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Vice Blog

Another Look at the Murder Case That New Zealand Just Can't Forget

After 18 years exhausting all legal channels to clear his son Scott's name, Chris Watson is hoping a new documentary-drama on the murder of Ben Smart and Olivia Hope will uncover more information.

Ben Smart and Olivia Hope haven't been seen since boarding a yacht with a mystery man after a New Years Eve party in the Marlborough Sounds in 1998. Image supplied.

Chris Watson has spent the last 18 years watching the people who put his son Scott in jail for double murder rise up the ranks. There is Rob Pope, the Christchurch detective in charge of the case who became Deputy Police Commissioner. Just this month, Scott's arresting officer Tom Fitzgerald was promoted to New Zealand police liaison officer based in Canberra. "It's a slap in the face," Chris told VICE.


Pope and Fitzgerald were key players in the investigative team that got what they wanted: a successful conviction in one of New Zealand's most captivating and controversial murder cases. Friends Ben Smart, 21, and Olivia Hope, 17, disappeared in the early hours of January 1, 1998 after boarding a yacht in the Marlborough Sounds with a mystery man. No bodies were ever found. Scott Watson has always maintained his innocence.

Detective Inspector Rob Pope in a screen grab from Doubt: The Scott Watson Case, TVNZ.

Now the police operation is under scrutiny with a new docu-drama Doubt: The Scott Watson Case airing on TV One this Sunday calling the case a "miscarriage of justice". In it, the programme's presenter, law professor Chris Gallavin falls short of saying Scott is innocent but does outright declare that "the investigation and the trial were unfair." Chris Watson, who features in and has seen the programme, calls it a "good understanding of the case".

From day one hunting the murderer was a fishing expedition for police. Witnesses said Ben and Olivia boarded a two-masted ketch after the New Years Eve party at Furneaux Lodge. The police quickly ruled this scenario out and fixated on Scott, who had sailed his single-masted sloop Blade to the party. He may have been the target from the start but it took months to make an arrest, and by the time Scott had his day in court his character had already been assassinated by a voracious media, largely feeding off tips from the police.


Professor Chris Gallavin presenter of Doubt: The Scott Watson Case, calls the case "a miscarriage of justice". Image TVNZ.

Much of the key evidence in the case has since been called into question. Water taxi driver Guy Wallace testified it was Scott he dropped to a two-masted boat in the inlet with Ben and Olivia but has since said he was wrong and was pressured by police to identify him. At the trial two secret jailhouse witnesses claimed Scott confessed to the murders in jail. Scott says it never happened. One of the snitches has since recanted. The only physical, and most evocative, remaining evidence was two blonde hairs belonging to Olivia found on a tiger blanket that was in Scott's boat. But questions remain over that. The forensic scientist missed the hairs on the initial examination only finding them on a second look weeks later, while working on the same table that had reference hairs police had taken from Olivia's home. A bag containing the reference hairs had an unexplained slit.

Chris says this is the part of the case that he has always concentrated on but the programme had not focused on it, he assumes for legal reasons. "You can't accuse anyone of anything or you'll wind up in more trouble than you started."

The police's ability to portray Scott leading up to and during the trial as a sleazy, shifty character with a string of (youthful, mostly non-violent) convictions is now regarded as crucial to the jury's decision to convict him.

Phil Brown plays Scott Watson in a still from Doubt: The Scott Watson Case. Image TVNZ.

The cops got their conviction but interest in the case has never faded. Scott's dad Chris hopes this latest telling of the story will "shake the bushes." After unsuccessful appeals to the Court of Appeal (2000), Privy Council (2003) and a failed request to the Governor-General for a royal prerogative of mercy (2013), he's hoping for more ammunition in the long-running legal battle to clear Scott's name. "I'd like Rob Pope to come along and say that he messed up," Chris told VICE. "That won't happen. If it can bring out something new that we can take to the Governor-General again, that'd be good."


The doco-drama received $1 million of taxpayer funding from New Zealand on Air, a move that has angered supporters of the victims' families. A friend of Ben Smart's mother, Mary, wrote to the Broadcast Minister Amy Adams questioning the decision saying "this fictional documentary will continue to sensationalise for public viewing and TV ratings".

Chris Watson is unconcerned. "Taxpayer money was of no account to anyone at the time [of the murders]. There was $5 million spent on the investigation and another five for the trial. I think a million here or there doesn't really matter does it. Beside, I'm paying my taxes too."

New Zealand on Air justified the spending by saying the programme offered the opportunity to "explore the facts, with a new perspective that has not been heard before." "The cases of Arthur Allan Thomas, David Bain and Teina Pora (to name a few) show that sometimes there is merit in re-examining a case." In all those cases, murder convictions were overturned, hinting at the direction we can expect the programme to go in. Another indication is the production changing the doco-drama's working title from Ben and Olivia: Searching for the Truth, to its final title Doubt: The Scott Watson Case.

A protestor at a vigil for Scott Watson in August. Image via Facebook.

Chris says Scott, who is serving his sentence at Rolleston Prison in Christchurch, supports the making of the programme but hasn't been able to view it in advance. "We won't know what he thinks until Sunday night. He's happy if anything that stirs up the murky waters is brought up. There's always a bit more information and if it changes a little bit of public opinion, brings one or two more people into the fold, that's good."

Already, a public campaign to clear Scott Watson's name is gathering momentum. Vigils were held in Christchurch and Blenheim in August. The Free Scott Watson Facebook group is holding another demonstration calling for his release at Parliament in Wellington on October 11. Chris says it's nothing to do with him. "That's a completely independent people organising that. Of course we'll attend. This is the public doing this."

Public opinion and the media played a huge role in Scott's conviction. It may just be that public opinion and the media are what it takes to get it overturned.

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