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Chris Dawson – The Teachers verdict – Crime


The handing down of Justice Harrison’s verdict in the murder
trial of Chris Dawson has gripped the nation. While most of us
probably did not watch the entire judgment, handed down orally by
his Honour on 30 August 2022, over five hours, many of us tuned in
for the verdict. Or, at the very least have been following the case
in the media since the Teacher’s Pet podcast was released in
2018.

The Case

If you’re one of the few who have not followed the
decades-long story, in summary, Dawson was charged and convicted of
the murder of his wife Lynette Dawson. The murder occurred in 1982
however he was not charged until 2018 and was found guilty of her
murder this week by Justice Harrison.

There were many intriguing aspects to this case including that
Dawson, a school teacher, had been having an affair with his
17-year old student, who had also worked for the couple as a
babysitter. After Lynette disappeared, he would go on to marry his
former student in 1984 before their union ended in divorce in the
early 1990s. It is also interesting that Lynette’s body has
never been found, her cause of death is not known and that some
might cynically think that it has taken a podcast for this case to
be properly investigated and charges to be laid over thirty years
later.

The Podcast

This case has been receiving substantial media attention since
2018 when the podcast The Teacher’s Pet was released by the
Australian newspaper. The podcast has had millions of downloads
around the world. It explored the disappearance of Lynette in 1982
as well as the subsequent police investigation and coronial
inquests. Further episodes were released when police searched the
grounds of the former home of the couple in late 2018 and when
Dawson was arrested in December 2018. Additional episodes have also
been released during the trial.

Dawson was not charged with Lynette’s murder until 2018
where he was extradited from Queensland to New South Wales to stand
trial. After being granted bail in December 2018, his case was
heard by a judge-alone trial in 2022 with the ruling being handed
down this week.

The Trial

The trial took place as a judge-alone trial which meant that Justice
Harrison decided the verdict, after hearing all the evidence,
rather than a jury. Dawson elected to have his case heard by
a judge alone due to concerns about the publicity surrounding his
case. He had also previously applied to have his case permanently
stayed, meaning that it would never go to trial, on the basis that
the amount of media attention his case had received meant he would
be unable to have a fair trial. That application was denied.

The trial took place in the New South Wales Supreme Court with
Justice Harrison handing down his ruling along with the verdict on
30 August 2022 with thousands of people watching over the live
stream on YouTube.

The Murder Case Without A Body

The prosecution case against Dawson was a circumstantial case.
This means there was no direct evidence that he had murdered
Lynette. A body has never been found and it is also unknown how
Dawson killed Lynette. While these types of cases are rare, they
can occur. For example, in Tasmania in 2010 Susan Neill-Fraser was
found guilty of the murder of her de facto partner after he
disappeared from their yacht. His body was never found. Similarly,
in 2018 Borce Ristevski pleaded guilty to a charge of the
manslaughter of his wife in circumstances where the cause of death
was not known (however in that case the body had been found).

To reach his verdict, His Honour made findings based on the
evidence he had heard including that:

  • Lynette was no longer alive

  • Dawson had developed an infatuation with the 17-year-old
    student who he would eventually go on to marry

  • Dawson had wanted to leave Lynette

  • Dawson had told lies following the disappearance of Lynette
    including:

    • Playing down his interest or infatuation with JC, the
      schoolgirl with whom he had a relationship

    • Telling people that he wanted to resume his relationship with
      his wife (he had attempted to leave her several times)

    • Lynette had called him after her disappearance in January
      1982

    • Lynette had an ’emotional episode’ causing her to walk
      away from her family. Contrarily, his Honour accepted evidence from
      other witnesses that Lynette was optimistic about the future of her
      marriage.


  • On the day of the murder, Dawson had made arrangements for his
    children not to be home and spend the night with their
    grandmother

Interestingly, he also made findings that seemed to be in
support of Dawson including:

  • Dawson had not previously been violent towards his wife

  • He was a person of prior good character

  • Any decision to kill his wife was financially motivated

His Honour also made various findings about the activity that
had occurred on or around the date of Lynette’s disappearance
including that he had arranged for his children not to be home
during the afternoon and evening – they had stayed at Lynette’s
mother’s house.

If you’re interested in learning more, you can read the
entire ruling at R v Dawson – NSW Caselaw.

This Verdict and the Criminal Justice System

This case was unusual for many reasons, including the delay in
bringing Dawson to trial, the podcast and the intense media
coverage of the trial, not just in Australia but around the world.
Most criminal trials do not feature one, let alone all, of these
significant elements.

For Dawson, there were many disadvantages to having his trial
heard forty years after he was alleged to have murdered his wife.
Many witnesses had passed away and people’s memories of that
time had understandably faded. He has always denied the charge and
there has been reporting that he plans to appeal the conviction. Not only that, but the
family of Lynette Dawson has been waiting a long time for answers
and for action from the police. On top of all of this, the intense
media attention stemming from the podcast raises the question of
whether this case would have been brought to trial without the
attention – the NSW police have insisted this is not the case.

For some criminal lawyers it has raised concerns about how cases
are investigated and the unsatisfactory delay in having
Dawson’s case brought to trial. There are many difficulties
that can arise for criminal defence lawyers in trying to do their
job and defend their clients where a large amount of time has
passed between an allegation of murder, or any other type of crime,
and a trial. On top of the issues highlighted above – being the
death of witnesses and issues with the memories of witnesses who
are still alive – forming a defence can be difficult where a client
may not remember where they were at the time of the allegations or
if there might be a way to establish an alibi. It is also not ideal
for families of loved ones who are complainants in criminal matters
waiting years for an answer or for anything to happen. It is in the
community’s interests, not just the accused, that where a
person disappears or where there is an allegation of criminal
offending, that an investigation is timely and that any criminal
charges are brought as soon as they possibly can be.

For some in the community, they might think it is a good thing
that Dawson has finally been brought to justice and that this case
has been answered. However, this case leaves some questions about
why it has taken so long for the investigation to come to a head
and concern that this may become more common in the criminal
justice system



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