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."Reuse content