PROSECUTIONS, albeit ultimately unsuccessful ones, of people in power or of prominence dominated the headlines in the Hunter in 2018.
From former Adelaide Archbishop Philip Edward Wilson's conviction for failing to report historical child sexual abuse, which was subsequently quashed on appeal, to the 50 not guilty verdicts in Newcastle Dr Jeremy Coleman's marathon sexual and indecent assault trial, the most engaging criminal cases of the past 12 months involved people with a lot to lose.
Philip Wilson, once the most senior Catholic cleric to be charged and then convicted of failing to report child sexual abuse to police, is now a free man, exonerated by the courts, cleared of any wrongdoing involving the sexual abuse of notorious Hunter paedophile priest Father Jim Fletcher.
But the journey to this point was an arduous one.
Even before the hearing began, the former Archbishop had failed three times, including an application to the NSW Supreme Court, to have the charge against him dismissed.
Then there were delays, diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, refusals to resign, eight days of evidence during a special fixture in Newcastle Local Court, including testimony from brave abuse victims Peter Creigh and another man, submissions and legal argument, more applications to have the case dismissed, a landmark guilty verdict heard around the world, a conviction, joy, relief and outrage, overwhelming pressure for Wilson to resign, calls for jail time, pleas for leniency, a home detention sentence, two appeals, one from each side, and, finally, a ruling from Newcastle District Court Judge Roy Ellis that overturned the conviction and absolved Wilson.
And then, last week, with the case appeared set for perennial argument in increasingly higher courts, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) announced it would not be appealing the decision of Judge Ellis.
“After careful consideration, it was decided that there were no reasonable prospects of success of appeal on errors of law,” the DPP said in a statement.
In short, the prosecution had to prove not only that Mr Creigh told Wilson about the sexual abuse in 1976, but that Wilson remembered it and had a belief that the allegations were true between 2004 and 2006, after Fletcher had been charged with child sex offences and before his death in jail.
In the local court, Magistrate Robert Stone had found the prosecution had cleared those hurdles, saying he believed Mr Creigh and the other prosecution witnesses, Hunter parishioners, over Wilson. But Judge Ellis reached a different conclusion, finding Wilson was “very honest and forthright” in his evidence and that the Crown had not proven its case beyond reasonable doubt.
It should be remembered that the case against well-known Newcastle doctor Jeremy Coleman, the case that snowballed into a massive widespread investigation and a marathon 12-month trial, the longest in Newcastle judicial history, began with six women.
Two days later, after publicity of his arrest, a strike force set up to investigate the allegations had to be expanded after more than 40 women contacted police.
Dr Coleman’s defence would later focus on the language used by media and police in those early days to explain why so many women came forward, labelling it a “highly charged and highly inflammatory" atmosphere of public hysteria.
The case plodded through the courts for months, and it seemed additional charges were materialising on court documents at every mention.
Ultimately, the DPP settled on an indictment in R v Jeremy Coleman; 66 counts of sexual and indecent assault against 46 women, all female patients.
Jury empanelment was held in a secret location and potential jurors were warned to expect about a six-month trial. Almost exactly 10 months later, they retired to begin considering their verdicts. Two months after that, the jury was discharged.
Exhausted, they had done their best to determine each and every count. But ultimately they could only decide on 50 of the 66 charges.
And they were unanimous; 50 not guilty verdicts. Their reason? Predominantly, it must have been that Dr Coleman had a proper medical purpose, the key issue at the trial, for touching or examining any of the patients.
The remaining 16 charges were sent back to the Newcastle District Court list where the DPP revealed recently that they would be pressing on with a second trial on at least some of the outstanding charges.
Meanwhile, the defence is pursuing a costs application, which will be heard in April in Sydney.
A conservative estimate of Dr Coleman's defence runs into the millions of dollars.
As well as those well-known figures acquitted after lengthy legal battles, the Hunter was left shocked and disgusted by the details of the case of sadistic rapist Andrew James Benn.
Benn who preyed on 14 teenage girls and young women who he met through Facebook, Tinder and Snapchat was in August jailed for a maximum of 40 years in the worst case of serial sexual assault in the Hunter’s history.
The public gallery in Newcastle District Court was packed with victims and their supporters as Judge Ellis detailed Benn's depraved acts, which included repeatedly raping women, forcing himself on girls using “extreme violence”, sex with girls as young as 15, blackmailing and threatening victims that the "Hells Angels" would "make them disappear" if they went to police and laughing in the face of desperate and crying victims.
In interviews with the Newcastle Herald six of the women revealed the profound impact the attacks had on them and encouraged other women who are the victims of rape or sexual assault to speak up.
Benn has filed a notice of intention to appeal against the severity of his jail term to the Court of Criminal Appeal, but the actual appeal has not been filed yet and no date for hearing has been set.
Currently, Benn, 29, will be 57 and will have spent more than half his life behind bars when he first becomes eligible for parole in 2047.
Meanwhile, the abduction and sexual assault of an 11-year-old girl in broad daylight at Adamstown Heights in June evoked unparalleled outrage in the community.
Detectives allege it was Brett David Hill, 47, who kidnapped the young girl as she was walking through Hudson Park about 9.15am on June 12. And last week, prosecutors finalised the charges against Mr Hill, including fresh allegations that he used the young girl to make child abuse material.
Mr Hill, who remains in a protective custody wing in a Sydney jail, has not entered any pleas.
For a large regional city, Newcastle, and its surrounds, seem to have a disproportionate amount of murders.
Just ask the city’s Public Defenders, the state’s select group of barristers who represent only legally-aided clients in only serious criminal matters, what their workload looks like for 2019.
But in December there seemed to be an explosion of serious violence, a statistical anomaly as the city registered four murders in the space of 11 days.
In less than a fortnight the murder tally was half the three-year total for the Hunter up to September, 2018, according to Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research data.
And, incredibly, that brief and violent window outstripped the three murders recorded in the year up to September and the three in the 12-month period before that. Essentially we had more murders in 11 days than we get in a year.
But, with respect, none of those were as gruesome or as callous as the slaying of Wade Still, who was allegedly set on fire at Whitebridge on August 20. Screaming in pain by the side of the road, a severely burnt Mr Still made a “dying declaration” that the man who “poured petrol” on him was David McCauley, detectives allege.
Two men, Mr McCauley, 35, and Troy McCosker, have been charged with murder.
It is not for me to punish the Catholic Church for its institutional moral deficits, or to punish Philip Wilson for the sins of the now deceased James Fletcher by finding Philip Wilson guilty, simply on the basis that he is a Catholic priest.Judge Roy Ellis during his judgement for former Archbishop Philip Wilson's appeal.