More than 150 children were not accounted for in the nationwide search for Tegan Lane, the daughter of convicted baby murderer Keli Lane, more than halfway through the murder trial.
According to documents recently obtained by the ABC’s investigative series Exposed, the NSW Office of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) could not account for approximately 163 children and could not rule out the possibility Tegan could be alive.
The ABC can also reveal around 8,000 births were going unregistered every year in the mid-1990s in NSW alone.
Lane was found guilty in 2010 of killing her two-day-old daughter Tegan, however no body has ever been found.
Lane has always maintained her innocence, and claims she gave her baby away to the child’s father “Andrew” shortly after her birth in 1996.
She is serving an 18-year jail sentence with a non-parole period of 13 years at Silverwater Women’s Correctional Centre in NSW.
For police and prosecutors to determine whether Tegan was in fact alive, police embarked on a nationwide search of birth records and schools. But the search was incomplete.
‘Big gap’ of information
Just four-and-a-half months prior to Lane being charged with murder, the Queensland births, deaths and marriages registry informed police that in order to complete a statewide search for children who could be Tegan, it would need two full-time staff to sift through non-digitised documents for a 12-month period.
Mark Tedeschi QC was the Crown prosecutor in the Lane case.
In documents obtained by the ABC, Mr Tedeschi expressed concern at the time of the trial that it would be aborted due to an alleged “big gap” of information.
According to internal police investigation phone logs acquired by ABC’s Exposed, in the middle of the murder trial Mr Tedeschi told then NSW Detective Chief Inspector Dennis Bray he was worried the judge might abort the trial due to “outstanding” information.
At the time Mr Tedeschi believed that “about 100 children had not been accounted for”.
Three days after the phone call, an email was sent from the ODPP to police. It identified approximately 163 children still had not been accounted for.
Mr Tedeschi acknowledged additional searches were taking place, but said the defence were given time to analyse the material
“When the additional searches had been completed, the trial was adjourned by the judge for a week so that the defence would have proper opportunity to analyse the additional material that had been served,” Mr Tedeschi said in a statement.
“I was always of the view that the police investigations, including the searches for Tegan, had been exemplary.
“The Crown from the beginning of the trial to the end maintained that these searches on their own could not prove that Tegan was dead.
“It was led to show how the police had made a serious and detailed search for Tegan over many years, and had followed up all reasonable leads, but that none of them had led to Tegan being found alive.”
Thousands of births unregistered ‘every year’
Former assistant registrar at the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages Sharon Swinbourne. (ABC 7.30)
Two former public servants who worked at the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages and were involved in the Lane case expressed shock at the “huge hole” in the prosecution’s evidence against the convicted Sydney mother.
Sharon Swinbourne was the assistant registrar at the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages when the searches for Tegan were taking place from 2007 to 2014.
“You can’t turn around and say yes [that the search] was absolutely thorough,” Ms Swinbourne said.
“Even if all those registries had’ve been digitised and if all those searches were done by every single state, I still would argue that you still can’t say 100 per cent that something didn’t slip through the cracks”.
“I can’t get my head around just that bit because there’s more evidence about what hasn’t been done than there is about what they found, because they didn’t find very much.”
Fiona Avery was a former policewoman in Sydney’s northern beaches before she was assigned to the Lane investigation in 2005 in the NSW Attorney-General’s department to search for Tegan and “Andrew”.
Former policewoman Fiona Avery says she discovered thousands of births went unregistered in the mid-1990s in NSW alone. (ABC 7.30)
She found that around 8,000 births were going unregistered every year in the mid-1990s in NSW.
“It’s just a massive hole. One Tegan could’ve fallen through,” Ms Avery said.
Former judge Anthony Whealy, who presided over the Lane trial and has previously expressed his doubts over Lane’s conviction, said: “If I had been the trier of fact, I might have had some doubt about that. In my mind, I’ve never been certain.”
Calls for urgent review
The RMIT’s Innocence Initiative has submitted a formal application to the NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman to urgently review Lane’s conviction.
The ABC received the following statement about the application:
“The Attorney-General’s office has received a letter from the Bridge of Hope Innocence Initiative.
“The Department of Justice is reviewing the correspondence and will provide the Attorney-General with advice in due course.”
Michele Ruyters of the Innocence Initiative, which in its submission to the Attorney-General likened the case to Lindy Chamberlain’s due to the lack of evidence, said she was “honestly nauseated”.
“I just can’t believe this is the Australian justice system in action. I truly can’t believe it,” she told ABC.
“It is time for her prosecution and conviction to be reviewed. It is over time.”
In a written response, Mr Tedeschi stated “the school searches for Tegan were the last to be completed”.
“They were just one category of numerous searches done by the police over the years to try to find Tegan, if she was in fact alive,” he said.
“Justice Whealy was putting enormous pressure on the Crown to complete all remaining searches by a particular date and had threatened to abort the trial if the searches were still continuing past that date.
“When the additional searches had been completed, the trial was adjourned by the judge for a week so that the defence would have proper opportunity to analyse the additional material that had been served.”