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No body? Still no getting away with murder

At least 25 Australians have been convicted of murder despite the bodies of their victims never being found. This week ex-teacher Chris Dawson joined them.

September 3, 2022
By Karen Sweeney
3 September 2022

There’s a widespread misconception amongst killers that if you get rid of the body you can get away with murder.

But that’s not always the case, particularly in Australia.

Christopher Dawson learned this the hard way on Tuesday when he was found guilty of murdering his wife Lynette in January 1982, despite her body never being discovered.

The 74-year-old former teacher and rugby player has now spent his first days behind bars for the crime, which a judge found was motivated by his deep animosity toward his wife whom he saw as an obstacle to his unseemly relationship with a teenage student.

Simply getting rid of the body does not equal getting away with murder.

criminologist Claire Ferguson

For the family of Lynette Dawson, who was 33 when she was killed, his conviction marks a milestone in their fight for justice. But there will be no closure until the much-loved mother-of-two is properly laid to rest.

Dawson is one of many high-profile Australian killers to discover that getting rid of the body won’t buy freedom forever.

“Simply getting rid of the body does not equal getting away with murder,” according to forensic criminologist Claire Ferguson, who specialises in detection avoidance and homicide concealment.

For a variety of reasons, no-body homicide convictions are more common in Australia than in other parts of the world, the Queensland University of Technology researcher, who has co-written two papers on the topic, told AAP. 

CHRIS DAWSON EXTRADITION You can still be convicted of murder, even if police can't find the body, as Chris Dawson found out.Dan Himbrechts/AAP PHOTOS
You can still be convicted of murder, even if police can’t find the body, as Chris Dawson found out.

Dr Ferguson’s research uncovered 25 no-body convictions in Australia between 1983 and 2017. The result was similar to the number documented in the US, which has a significantly larger population.

“It’s a little bit part of the Aussie spirit to be quite diligent in terms of righting wrongs from a law enforcement standpoint,” she said.

Australia also has a comparatively low homicide rate – one per 100,000 people on average, compared to five per 100,000 globally, according to United Nations data.

This means Australia has relatively more investigative resources for homicide investigations than other jurisdictions where murders occur.

No-body convictions are most common in cases involving intimate family murders, although Dr Ferguson said her data may be influenced by the existence of circumstantial evidence around things like motive. 

In 2010, two Australian women were convicted despite the bodies of their victims never being found.

Sydney woman Keli Lane was found to have murdered her newborn daughter, Tegan, in September 1996 after trying to hide an unwanted pregnancy, and Tasmanian Susan Neill-Fraser was jailed for the 2009 murder of her partner Bob Chappell aboard the couple’s yacht.

Both maintain their innocence. 

Last month, Ms Neill-Fraser had a second appeal to the High Court refused. While already eligible for parole the 67-year-old claims she intends to remain in prison until her name is cleared.

Lane, now 47, will be eligible for parole in 2024.

Like the Dawson saga, which gained international attention through The Teacher’s Pet podcast produced by The Australian, the case of missing British backpacker Peter Falconio also made global headlines.

Bradley John Murdoch, 64, is serving a minimum 28-year sentence in the Northern Territory for the 2001 killing of Mr Falconio, who was travelling through the outback with his girlfriend Joanne Lees, who survived.

On the 20th anniversary of his death last year, NT Police said they remained hopeful of providing closure for Mr Falconio’s family, renewing calls for Murdoch to reveal where he disposed of the body.

The successful disposal of a body can create huge delays in investigations, which means killers can get away with murder for a long time – in the case of Dawson for more than 40 years.

But this can also work against them.

Dr Ferguson’s research shows killers tend to tell multiple stories about what happened – sometimes because they’ve forgotten previous stories or because they just get cocky.

Their reasoning for disposing of a body is also double-barrelled.

“One idea is detection avoidance across the board – ‘if they suspect me they won’t be able to prove it’,” she said.

“Secondly, and more importantly, is ‘they’ll never suspect me’.”

Some Australian states have introduced ‘no-body, no-parole’ laws to prevent killers from being freed from prison unless they reveal the location of their victims.

But Dr Ferguson doesn’t believe the laws will stop people from concealing bodies or be effective in giving families closure.

“Many offenders maintain the innocent facade for long periods of time, and often with no demonstrable benefit to them whatsoever, and that’s because we’re talking about offenders who often have a persistent need to control things,” she said.

When they do co-operate they’re often not forthright.

Dr Ferguson’s research shows – particularly in cases of intimate partner homicides – that perpetrators often claim the victim died accidentally and they just disposed of the body.

“They’re still trying to pull strings and puppeteer,” she said.

But no-body convictions aren’t foolproof, either.

Next month marks 40 years since Lindy Chamberlain was wrongly sentenced to life in prison for the murder of her baby daughter, Azaria.

It was later accepted Azaria was taken by a dingo during a family holiday at Uluru.

Ms Chamberlain was released from prison in 1986 but her conviction wasn’t formally quashed until 1988.

Dawson will face a sentencing hearing in November and, because of his age, faces the prospect of dying in prison.

Lynette Dawson’s family have begged him to tell them where her body is.

But shortly after the verdict on Tuesday, his lawyer Greg Walsh said his client would “continue to assert his innocence and he’ll certainly appeal”.

How long he can maintain the facade of innocence is yet to be seen.

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