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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will also work alongside their seasoned sa...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Property Manager

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for your first step into...

Recruitment Genius: Mechanical Design Engineer

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This innovative company working...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat