Family's fight set to earn 'killer' pardon 60 years on

One of Australia's worst miscarriages of justice – the conviction of an itinerant sheep shearer for the murder of a man whose body was not found until 70 years later – is about to be righted, thanks to a campaign by his family.

Fred McDermott, a heavy drinker with a record of minor crimes, was found guilty of killing William Lavers, an English-born storekeeper who disappeared just after dawn on 5 September 1936. McDermott was arrested a decade later and convicted in 1947 on flimsy evidence. He spent five years in prison before being released after a royal commission discredited the prosecution evidence.

But he was never formally exonerated and died a broken man in 1977, according to his second cousin, Betty Sheelah. It was not until Lavers's remains were found on an isolated farm in 2004, and an inquest was held two years later, that the family saw any hope of securing justice.

Last week the state Attorney-General, John Hatzistergos, referred the case to the Court of Appeal, which will examine transcripts of the 1947 trial, the 1952 royal commission and the inquest, then decide whether to quash McDermott's conviction. Mrs Sheelah, 72, who lobbied the government to reopen the case, wants the record set straight. "It needs to be put into the history books that he was innocent," she said.

Lavers, a 46-year-old who had four children, vanished early one Sunday morning. His wife, Mary, found blood and hair on a petrol pump outside their roadside store, near Grenfell, in western New South Wales. McDermott was charged in 1946 after a witness claimed to have seen him in a car which police believed was used by the killer to flee the scene.

McDermott had allegedly boasted to his girlfriend, Florrie Hampton, of killing Lavers, cutting up his body and burying it in some sheepyards in the vicinity. The 37-year-old was found guilty and condemned to death, a sentence later commuted to life in prison.

Mrs Sheelah, who lives in northern New South Wales, said he never recovered after his release. "He was ill when he came out of jail, and because he was still considered to be a murderer, he couldn't find work," she said. "He ended up more or less a derelict, and he died in an old men's home of leukaemia. It totally ruined his life."

The real killer was never found. But nearly 30 years after McDermott's death came a dramatic development. Ted Markham, a farmer, was working on his property, a couple of miles from the site of Lavers's store, when he came across a skull lying under a tree. The farmer later found other bones nearby and DNA tests established that the remains were those of Lavers.

The discovery demonstrated that the sheepyards story was nonsense. (McDermott told police he invented it because his girlfriend was baiting him about Lavers's disappearance.) At the inquest the coroner ruled that the shearer was the victim of a "gross miscarriage of justice".

The Court of Appeal is expected to re-examine the documents next year and Tom Molomby, a Sydney barrister who wrote a book about the case in 2004, believes the chances of the conviction being quashed are "overwhelming". He said: "The evidence against McDermott has been completely destroyed."

McDermott was the cousin of Mrs Sheelah's father. "Freddie worked hard in the [shearing] sheds all week, then drank hard at the weekends," she said. "He was very close to my father, and I can imagine the two old fellows sitting up there on a cloud, saying: 'Good on you, Betty, you get stuck into them.'"

She said the family never doubted his innocence: "He was a gentle man. My mother used to always say: 'Freddie McDermott couldn't kill anyone because if there was a log of wood in the fire with ants on it, he would take the log out so the ants wouldn't burn.

"The whole thing was trumped up, and I'm determined to clear his name. The Australian justice system has to put it right."

News
newsVideo targets undecided voters
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
tv
Life and Style
Cooked up: reducing dietary animal fat might not be as healthy as government advice has led millions of people to believe
healthA look at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
News
Evan Spiegel, the founder of Snapchat, dropped out of Stanford University just before graduation to develop his app
techAnd yes, it is quite a lot
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Retail Business Architect

Flexible for the right candidate: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: I have a fa...

Calypso Developer

£500 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: Calypso Developer Calypso, J2SE, XML, ...

IT Developer/Analyst

£35000 - £36000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A market leading financia...

Pricing Manager, Finance, Edinburgh, £250-350p/d

£250 - £350 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is cur...

Day In a Page

Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

From strung out to playing strings

Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

A big fat surprise about nutrition?

The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

On the road to nowhere

A Routemaster trip to remember
Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

Hotel India

Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind
10 best pencil cases

Back to school: 10 best pencil cases

Whether it’s their first day at school, uni or a new project, treat the student in your life to some smart stationery
Arsenal vs Besiktas Champions League qualifier: Gunners know battle with Turks is a season-defining fixture

Arsenal know battle with Besiktas is a season-defining fixture

Arsene Wenger admits his below-strength side will have to improve on last week’s show to pass tough test
Pete Jenson: Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought

Pete Jenson: A Different League

Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought
This guitar riff has been voted greatest of all time

The Greatest Guitar Riff of all time

Whole Lotta Votes from Radio 2 listeners
Britain’s superstar ballerina

Britain’s superstar ballerina

Alicia Markova danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays
Berlin's Furrie invasion

Berlin's Furrie invasion

2000 fans attended Eurofeurence
‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

Driven to the edge by postpartum psychosis