ACT Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury says there was clearly a mistake in the case against two NRL stars who had their charges dismissed in court this week, while the opposition wants a review of why the prosecution proceeded.
The ACT Magistrates Court dismissed all the charges against South Sydney Rabbitohs’ Jack Wighton and Latrell Mitchell on Wednesday (1 November) before it was announced that police would conduct an internal investigation into the matter.
Wighton and Mitchell had been filmed on closed-circuit television slowly pushing each other back and forth in Civic on 5 February 2023 before separating, then being swarmed by numerous police officers.
On Thursday (2 November), Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury said the police’s review of the case was the appropriate way forward, but he knew people were concerned about what happened.
“There has clearly been a mistake here,” he said.
“Fortunately, that has been revealed during the court process, but I’m sure some people will be looking at this and wondering what happened, and this referral to police professional standards will be the first step in getting to the bottom of the circumstances here.”
Shadow Attorney-General Jeremy Hanson said he was also concerned by the case.
“I am concerned by the events that have come to light through the case and believe that the actions of the DPP and why this prosecution proceeded also need to be reviewed,” he said.
During the hearing, Wighton’s barrister Steven Boland had accused a police sergeant of trying to have the NRL players convicted “when you knew that there was poison at the root” of the investigation.
After the charges were dismissed, Canberra Raiders CEO Don Furner said, “This should have and could have been avoided”.
“We wrote to the DPP a number of times to try to get meetings, trying to ask them why this was going to go ahead,” he said.
“I personally called Neil Gaughan, the head of the ACT Police, a number of times. I went and saw him, I showed him the footage and I read the police statements of facts and I said, ‘I cannot see how these marry. Please tell me if I’m missing something’.”
On Thursday, when media asked Mr Rattenbury how police had gotten the case “so wrong”, he said it was not appropriate for him to comment.
“I think it’s very important that the referral to police professional standards does go ahead here. We do seem to have a situation where evidence was brought forward by the defence that was not provided to the prosecution,” he said.
“We need to get to the bottom of how and why that occurred.”
Australian Federal Police Association president Alex Caruana said it was often the case that a failed prosecution will undergo a review to determine why that prosecution failed.
“I expect that to also occur with the Wighton/Mitchell failed prosecution,” he said.
“Our focus is on the welfare of the ACT Policing members involved, and we’ll continue to provide them with welfare support throughout the AFP Professional Standards investigation.”
After the charges were dismissed on Wednesday, Mitchell’s solicitor, Tom Taylor of Hugo Law Group, said this was the right outcome “but could have been so much worse”.
“Due to the courage of Mr Mitchell and Mr Wighton who pushed back against these false allegations, they have been able to clear their names – but not everyone gets that chance,” he said.
When Mr Rattenbury was asked if he was concerned about miscarriages of justice occurring to defendants who did not have the money or the means to defend themselves, he said a range of safeguards were built into the system, such as Legal Aid.
But he also said there was always a risk, which is why there was also an appeal system for “mistaken convictions”.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr agreed the review was appropriate, “given what appears to have transpired”.
“There are thousands of matters that go before the courts and mostly they don’t end up on the front page of the paper,” he said.
“This one involves some high-profile individuals. There is a process the police have announced; I support that process.”