Can Chris Dawson ever have a fair trial?

More than 29.5 million people have downloaded The Teacher’s Pet podcast. And according to a report in The Australian, more than a million of them did so since Wednesday alone.

For that was the day the case at the centre of the 16-part true-crime juggernaut crossed a major threshold. That was the day former high-school PE teacher, Chris Dawson, was arrested and later charged with the murder of his wife, Lynette.

The mother of two had vanished from their family home on Sydney’s northern beaches in 1982; a mystery that the investigative podcast, backed by The Australian and produced/hosted by journalist Hedley Thomas, hauled back into the headlines after it launched in May.

But given this case has become one of the most high-profile in recent memory, what chance does Chris Dawson stand of having a fair trial?

Dawson’s own lawyer, Greg Walsh, pointed to this very question when fronting the media outside court on Thursday. Declaring his client would plead not guilty, Walsh said:

“I have a great belief in the jury system. We know that there’s other forms of trials in this country. But with the extent and nature of the media reporting – and it is of concern that some of that reporting, with respect, is rather pervasive and it’s coming from an ideological perspective that he must be guilty – that is a worry, because it can distort people’s memories.”

Chris Dawson after his arrest. Image: AAP.

Speaking to Mamamia, Nicholas Stewart, Partner at Sydney firm Dowson Turco Lawyers (which is not involved in the Dawson case), said he expects Dawson's legal team would be assessing a number of options available to them to ensure a fair hearing.

Chief among them, a trial without a jury.

Judge-alone trials are often considered for high-profile cases, in which a jury may risk being prejudiced my media coverage. Think Simon Gittany, the Sydney man convicted of murdering his fiancée Lisa Harnum, by pushing her over their CBD balcony in 2011. Or Bradley Edwards, the man accused of the Claremont killings, whose trial is due before a judge next year.

Given the likelihood that jurors could have been exposed to The Teacher's Pet or considered the issues of the Dawson case prior to court proceedings, Stewart said a judge-alone trial could be a prudent option here, too.

"In my view, [Chris Dawson] would be better off getting a fair trial if a jury was not involved," he said. "Simply because - and I mean no disrespect to jurors - but I think only a judge with the legal training and qualifications and experience to be able to, to the best of his or her ability, put to one side pre-judgement and sensational report that has littered the media over the last two or three years."

teachers pet podcast
Lyn and Chris Dawson, with their daughter. Image supplied.

Of course, some cases are too high-profile even for a judge to hear impartially.

Stewart pointed to a case in Western Australia, in which a senior prosecutor was accused of murdering his wife and faced salacious and speculative media reporting as well as a jury trial.

"It was such a high-profile case that not only did he get a judge alone trial, the Western Australian Government also brought in a Northern Territory judge to hear the proceedings, just to ensure that there were no allegations of bias," he said.

"And so there are options here to do the best that we can as a society to ensure that Mr Dawson gets a fair trial."

How common are judge-alone trials?

According to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, in the 12 months to June 2018, 895 matters were finalised by trial in the higher courts, 171 of which were by a judge alone.

Of those, 49 per cent (85) resulted in acquittal, compared to about 40 per cent (291) in jury trials.

Still, it's important to note that there doesn't seem to be trend in which type of trial is more likely to lead to the defendant walking free. Every year from 2009-2014, for example, jury trials were more likely to acquit.

What happens next for Chris Dawson?

Should Chris Dawson's legal team want to avoid a jury trial, Stewart explains, "They would have to make an application to the court and the prosecution would generally have to consent to a judge-alone trial.

"A judge could balance up the arguments on both side and make a determination if there was a question as to fairness and if the accused's legal team can demonstrate that he would suffer prejudice as a result."

Regardless of how the case proceeds, Stewart said the public interest in this case is an opportunity for an important reminder...

"I think it is in the interest of all Australians to think about this not just as a hunt for the killer of Lynette Dawson - if you think she was killed - but also we should think about what our legal system provides: the right to be innocent until proven guilty," Stewart said.

"I think that probably the most important thing, because there's a lot of pre-judgement going around. I don't want to speculate as to [Chris Dawson's] guilt or innocence; I just would prefer that we let the legal system do its job."

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