David Harold Eastman has been found not guilty by an ACT Supreme Court jury of the 1989 shooting murder of Australian Federal Police Assistant Commissioner Colin Winchester, devastating the Winchester family but bringing relief to those who believe that justice has finally been done.
The jury had been deliberating on a verdict since last Wednesday (14 November) after an almost six-month trial. It is the second time the 73-year-old former Canberra public servant has been tried for the killing of Mr Winchester, who was shot with a Ruger .22 rifle fitted with a silencer as he got out of his car in a neighbour’s driveway in Deakin.
There were gasps in the packed courtroom when the jury foreman delivered the not guilty verdict but Mr Eastman did not show any emotion.
Acting Justice Murray Kellam thanked the jury for their dedication and discharged Mr Eastman without further ado.
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In a statement released to the media by former Victims Of Crime Commissioner John Hinchey, the Winchester family expressed its disappointment with the outcome.
“We believe the verdict is wrong and we are extremely disappointed given the significant volume of compelling evidence,” the family said.
“We acknowledge the DPP and the AFP for their professionalism and determination, in particular [lead investigator and former detective commander] Ric Ninness and his team.”
Mr Hinchey said outside the court the family would be gutted.
“It is 30 years next January that Colin Winchester was murdered, that’s a long time to carry not only grief but two trials, a full commission of inquiry, an appeal to the Federal Court and an appeal to the High Court. They’ve been through hell and back, I’d imagine.”
He also acknowledged that this would be a difficult time for the AFP.
“[The AFP] has stood side-by-side with the Winchester family. They have been loyal supporters as a group of people and as a profession. They would be heart-broken, I believe, and grief-stricken again. It’s another day of mourning for the AFP and the Winchesters,” he said.
Despite the verdict, Mr Hinchey praised the head of the DPP Jon White for pursuing a retrial.
“You can’t measure justice in terms of money, particularly when a senior officer of the AFP is assassinated outside his home in cold blood. You must pursue justice to the end,” he said.
But Mr Eastman’s solicitor, Angus Webb from Legal Aid, said justice had been done.
He said the 2014 inquiry conducted by Justice Brian Martin into the first conviction found there had been a miscarriage of justice and that there should not be a retrial.
“Mr Eastman wishes to thank his current and past lawyers and counsel, in particular Mr Eastman wishes to acknowledge the tireless work done by his retrial lawyers led by Mr George Georgiou,” he said. “Mr Eastman now looks forward to getting on with the rest of his life, and asks that his privacy be respected.”
Mr Eastman himself did not appear outside the court.
Former ACT Public Defender Terry O’Donnell said the case had been a ‘schmozzle’ from the start and the first trial had been a shambles, claiming the forensic evidence had almost certainly been fabricated in some respects.
Mr O’Donnell appeared for Mr Eastman on the first day of his first trial, appeared for him on sentence and drafted the grounds for the 2014 Martin inquiry.
“And I have been watching this with some horror. I’m relieved for him. I put a lot into it but the result was for Mr Eastman and Mr Eastman alone,” he said.
He believed the defence theory of a Mafia hit was a valid one. “I had enough evidence to know that it is,” he said.
“I don’t have any doubt that the people who had most to gain out of this were those who were charged with the Bungendore [drug] cultivations, and the person who had the most to protect was Mr Winchester’s informer.”
He said it was probably too late to reopen the investigation, with many of the main players now dead.
“Nearly everyone is dead, it’s like the Donald Mackay murder which is closely linked, and it’s so long ago that witnesses who I know are alive are subject to suppression or protection orders. There is too much water under the bridge to get to grips with it, and a lot of it, although it is hearsay, it’s not unreliable hearsay.”
He believed that Mr Eastman had already begun civil proceedings in relation to his conviction after the Martin inquiry report had been issued.
Mr Eastman had originally been found guilty of the murder in 1995 after a lengthy police investigation that included the bugging of his flat, and a difficult trial marked by the accused’s erratic behaviour. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.
But a dogged Eastman had always maintained his innocence and after years of appeals, the 2014 inquiry found there had been a miscarriage of justice.
The Supreme Court quashed the conviction, released Eastman from prison after serving 19 years, and ordered a retrial, with Eastman going in vain to the High Court in a bid to stave off being tried again.
The new trial began on 18 June with the prosecution mounting a mainly circumstantial case, arguing that Mr Eastman killed Mr Winchester because he would not help have assault charges dropped, threatening Mr Eastman’s chances of rejoining the public service.
The court was told Mr Eastman had made threats against police and had also been searching for a gun to buy.
The murder weapon was never found but police said it had been bought from a Queanbeyan gun dealer, who could not identify Mr Eastman as the buyer, although witnesses suggested Mr Eastman had been at the dealer’s house.
A blue car similar to Mr Eastman’s had also been seen near Mr Winchester’s home in Deakin days before the murder.
Mr Eastman’s defence rejected the alleged motive, cast doubts on the police tapes from the bugging operation, witness statements and proffered an alternative scenario that the murder was a Mafia hit related to Mr Winchester’s investigations into drug crops outside of Canberra.
The police said a hitman would hardly buy a gun from a dealer in Queanbeyan.
Mr Eastman, a former dux of Canberra Grammar, was considered to be a brilliant but unstable man who was his own worst enemy during the first trial, when he regularly sacked lawyers and disrupted proceedings.