Why Kelvin Condren served six years for a murder in Mount Isa he did not commit

Kelvin Condren in 1999. Photo: Brian Cassey

Kelvin Condren in 1999. Photo: Brian Cassey

Kelvin Condren was just 22 years old back in 1983 when he was charged with a murder in Mount Isa he did not commit.

Convicted a year later in 1984, he spent six years in prison for the murder of Patricia Rose Carlton before the Court of Criminal Appeal ordered a retrial.

After the Director of Public Prosecutions withdrew the murder charge in 1990 Mr Condren was free to try and pick up the pieces of his life shattered in a thousand pieces seven years earlier.

Forensic anthropologist and criminologist Dr Xanthe Mallett features the case in her new book Reasonable Doubt and Dr Mallett says these wrongful convictions happen all the time though Mr Condren's situation was "particularly awful", she says.

The good, bad and downright rotten parts of Australia's criminal justice system are put on trial by Dr Xanthe Mallett in this book and Carlton's murder and Condren's trial feature prominently.

Lives lost, justice delayed and criminals walking free is the tag line of the book and Dr Mallett exposes Australia's worst convictions of which the Mount Isa case is a prime example.

"These kind of things happen probably more than we think especially where there's no oversight," Ms Mallett said.

Mount Isa in the 1980s.

Mount Isa in the 1980s.

These kind of things happen probably more than we think where there's no oversight

Dr Xanthe Mallett

"When these stories don't make it to the mainstream media because they're not interesting or they're not sexy.

"But then when you hook it onto an individual, people go: 'Are you serious?'"

Things became deadly serious for Mr Condren from Saturday, October 1 1983.

At 5.40am that morning a routine police patrol found Ms Carlton lying unconscious and seriously injured in the carpark at Mount Isa Hotel.

She died later that day at Mount Isa Hospital without regaining consciousness. Forensic evidence indicated she was killed in the carpark.

She had been brutally beaten with a large metal pipe and had a stone inserted in her vagina.

Ms Carlton and Mr Condren were both Aboriginal, known to each other, and he was known to police.

Indeed he had been arrested for drunkenness at 5.45pm on the evening of the murder, September 30 and had spent the night in the cells.

Earlier that Friday, he had been drinking with friends, including Ms Carlton, at the hotel.

After his release Saturday morning, he went to the riverbed and was drinking again when arrested for murder around 12.30pm.

Prosecution hung on the assertion he had killed Ms Carlton around 4.15pm, an hour-and-a-half before his arrest.

On the Saturday, police interviewed him and later charged him with murder. Mr Condren said he was intimidated and beaten before police fabricated his record of oral testimony.

Unknown to him, another man, known only as "Mr A" in the 1992 Criminal Justice System Report into the matter, had confessed to a murder of an Aboriginal woman in Mount Isa in September 1983.

The confession showed some knowledge of the facts of the case though others were inconsistent

In January 1984 - before Mr Condren's matter came to trial - investigating senior police traveled to Darwin to interview Mr A but he refused to talk. The 1992 report condemned police for the delay between the event and the NT trip.

He was called as a witness to Mr Condren's trial but refused to repeat under oath his out-of-court confession to murder.

In 2012 author Ted Duhs book "Crucial Errors in Murder Investigations" named Mr A as Andy Albury, as did Dr Mallett in her new book.

Albury was convicted of murdering Gloria Pindan on November 25, 1983, and is now serving two consecutive sentences of life imprisonment without parole.

The Pindan murder happened a month after the Carlton murder and the 1992 report condemned Queensland Police for not attending the trial, knowing by then of Albury's out of court confession.

The 1992 report condemned police for failing to interview staff at the Isa hotel whether they had seen the victim after Mr Condren was arrested.

Two workers at a nearby pharmacy also later testified they passed the carpark at a time after Mr Condren's arrest and Ms Carlton's body was not there.

They did not testify at the original trial but after a 1988 Four Corners program interviewed them, their evidence in 1990 was largely responsible for exposing the miscarriage of justice.

The 1992 Criminal Justice System Report found the testimony of two other witnesses was fabricated by police.

Sadly, this treatment of an unemployed Aboriginal man was not unusual for the time and his case barely made the press.

The North West Star of Monday, October 3, merely mentioned a man had appeared in the Magistrates Court charged with murder. No details were given then or in subsequent editions.

He was committed for trial in December 1983 on the basis of his alleged confession and and three fabricated statements by Aboriginal people that they had seen the attack.

Mr Condren was convicted on the basis of his confession and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The Queensland Court of Criminal Appeal turned down an appeal on the basis "fresh evidence" was not new evidence and should have been presented at the original trial.

It took the public outcry following the pharmacists' statement to Four Corners that there was no body in the carpark at 5.45pm to demand justice.

Kelvin Condren was released from prison in 1990. His conviction was withdrawn, and he was later granted $400,000 compensation by the Queensland Government.

The commission of inquiry into the investigation found police were not guilty of misconduct.

Patricia Carlton's true killer has never been brought to justice.

Albury later retracted his claims about attacking a Mount Isa woman.

Dr Mallet said Albury knew details of Patricia's attack that nobody else would have known outside of the police following the investigation.

"Importantly, he was in Mount Isa at the time, he admitted that," she said.

Dr Mallet said it's unlikely he would ever be charged with further crimes beyond the murder for which he was initially imprisoned given he has since been diagnosed with a severe mental illness.

She said the lesson of the case was there were systemic problems when it comes to disadvantaged people facing the law.

"They are most at risk of a wrongful conviction because they don't have the resources," she said.

"So the more conversations we have about these, the less likely they are to occur."

In a brief statement to the North West Star, Queensland Police Service said that as with all unsolved homicides, the case remains open and police will investigate all new information whenever it is received.

This story Why Kelvin Condren served six years for a murder he did not commit first appeared on The North West Star.