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Speech: Roseanne Beckett

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 18 Jun 2013

Adjournment debate, Tuesday 18 June 2013

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales): On another matter, in August 2006, a wonderful reconciliation took place in a cafe in Shellharbour, New South Wales. Roseanne Beckett, five years out of prison, for a wrongful conviction was meeting with her local member of parliament. A woman, who worked at the cafe, approached Roseanne and cried out, 'Mum! I thought I would never find you again' and they embraced. The cafe's chef was Tracy Taylor. Tracy called Roseanne 'Mum' because her own mother had died when she was five years old, and Roseanne took Tracy under her wing, giving her a job and teaching her how to cook.

Tracy recounts how she was wary of approaching Roseanne, because they had not spoken since Tracy testified against Roseanne in a 1991 trial for conspiracy to murder her husband Barry Catt. Roseanne Beckett was Roseanne Catt when I met her in 2000. At the time I was a member of the New South Wales Legislative Council and Roseanne was a prisoner at Mulawa Correctional Centre. I came to visit this prison as I was a member of the upper house inquiry into the increase in the New South Wales prisoner population.

Roseanne gave evidence to this inquiry. During the hearing, she requested a closed session with no men present. All the male MPs and male prison staff left the room where the inquiry was being conducted. I found Roseanne's evidence very troubling at the time. The extent of the injustice she had suffered was not fully clear to me. I have come to realise the abuse, discrimination and injustice Roseanne has suffered as an example of extreme sexism. In the current debate about sexist attitudes, we should not lose sight of what happens to ordinary women as well as our women leaders.

Six years after the parliamentary inquiry where I met Roseanne, the chance meeting with Tracy opened up the next troubling chapter in how our justice system operates. Wendy Bacon, a professor with the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism has assisted Roseanne and Tracy reveal what they have been subjected to. Tracy signed an affidavit which in part states:

Parts of the evidence I give at the trial are not truthful. I went along with the police because I was frightened. I am very sorry for any harm that was caused but I had no-one to help or advise me.

In 1990, two police intimidated her with misinformation. Tracy explained:

The police said I was a prostitute and that Roseanne was a madam and that I was the one who kept the gun. I said I knew nothing about guns. I had never seen Roseanne with a gun. They also said I was going to be charged with conspiring to murder Barry Catt.

She adds:

I was threatened into signing a statement that was not mine. I was terrified … I feared for my life and my baby's life.

Tracy's affidavit is part of a story which begins in February 1989. Roseanne's stepchildren had disclosed to Family and Community Services that they had been sexually abused by Barry Catt. The Newcastle Police Child Mistreatment Unit charged Catt and another relative with 15 counts of sexual abuse and they were committed for trial. Roseanne was also halfway through proceedings for assault against her husband. Weeks later, Roseanne was charged with conspiracy to murder Catt. The officer most vigorously pursuing Roseanne was Detective Peter Thomas. Thomas had recently been transferred after falsely accusing Roseanne of burning down a shop in an unrelated incident. Thomas had known and drunk with Barry Catt for many years and later admitted he intensely disliked Roseanne. Commenting on these developments, Professor Bacon stated:

Back in 1990, the Ombudsman passed the file on to the NSW Police Internal Affairs who recommended charges against the leading detective in the case, Peter Thomas. But the NSW DPP did not proceed with the charges. Thomas was allowed to leave the police force and become a private inquiry agent in Queensland, where he was found to have charged people on insufficient evidence and offered a witness a bribe. On more than one occasion, he has given evidence in court that he was aware of no findings against him.

At Roseanne's trial, neither the court nor her lawyers were told of the report's finding against Detective Thomas. Despite much evidence of bias and misconduct on the part of the detective, Roseanne was found guilty and sentenced to 12 years in prison. In her summary, Justice Jane Mathews said: 'Either Roseanne was a victim of a terrible conspiracy or an evil and manipulative woman who had concocted false assault charges against Barry Catt and also convinced her children to lie about sexual abuse.' There was already significant evidence of a conspiracy against Roseanne and there was much to follow.

Ten years into her 12-year sentence, fresh evidence came to light that proved she was indeed framed by Detective Thomas, and Roseanne was released. In 2004, a judicial inquiry, led by Justice Thomas Davidson, found that Thomas may have planted the gun which was alleged to have been Roseanne's, and she may have been framed regarding the charge of attempting to spike her husband's drinks. Further, Justice Davidson argued that the prosecution witnesses were unreliable and that Thomas used improper methods of investigation. Tracy Taylor's affidavit, two years later, would seem to bear this out. As to the accusation that Thomas was biased against Roseanne and was corrupted by his friendship with Barry Catt, Justice Davidson found that the detective had a propensity to use his office to damage Ms Catt, and demonstrated a lack of objectivity, which descended into malice and abuse of power. Detective Thomas had also been accused by a New South Wales judge in another criminal case of acting reprehensibly and using fair means or foul to convict a person.

Thomas was also involved in another disturbing case around the same time as he arrested Roseanne. This was a case of Jake Sourian, which I first raised in 2002 in a speech in the New South Wales Legislative Council. Sourian lost his house and other assets after being falsely accused by Thomas of arson, and remains uncompensated for the injustice. Instead of being held accountable, Thomas became a private investigator. There have been other, unsubstantiated arson charges against innocent citizens, leaving him further discredited. Despite all this, the New South Wales government has refused to reopen compensation discussions for Roseanne, which were dropped in 2006.

Here we must bring into the story the current New South Wales Attorney-General, Greg Smith, and former crown prosecutor Patrick Power. Power was in charge of Roseanne's prosecution and, before her unsuccessful 1993 appeal, was involved in the children changing their statements accusing Barry Catt of sexual abuse. In 2006, large amounts of child pornography were found on Power's computer, and Greg Smith, Power's colleague at the time, alerted Power to this discovery before notifying the authorities. Investigating the allegation on a tip-off, former High Court Judge Michael McHugh reported that Smith had acted improperly but not corruptly. This is a sordid tale that spans 24 years, involving the highest reaches of the New South Wales justice system.

Through Professor Bacon's excellent investigations, I have been following this case and seeking justice for Roseanne since November 2000, when the Greens first called for an inquiry into her case. We have been asking questions since the injustice first came to light and, unfortunately, many are yet to be satisfactorily answered. Who was involved in abusing Roseanne's children? Why was it not vigorously prosecuted? Who threatened Tracy Taylor and why was her story ignored by police? Why did the Crown continue to conduct itself in such a ruthless fashion and rely on the evidence of witnesses already found to be unreliable? Given the example of Detective Thomas's history, what action is being taken by the Crown to find out whether innocent people may be imprisoned because of activities by similarly corrupt officers? Why is New South Wales Attorney-General Greg Smith continuing to resist Roseanne's claims for compensation despite her recent victory in the High Court?

While there are many troubling aspects to this story in what it reveals about how some human beings treat others, there are also many inspiring stories about the people who stuck by Roseanne when she was in prison. I would particularly like to acknowledge the work of Mary Court and Sister Claudette Palmer, who worked tirelessly for years to help Roseanne obtain justice.

A critical aspect of any society is how it deals with corruption and injustice, especially when it systematically oppresses women and anyone suffering discrimination and disadvantage. We must acknowledge when something goes wrong, act to assist those who are affected and remedy the problem. It is clear that powerful institutions have wronged Roseanne Beckett. Continuing to hide the facts and delay restitution is unacceptable. Roseanne and her supporters for over a decade have been working to clear at her name.

What happened to Rosanne has not just affected her; it reflects poorly on all of us. An inquiry is needed into the Crown's behaviour in dealing with Roseanne. The New South Wales government should be held responsible for the injustice she has been subjected to. It is time the government took responsibility for ensuring Roseanne is afforded justice and full compensation. A speedy and just resolution to this case is important for Roseanne, for all women and for our wider society.

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