Detective Thomas’ intense animosity towards Rosanne Beckett dated from 1983 when her Taree delicatessen erupted in flames.
Beckett sued Thomas after her acquittal of the arson charges he laid against her and filed complaints about his alleged assault on her that led to an internal affairs investigation.
The policeman bore resentment against her as bitter as the loathing she directed against him.
Despite that, he was allowed to become involved in the investigation of the murder of Beckett’s husband in 1989 resulting in her convictions for soliciting the killing, perjury and assault for which she was sentenced in December 1992 to 12 years imprisonment.
Her first appeal failed but pending a judicial review, she was released in 2001 and in 2005 the convictions – other than for two assault charges – were quashed.
Her compensation battle against the State of New South Wales for Thomas’ malicious prosecution has culminated in a 37 day Supreme Court account of the “remarkable events” comprised by the history of conflict between the pair, stories from dozens of other characters who played roles in the drama, the inequity of the convictions and her outrageous incarceration.
In a 225 page judgement, Justice Ian Harrison concluded that Thomas did not in fact fabricate evidence “or circumstances that he could mold or craft into charges against her. On the contrary, Ms Beckett managed somewhat naïvely to do that all by herself”. Her “abrasive and forthright” manner had created numerous enemies of which Thomas was but one.
That aside, the court ruled that Thomas’s prosecution of the murder-related and perjury charges were borne out of vengeance or other improper purposes and he could not reasonably have believed that she was guilty as his case portrayed.
“Thomas was a corrupt bully who intimidated witnesses with a view to getting them to give evidence or change their story if it did not suit,” the judge observed. One of those he convinced – “by extraordinary and overbearing methods” – to give evidence against Beckett, was her own son Peter.
Thomas died in 2014 before he had an opportunity to give evidence, to Justice Harrison’s great regret for having been denied the “opportunity to compare Ms Beckett and Detective Thomas in a contemporary setting with [his] own eyes and ears”.
The judge was nevertheless in no doubt that the requisite “malice” had been sufficiently established.
He awarded her $2.3 million for having been “denied the basic human right of liberty, separated from her family, friends and community; deprived of her role as a mother; denied the opportunity to engage in social and romantic relationships; and denied a valuable working life”.
Pondering how the enormity of her loss was made “staggering by the significant period of time for which that loss was suffered,” his honour reflected that it was impossible to know “what would have been the life that Ms Beckett may have lived, had she not faced the charges”.
She had no prior criminal record of any type and was otherwise person of good character.
The court spurned the State’s proposition that there should be some reduction in the amount of damages awarded with the passing in time of jail, in the sense that “the first days are the worst and the last days are better”.
“Plaintiffs have been awarded large sums for hours or days wrongfully imprisoned. The loss of liberty and imprisonment in the correctional facilities of New South Wales is no picnic. One day wrongfully in jail is one day too many”.
$1.3 million was granted for three years in jail from December 1992 to December 1995 and then $500k for 3.5 years from December 1995 to June 1999. The latter sum was discounted in order to take account of the concurrence of that sentence with those on other counts.
In order to mark the law’s disapproval of her treatment during the search of her home in August 1989 when she was handcuffed “even though her house was full of policemen” and being paraded in handcuffs to an awaiting police car, a further $100k was awarded for aggravated damages.
Satisfied that the charges would not have proceeded had Detective Thomas “been completely removed from any official investigation,” as should clearly have been the case, the court awarded a further $200k by way of exemplary damages for the wanton nature of the State’s neglect.
For damage to her reputation – being thought of as a perjurer, intentionally to telling lies to a judge and soliciting someone to kill her husband – a “purely subjective” sum of $120k was allowed as was $62k for loss of income she might otherwise have earned while in jail.
Could even ten times the sum awarded really compensate someone for such outrageous treatment?
Beckett v State of New South Wales  NSWSC 1017Harrison J, 24/08/2015 – view decision