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

Dec 10, 2019 • 16m 11s

Following his wrongful conviction for the murder of Canberra’s top police officer, David Eastman sought compensation. But bigger questions remain, about mental health and the law.

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

139 • Dec 10, 2019

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

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

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

Following his wrongful conviction for the murder of Canberra’s top police officer, David Eastman sought compensation. But there are bigger questions in this case, about how the legal system responds to mental health. Sam Vincent on how a troubled man tried, unsuccessfully, to represent himself.

This is the second part in a two part series.

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

So Sam, we're talking about David Eastman, who was acquitted last year for the murder of AFP assistant commissioner, Colin Winchester in 1989. What’s happened since that original conviction was overturned?

SAM:

Well, perhaps consistent with David Eastman's personality, the morning in 2018 when he was found not guilty, it suddenly emerged that he had already filed a case for compensation. So on the chance that he'd be found not guilty, he was suing the government for wrongful conviction.

ELIZABETH:

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

SAM:

Now, he could do this because the ACT in 2004 became the first jurisdiction in Australia to legislate a human rights charter. And Eastman's case for compensation was that his human rights had been trampled because he served 19 years for a crime that a jury in 2018 had found he did not commit.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“David Eastman’s suing the ACT government after a miscarriage of justice saw him forced to spend a quarter of his life in prison…”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“Compensation can be available in circumstances of unlawful imprisonment or wrongful conviction and certainly that’s what’s sought…”

SAM:

So back in October of this year, I was sitting at my desk at ANU and I knew that the compensation claim was about to begin but I made the conscious decision not to attend. I thought I was done with David Eastman, I was really burnt out covering the retrial. And I got a text message from a friend who is still saved in my phone as “Rachel, the true crime buff.” She went to much of Eastman's retrial just for fun. And she messaged me and said, Sam, you have to come to court right now, David Eastman is about to take the stand in his compensation claim. And I had to see this because throughout last year's retrial, we didn't hear from David Eastman. In 1995, he was carrying on and swearing, self representing. But throughout last year’s retrial, he was silent. So suddenly he took the stand during the compensation case.

ELIZABETH:

And Sam, recordings can’t be made inside the ACT Supreme Court, so can you tell us what Eastman said that day?

SAM:

Yeah. He described how his life had effectively been destroyed because of his murder conviction. He said that while in prison, he witnessed 10 people either attempt or successfully suicide. He said that in 2000, he attempted suicide himself. He described being placed in solitary confinement, instances of torture, basically, being left outside, tied up in the hot sun, soiling himself because he couldn't go to the toilet. Repeated bashings. He told the court that he witnessed a murder while in prison and that he was asked to testify, but he refused, knowing that he would be harmed or killed in prison if he did so.

What I found most fascinating was the realisation that nearly 20 years had passed and he was now an old man. He said that on the bus in Canberra after his release, a teenage girl gave up her seat for him. And initially he chuckled, he thought, what are you doing? I'm not an old man. And he realised that in, in the public's mind, he actually was an old man. The middle aged man who had gone to prison in 1995 was now an old man. So during the compensation claim, the ACT’s lawyers argued that while Eastman had been wrongly convicted, a miscarriage of justice had not occurred because the judicial inquiry ended with his murder conviction being quashed rather than reversed as the legislation stipulated.

They said that because he had to face a retrial for murder, his conviction had not been reversed. They also said that because since 1989, no new evidence has emerged. For example, an alibi or someone else saying that they committed the crime, that that that did not meet the eligibility for compensation. But the judge disagreed with them. First of all, he said that there was no distinction between Eastman's murder conviction being, quote, quashed or reversed. So...

ELIZABETH:

It does sound like a bit of a semantic difference.

SAM:

Yeah, it does. I mean, under our legal system, you are considered innocent until guilty. So the judge pointed out that David Eastman was considered an innocent man until 1995 when he was convicted of murder. Between 1995 and 2014 he was a convicted man. And then when his conviction was quashed, it was effectively reversed. And David Eastman was awarded 7.02 million dollars.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“David Eastman, the man jailed for almost 20 years for killing one of Australia’s top police officers has been awarded more than $7 million compensation.”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“Closure for 74-year-old David Eastman? Maybe. For the Winchester case? Not at all.”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“Questions still linger in some minds over who really did kill Colin Winchester.”

ELIZABETH:

So, Sam, what does this mean for the person that actually did kill Colin Winchester?

SAM:

Well, out the front of Court in November 2018 when David Eastman was found not guilty, a spokesman for Colin Winchester's family said that they were gutted by the result. They firmly believe that David Eastman is the killer. And this is a view held officially by the AFP. They are refusing to reopen the murder investigation. But there is an alternative hypothesis that was touched upon during the retrial last year.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“The national media honed in on the mafia angle. The story about Colin Winchester’s role in a drug investigation into two crops near Bungendore outside Canberra even sparked a TV drama…”

SAM:

It's extremely complicated. But basically Colin Winchester, in the early 1980s, was involved in a sting operation. He oversaw a sting of Calabrian marijuana growers outside of Canberra. He had an informant who was being paid by the AFP and unbeknownst to his organised crime colleagues, was informing the AFP on their activities. And this went on for many years. And eventually, eleven people were charged. But just a few weeks before they were due to go to court, Colin Winchester was murdered and the case collapsed.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“The theory was that mafia bosses believed they were paying Colin Winchester for protection. And felt double crossed when they realised it was a trap.”

SAM:

The police informant who had been employed by Winchester refused to testify. And so the charges were dropped. So that's the alternative hypothesis, that Colin Winchester was assassinated by the 'Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mob, for double crossing them. But this rests on circumstantial evidence as well. And if they did do it, it's this fascinating case of bad luck for David Eastman.

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

Sam, David Eastman was recently awarded more than $7 million dollars as a result of this wrongful convicted in the 1990s. What do you think this case says more broadly about Australia’s justice system?

SAM:

I think last year's retrial was a fair trial, and it showed, in my mind, that the jury system in Australia works. They deliberated for six days. Initially they told the judge they could not reach a unanimous verdict, but they did in the end and they found him not guilty. That doesn't mean that they all necessarily believed Eastman was innocent, but rather that the prosecution's case did not prove beyond reasonable doubt that Eastman did it. And having heard just about the entire retrial, I agree. I think that he could not be convicted on the evidence that was shown to the court.

But the major difference, alongside this lack of forensic evidence, so much time had elapsed and David Eastman was no longer this mythical public nuisance that he was in the 90s. And there's a funny illustration of this. In the ACT, for murder trials, usually 100 potential jurors are empanelled, but for the retrial of David Eastman, 500 people were empanelled. And the first question they were asked is, “who has heard of David Eastman?” And he’s such an infamous character that the vast majority of people raised their hands and were instantly disqualified. But the jurors that ended up being empanelled, they had testified effectively that they'd never heard of David Eastman.

So not only have they never heard of the murder of Colin Winchester and that Eastman had been convicted of it, but they hadn't heard of Eastman's public nuisance mythological status. And I really think that that means they weren't tainted in a way that I find it impossible to believe the 1995 jury wasn't. I don't think Eastman could have received a fair trial in 1995 in Canberra. Such was his infamy. And I think that really embodies the problem with the ‘95 trial and something that I came to firmly believe last year that David Eastman wasn't simply being tried for murder, but he had been prejudged in the court of public opinion for being a narc, for being a bully, for being an arsehole. And it's not mutually exclusive to be a dickhead and be the victim of a miscarriage of justice. And I think that's what this is all about.

ELIZABETH:

And we know that Eastman has a paranoid personality disorder. What does this say about the way our justice system interacts with mental illness, both then and now?

SAM:

All I've seen is the transcript from 1995 and the stories. But the fact that he would sack his lawyers when they they raised his fitness to plead yet be allowed to immediately start self representing. I think that's deeply troublesome. In crucial parts of the trial. Not only did he not cross-examine key witnesses, he would swear, he would ...he poured water over some lawyers. I read that he even sang Davy Crockett at one stage. I think it never should have reached that stage. Obviously, if we'd have known of the flaws in the forensic evidence, a good barrister would have taken this supposed forensic expert to pieces and destroyed his reputation in the eyes of the jury in 1995. But that didn't happen, because Eastman was deemed fit enough to not just plead, but represent himself.

ELIZABETH:

And Sam, what now for David Eastman? We know before all of this he was fighting to get back into the public service, in fact, that’s how he came to be in a feud with Colin Winchester in the first place… Is getting back to work still his ambition?

SAM:

Yeah, I mean in his written statement to the court during the compensation claim in October of this year, he said that he still wished to work and to start a family. Actually, he told the court that since his release after the judicial inquiry and last year's acquittal, he's applied for jobs as a research assistant. He really wants to contribute to public service. Really, he hasn't stopped trying to get back to work since 1977.

Archival Tape -- David Eastman’s solicitor:

“I think at this stage he’s lost a significant chunk of his life and he’s obviously got some thoughts in mind about what he might do with it but we’ll have to wait and see…”

SAM:

His solicitor outside court wouldn't say whether $7.02 million had changed that desire to work. Given that he's 74 years old. But there’s potentially a indication of what Eastman might do with his money. During last year's retrial, I came across an article that the journalist Margo Kingston wrote, and she talked to a unnamed politician, and he had had first hand experience with David Eastman's crusade to get back in the public service. And this politicians quote to Margo Kingston was that Eastman is the kind of guy, who if he won one million dollars in the lottery, would spend it all trying to get back in the public service. And as it turned out, Eastman won $7 million of compensation.

ELIZABETH:

Sam, thank you so much.

SAM:

Thanks so much.

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

New Zealand’s most active volcano, Whakaari or White Island in the Bay of Plenty erupted on Monday with dozens of tourists present. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday that the situation on White Island, was quote, “significant and evolving”. About 100 people were believed to have been on or around the island at the time of the eruption. The site is located about 50 kilometres off the coast of New Zealand's North Island, with the eruption sending plumes of white smoke and debris into the atmosphere.

The Australian Election Survey of more than 2,000 Australians has found just 25 per cent of those surveyed believed the government could be trusted. The finding is the lowest level of trust since the ANU first began conducting its post-election survey in 1960. Lead researcher Professor Ian McAllister told the ABC, quote, "I've been studying elections for 40 years, and never have I seen such poor returns for public trust in and satisfaction with democratic institutions.”

This is 7am. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Wednesday.

Following his wrongful conviction for the murder of Canberra’s top police officer, David Eastman sought compensation. But there are bigger questions in this case, about how the legal system responds to mental health. Sam Vincent on how a troubled man tried, unsuccessfully, to represent himself.

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, with Michelle Macklem. 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 mentalhealth




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139: The man who didn’t kill Colin Winchester (part two)