A young woman’s death, a notorious, larger than life businessman, a murder trial, a successful appeal and a conviction quashed. Now another chapter: a jury of twelve will decide the truth of the imputation that Gordon Wood murdered Caroline Byrne by throwing her from the cliff tops at the Gap in Sydney’s east.
Wood was incarcerated at Goulburn correctional facility in 2008 for murdering Byrne and served three and a half years before the Court of Criminal Appeal quashed the verdict in 2012, setting him free. Now he is suing Nationwide News for defaming him by imputing that he killed Byrne. Wood was a chauffeur and personal assistant to finance personality Rene Rivkin, and Byrne, a model and up-and-comer in the fashion industry, was Wood’s girlfriend.
Defamation proceedings are in practice the only civil matters which feature juries in NSW. Under the Defamation Act 2005, a litigant in defamation proceedings can elect to have a jury appointed unless the court decides otherwise. Juries are technically available for other types of civil matters under the Supreme Court Act 1970, but only if the court decides that to empanel a jury is “in the interests of justice”.
Usually only four jurors are empanelled in defamation proceedings, but given the enormity of their fact-finding task – the live issue at the 2008 trial of whether or not Wood killed Byrne – Supreme Court Justice Lucy McCallum in September decided to empanel twelve.
The difference this time around is that there is a lower standard of proof for proving the truth of the imputation – on the balance of probabilities. The criminal standard which the prosecution had to prove in the murder trial was of course beyond reasonable doubt. This means that the case, if it runs without settling out of court, may well result in a finding that Wood killed Byrne.
These types of cases are not unique.
Defamation proceedings launched by former WA barrister Lloyd Rayney are currently on foot in Perth. Rayney was acquitted of the charge of murdering his wife in 2012. Rayney is suing the State of Western Australia for damage done to his reputation and lost income as a result of police naming him the “prime” and “only” suspect in his wife’s murder. The matter is continuing.
In the United States, O.J. Simpson was successfully sued for wrongful death by the relatives of his alleged murder victims Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman in 1997. While he was cleared of the murders in a sensational 1995 trial, the lower civil standard of proof was overcome by the plaintiffs in the proceedings against him, with the curious result that he is legally but not criminally responsible for the deaths of Brown and Goldman.
A similar outcome could well result in Gordon Wood’s case.
Image credit: Adam Hollingworth and Sydney Morning Herald
Follow Sydney Criminal Defence Lawyers on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/