Death may have been suicide not murder

11:59, Feb 24 2012
Caroline Byrne
MAY HAVE BEEN SUICIDE: Gordon Wood has been acquitted of the murder of his live-in lover Caroline Byrne, pictured, who died in a 1996 cliff plunge.

After more than three years in jail, Australian Gordon Wood is ecstatic at being acquitted of the high-profile 1996 cliff plunge murder of his live-in lover Caroline Byrne.

His solicitor Michael Bowe spoke to him in prison on the phone minutes after the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal overturned his conviction and then acquitted him on Friday.

"I've just spoken to Gordon and obviously he's just overwhelmed after having spent three years in Goulburn jail but by the same token he's ecstatic," he told reporters.

"Finally, after a long voyage of 15 years he can now breathe the light of day and he'll be happy to get home."

Speaking to reporters outside Goulburn prison on Friday night, Mr Wood said thank you his family, friends and lawyers.

"Thank you firstly to all the strangers who have been writing in their support over this time and obviously all my friends and family who have been supporting me," Mr Wood said.

"I'd also want to thank their honours for finding some commonsense in the law and doing what I think was obvious to all of us," he said.

"I'm going to spend some time with my family and my lawyers who are family now."

After Mr Wood was acquitted, his sister Jacqueline Schmidt, who worked untiringly on his appeal, said: "relieved is probably an understatement".

"It's been a a very long journey which I wouldn't wish on anybody but we are very, very pleased obviously with the result today," she said.

"I don't think anybody can really appreciate what it would be like to be an innocent person and have your freedom taken away from you with no hope, or very little hope."

A sombre Tony Byrne, who had a long-held belief his daughter was murdered, did not speak to reporters when he left the court complex.

In 2008, Mr Wood, then 46, was found guilty of murdering Ms Byrne, 24, by "spear throwing" her off a cliff at The Gap, a notorious Sydney suicide spot, late on the night of June 7, 1995.

The former chauffeur to stockbroker Rene Rivkin was jailed for at least 13 years after the jury rejected a claim that Ms Byrne, whose mother killed herself in 1991, had jumped off the cliff.

Days before her death, she had seen a doctor who referred her to a psychiatrist, describing Ms Byrne as being "very, very depressed".

Justice Peter McClelland, sitting with Megan Latham and Stephen Rothman, told a packed courtroom they agreed the "verdict was unreasonable or cannot be supported having regard to the evidence".

"I have reviewed the whole of the evidence and have concluded that I am not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Gordon Wood murdered Caroline Byrne as charged," he said.

"The prosecution accepted at the trial that before Gordon Wood could be convicted of murder it must establish that Ms Byrne did not commit suicide.

"I am not satisfied that suicide can be excluded."

The judgment strongly criticised the trial's crown prosector, Mark Tedeschi QC, as well as the evidence of a crucial crown witness, Associate Professor Rod Cross.

The crown contended Mr Wood killed his girlfriend because she wanted to end their relationship and he feared she would reveal personal and business details about his boss, Mr Rivkin.

"I am not persuaded of either of the motives suggested by the crown," Justice McClelland said, adding there was no reliable evidence that Ms Byrne was contemplating leaving him.

".. the suggested evidence of a motive involving Rivkin is so thin that it should never have been left with the jury."

Associate Prof Cross conducted a series of "not particularly sophisticated" experiments" to establish where Ms Byrne could have jumped or been thrown to the location where her body was said to have been found.

"To my mind A/Prof Cross was allowed, without objection, to express opinions outside his field of specialised knowledge," the judge said.

In his final address, Mr Tedeschi had put 50 questions to the jury, including a "killer point" about Mr Wood knowing exactly where her body was and it was "feet up".

But Justice McClellan said this submission was "inevitably flawed" as all the evidence indicated the night was so dark that no one could have known precisely where she was.

Other questions invited speculation and were unreasonably prejudicial to Mr Wood.

"The difficulties which the prosecutor's conduct created are so significant that I am satisfied it caused the trial to miscarry occasioning a miscarriage of justice," he said.

On several occasions, the prosecutor "offered his own opinion as to how a person committing suicide would act" and an opinion about leaving messages.

The remarks should not have been made, he said.

"It was a serious breach of the prosecutor's duty to put the crown case fairly before the jury."

While it was possible Ms Byrne and Mr Wood were present together near the Gap on June 7, the judge said the evidence strongly suggests they had been misidentified.

Some of Mr Wood's actions and statements before and after Ms Byrne died raised suspicion, the judge said.

"Some of his statements may be untrue," he said.

"However, the law requires significantly more than suspicion before a person can be convicted of a crime.

"Even a high level of suspicion is not sufficient."