry Nadler, says Trump abused his power, betrayed America's national security, and corrupted its elections, all for personal gain. Nadler says the constitution is clear that the only remedy for such misconduct, is impeachment.

This is 7am, I’m Elizabeth Kulas, see you Tuesday.

In Canberra in the 1970s and ’80s, David Eastman was thought of as a serial pest. That was until he was convicted of murdering the assistant commissioner of the Australian Federal Police. The problem was, he didn’t do it. Sam Vincent on a case that sent the wrong man to prison for 19 years. This is part one of a two-part episode.

Guest: Writer and journalist Sam Vincent.

Background reading:

The retrial of David Eastman in The Monthly
Cap in hand in The Monthly
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Elle Marsh. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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eastman afp truecrime police murder




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138: The man who didn’t kill Colin Winchester (part one)