Christopher Dawson has been found guilty of murdering his former wife four decades ago on Sydney’s northern beaches.
Dawson, 73, had been accused of killing Lynette Dawson in 1982. Her body has never been found and Dawson has always maintained he was not involved in her disappearance.
On Tuesday, New South Wales supreme court Justice Ian Harrison found Dawson guilty, a verdict that brings to a close a case that had exploded into the public spotlight after it featured in a hit true-crime podcast.
Harrison had presided over the matter after Dawson successfully applied for a judge-only trial.
The main reason for Dawson’s application was the publicity generated in the case by the Australian newspaper’s Teacher’s Pet podcast. It was published in 2018, at the same time as NSW police were again investigating Lynette Dawson’s disappearance.
The podcast, created by investigative reporter Hedley Thomas, was listened to tens of millions of times.
In the podcast, Thomas alleged he had uncovered new evidence that indicated Dawson may have killed his wife in order to continue an affair with a former student.
He also honed in on what he suggested were serious errors in the police investigation of the case, and the failure of the NSW Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions to charge Dawson despite two separate inquest findings that he had been responsible for the death of Lynette Dawson.
Dawson was charged with murder in December 2018 and extradited to Sydney from his home on the Gold Coast.
He unsuccessfully argued all the way to the high court that there should be a permanent stay in the proceedings on the grounds that the alleged murder had occurred a substantial time ago, that there had been contamination of evidence and/or collusion between prosecution witnesses, and that the combination of these factors prejudiced his ability to defend the allegations.
The prosecution alleged there was a powerful circumstantial case that Dawson killed his wife to continue an unfettered relationship with the student, known as JC, whom he had met as a teenager while working as a physical education teacher.
Lawyers for Dawson said Harrison could not make this finding beyond reasonable doubt, in part because the police had failed to properly investigate reported sightings of Lynette Dawson, and also as the alleged motive for murder did not make sense because killing his wife would only create more problems for Dawson.
Dawson did not give evidence during the two-month trial, which finished on 11 July.
Harrison has spent the time since deliberating on his verdict.
Unlike when a jury delivers a verdict, Harrison was also required to outline the reasons for his decision on Tuesday.
Harrison said the prosecution had to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Lynette Dawson is dead, that she was killed by Dawson with the possible involvement or assistance of others, and that he – and possibly others – disposed of her body. He also made clear on multiple occasions that Dawson did not have to prove nor disprove any evidence in the case.
Harrison accepted the timeframe of the case given by the prosecution: that around 22 December 1981, Dawson and JC travelled to Queensland, but the attempt at starting a new life failed after JC became unwell, and said she missed her family. After they arrived home, she told Dawson she wanted to end the relationship, which he did not want to happen, Harrison found. The pair then spent Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve together.
On New Year’s Day or 2 January 1982, JC travelled north to South West Rocks, where she camped with her sisters and friends. She contacted Dawson every day via a reverse charge call from a payphone, as Dawson had told her to. It was alleged Dawson killed his wife on 8 January 1982.
Harrison said that while it was often “immaterial” when a particular offence occurred, in this case it was “an indispensable link in the chain of reasoning upon which the Crown relies”.
Harrison agreed that Lynette Dawson died on this date, dismissing claims by Dawson that his wife had called him after this date as “lies”. He said it was “simply absurd” and defied “common sense” that the only person Lynette Dawson would remain in contact with after leaving the house would be the very person “who was the reason for her departure”.
Similarly, he said he could not accept Dawson’s description of what his wife said in the conversations, which included that she told him she needed more time, was working things out, and that he should not worry about her.
“It is in my view fanciful to suggest that conversations as lacking in content and pregnant with cliches…ever occurred,” Harrison said.
Harrison also dismissed several reported sightings of Lynette Dawson which occurred after 8 January 1982. Between 10 and 12 January 1982, Harrison found Dawson picked up JC from South West Rocks and took her back to Sydney. He had told her “Lyn’s gone, she’s not coming back, come back to Sydney and help look after the kids and live with me.”
Harrison accepted that Dawson had become infatuated with JC before she left Cromer High School.
He found that although Lynette Dawson had confronted JC with the “paradoxically genteel observation” that JC had been “taking liberties with her husband”, she had remained hopeful of reconciling with Dawson. This was one of a series of reasons which Harrison gave to dismiss the possibility that Lynette Dawson left her home of her own accord.
Harrison said the prosecution had provided multiple reasons to explain the unlikelihood that Lynette Dawson had done this, and he had found them “strongly persuasive” when considered together. These reasons included that she adored her children, was mentally stable, had not taken any clothing or personal belongings with her, and had made plans for the future.
Harrison said that to accept submissions made by lawyers for Dawson that his wife had left the Bayview home of her own accord would be to replace reasonable possibility with “frail speculation”.
But he also cautioned against making “general gender-based assumptions” that Lynette Dawson had not left simply because she was a mother and that “women are somehow expected to abide by a higher standard”.
More to come …
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