AUTHORITIES failed the families of three Aboriginal children murdered in Bowraville 24 years ago and crime laws should be reviewed to bring an "evil" serial killer to justice, according to a NSW parliamentary inquiry that brought many MPs to tears.
No one has ever been convicted for the murders of Colleen Walker-Craig, 16, Evelyn Greenup, 4, and Clinton Speedy-Duroux, 16, in the early 1990s, despite police, legal experts and the victims’ families saying they know who was responsible.
A parliamentary report has unanimously recommended that the government review a disputed technicality in the Crimes Act which has prevented the murder cases from going to retrial.
Colleen Walker-Craig’s body has never been found.
It also called for any new retrial application to be considered by an independent assessor, such as a retired senior judge, in the hope that "this will bring the families one step closer to their ultimate aim, justice".
The children disappeared from the same road in the northern NSW town over a five-month period from September 1990.
Jay Hart, a white man who was close to the indigenous community and who now lives at Lake Macquarie, was tried for two of the crimes but acquitted.
He was also a suspect in Colleen’s murder, but her body has never been found.
Clinton Speedy-Duroux was 16 years old.
MPs paid tribute to the grieving families of the murdered children, who have fought tirelessly against perceived failings in the legal system for more than two decades. The families packed the public gallery of the NSW upper house on Thursday.
MPs delivered emotional addresses to the chamber, including Greens MP David Shoebridge, who instigated the inquiry, and the committee’s chair, Liberal MP David Clarke.
"A killer whose crimes constitute evil at its very darkest and most depraved is still free," Mr Clarke said.
"Justice demands that the killer of these three children whose lives were brutally cut short … should be brought to account."
Many MPs spoke of how the inquiry had united colleagues of all political stripes. Nationals MP Sarah Mitchell spoke of sobbing after having heard evidence from the children’s families, and described the inquiry as "life-changing".
Detective Inspector Gary Jubelin, who has worked on the case since 1996, had told the inquiry the families "have been let down by the justice system".
"I have been investigating crimes for 20 years and I am still shocked by the lack of interest that has been shown in this matter," he said in evidence.
"We know who is responsible for the serial killing of three children but that person has not been brought to justice."
Supporters of a retrial had claimed critical leads were not explored by police in the initial investigation, and have not been heard by a court. Police, who initially claimed Evelyn had "gone walkabout", have been accused of racism and incompetence.
Detective Inspector Jubelin says subsequent investigations have uncovered significant coincidences that link all three murders and tie them to Mr Hart, who has changed his name.
In 2012, the children’s families asked then attorney-general Greg Smith to apply to the Court of Criminal Appeal for a new trial, which would lead to all three murder cases being heard together.
Mr Smith refused the application. Among the reasons, he cited advice that an acquitted person can be retried only if there is fresh and compelling evidence which has not already been "adduced" in court.
It was widely believed that debate over the meaning of the word "adduced" - and whether it means "presented" or "admitted" to a court - was preventing the case from going to retrial. The inquiry said the government should clarify the definition of "adduced" as soon as possible.
The report acknowledged the families’ experience of the initial police investigation, trials and appeal process "has been largely ill-fated to date".
"We have met with the families on several occasions throughout this inquiry, and can attest that even though these crimes occurred 23 years ago, the pain and suffering that they have endured remains very alive today, having been exacerbated by their experience of the justice system," it said.
The committee formally acknowledged the families’ grief, adding that this had been "significantly and unnecessarily contributed to" by the system’s failings.
The report also called for improvements to police policies and procedures, and Aboriginal cultural awareness training for legal practitioners, MPs and parliamentary staff.
It also called for improvements to the way juries are directed to hear Aboriginal evidence, taking into account cultural and linguistic factors. Mental health services in Bowraville and Tenterfield should be examined and funding assistance provided to beautify and maintain memorials dedicated to the children, it said.