Convicted murderer Scott Watson's father hopes upcoming appeal will reunite him with his son

For almost 26 years, Chris Watson has regularly driven from his home in Picton down to Christchurch Men’s prison to visit his son Scott Watson.

Watson Snr. says he used to be able to see Scott more but visiting hours have now been reduced.

"They've been cut down to one hour I think every two weeks. Your one hour starts as you stand in the line and then go through the metal detector. So the first 10 to 15 minutes doesn’t really exist. When we go visit, you’re in a big room with lots of people and other families. There’s kids racing around screaming and all sorts of things going on," he says.

At the moment, he says Scott is working on the prison farm where he is raising pigs.

Scott’s older brother Tom Watson says Scott often phones him to talk about his work on the farm.

"He talks about the different vegetables that he’s been growing, things that have been growing well and things that haven’t," Tom Watson told Newshub.

"It’s better than being inside the wire," says his father Chris Watson.

Watson Snr. says his son also spends a lot of time reading books about law.

Now aged 52, Scott Watson has spent around half his life behind bars.

"He’s got older and balder and greyer. He’s missed the years where you have a family and consolidate your place in life" says Watson Snr. 

Despite that, Chris Watson is hopeful his son may still get that chance with an upcoming appeal scheduled for June.

"At this stage, he’s got a chance of starting a life again. In another five years it gets harder."

Watson Snr. has dedicated the past 26 years to studying everything he can on his son’s case.

He used to fall asleep at the mussel factory he worked at because he’d stay up until 2am reading 100 documents a night.

"Back in the day, I was doing about 60 to 80 hours a week of research," he says.

Watson's mother Beverly, who shortly before Christmas in 2012 died after battling leukaemia, was also a crusader for her son. 

Scott Watson was given special permission to leave prison and attend his mother’s funeral alongside Department of Corrections guards. 

"Before she died, she was quite apologetic that she hadn’t had time to spend on the rest of the family because of the time she spent on Scott for all of those years. All of this was probably the hardest on her. She wanted us to keep going," says Tom Watson.

The case against Scott Watson

Scott Watson is at the centre of one of New Zealand’s most high-profile criminal cases.

He is behind bars -  convicted of the murders of Ben Smart and Olivia Hope - a crime he says he didn’t commit.

Smart, 21, and 17-year-old Hope were celebrating the New Year with around 1500 other people at a party at Furneaux Lodge in the Marlborough Sounds.

Ben Smart and Olivia Hope
Ben Smart and Olivia Hope Photo credit: Newshub

Shortly after, in the early hours of 1 January, 1998, the young friends vanished without a trace.

Following a five-month investigation, in June 1998, Watson - who was a boatbuilder from Picton, was charged with their murder.

In 1999, after an 11-week trial in Wellington, Scott Watson was found guilty of killing Ben Smart and Olivia Hope.

Aged 26 at the time, he was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum non-parole period of 17 years.

Scott Watson has always maintained his innocence and denies ever meeting Ben Smart and Olivia Hope.

The bodies of the pair have never been found, nor have any of their possessions.

The prosecution’s case against Watson contained some circumstantial strands of evidence relating to his behaviour on the night of Smart and Hope’s disappearance and when he was under suspicion from the police.

The crown alleged Watson’s behaviour from early 1 January, 1998 was “suspicious” and “unusual.” His very early departure from the mooring was highlighted with the crown suggesting he had no pressing reason to leave early.

The only bit of physical evidence related to two hairs the Crown alleged were found on a blanket on Watson’s yacht, Blade. The prosecution said DNA analysis strongly supported the proposition the two hairs were those of Olivia Hope.

At the trial, Watson’s counsel questioned the hair samples.

The defence said there was a strong possibility of inadvertent transfer of the hairs at the ESR Laboratory when both the reference hairs known to have originated from Hope and the hairs from the “tiger blanket” from Watson’s yacht were examined.

The defence also contended the hairs on the blanket had been screened on two previous occasions without an examiner noticing “the two crucial blonde hairs.”

Attempts to clear his name

After his trial Watson appealed against his conviction and sentence but this was dismissed by the Court of Appeal in 2000.

His application for leave to appeal to the Privy Council was also declined in 2003.

In 2008, Watson made his first application to the Governor-General for the exercise of the Royal prerogative of mercy.

The application included submissions that new evidence showed Watson’s convictions were unsafe. It was claimed that two witnesses - one of who included Guy Wallace - could provide new evidence that undermined the identification evidence they gave at trial.

Scott Watson
Scott Watson Photo credit: Newshub

Wallace, who died in 2021, worked behind the bar at the New Year’s Eve party at Furneaux Lodge.

After the party he ferried guests to their boats in a water taxi.

Wallace ended up transporting Ben Smart, Olivia Hope and a “mystery man” to one of the boats. 

This happened after Ben and Olivia found there was no room on the charter yacht the Tamarack where they had planned to sleep.

The mystery man on the water taxi suggested she and Smart could sleep on his boat - an offer they accepted.

When water taxi driver Guy Wallace dropped them there, it was the last time the pair was ever seen.

Early in their investigation, police showed Guy Wallace a photograph of Scott Watson. 

Wallace told police that Watson was not the “mystery man.”

Police then provided Guy Wallace with a photo montage which included one where Scott Watson was blinking and looked like he had hooded eyes.

In that blinking photo Wallace picked out Watson as the mystery man in question.

However, Wallace had said the mystery man had longer hair and was unshaven. This description matched the identikit drawing of the mystery man created when he was spoken to by police early in the investigation.

A photo of Watson taken the night of the New Year’s party appeared to show him shaven and with short hair.

During the murder trial, Guy Wallace told the court that he recognised Scott Watson’s “mistrusting look” in the blinking photo.

Wallace later retracted his evidence saying that Watson was not the man on the water taxi. 

Guy Wallace also maintained he dropped Ben and Olivia and the “mystery man” to a two-masted ketch. He said it had distinctive characteristics that did not match Watson’s yacht Blade.

The Crown said that enquiries had failed to locate the ketch described by Wallace.

Watson’s yacht Blade was seized by police on the 12th January, 1998. It was determined that Blade had been repainted since 1 January, 1998. Watson’s defence said he had been planning to repaint his boat prior to the New Year.

The Crown said the inside of the boat’s hatch cover was found to have 176 scratch marks which were likely to have been caused by fingernails. The Crown said this was Olivia desperately trying to escape.

But the defence said the scratch marks were made by children and could not have been made with the hatch cover closed.

The Ministry of Justice instructed Kristy McDonald QC to advise on Scott Watson’s 2008 application for the exercise of the Royal prerogative of mercy.

She examined if Watson’s application contained any fresh evidence that would raise a real doubt about the safety of Watson’s convictions.

Ms McDonald was not satisfied that any of the new evidence was fresh and credible.

The application was denied by the Governor-General in 2013 on the advice of the then Minister of Justice.

Scott Watson has also been denied parole multiple times.

In its decision following Watson’s parole board appearance in November 2021, the board found that while Watson had behaved well in prison, he had a “high psychopathy score”

Watson also hadn’t had any “risk-based treatment focusing on his offending” because he maintains his innocence.

“Without a confession, he doesn’t seem to be able to get out on parole. I think this appeal has more likelihood than parole,” says Watson Snr.

Olivia Hope's father meets Watson

In 2016, Olivia Hope’s father - Gerald Hope met with Scott Watson in prison.

The meeting was years in the making following a legal battle with the Department of Corrections.

North & South journalist Mike White helped organise it and was also present.

Gerald Hope
Gerald Hope Photo credit: Newshub

After the meeting, Hope said he wasn’t convinced Scott Watson was innocent, describing some of his answers as “elusive” or “rehearsed.”

He also described Watson as “mute,” “unemotional” and “disconnected” during parts of the conversation.

Following that meeting, Gerald Hope said that since 1998 there has been so much said and speculated about the case that he no longer wants to do any more interviews.

Another legal bid

Scott Watson will again fight for his freedom by trying to overturn his convictions in an appeal set for June.

The process for this started after a report was made by former High Court Judge Sir Graham Panckhurst who reviewed Watson's second application for a Royal Prerogative of Mercy.

Sir Graham Panckhurst’s report raised questions about the reliability of the forensic evidence given at trial in regards to the strands of hair found on Watson’s yacht Blade.

In 2020, then Justice Minister Andrew Little announced that after considering Sir Graham Panckhurst’s advice and the Ministry’s report, he had advised then Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy to refer Scott Watson’s murder convictions back to the Court of Appeal.

The defence claims there were major errors in the way the hair evidence was dealt with as well as the identification of Scott Watson.

Official court documents state that “...evidence has become available since the applicant’s trial and appeal against conviction that may raise doubts about the reliability of an important aspect of the prosecution case, namely the forensic evidence ….”

The defence will raise questions highlighting quality standards related to the collection, handling and forensic examination of the hairs as well as the reliability of the results obtained from their DNA testing. 

One of the defence experts is questioning the procedures that were in place for examining the hair back in 1998 and if there may have been an increased risk of contamination.

The Court of Appeal ruled that Scott Watson and his lawyers can also challenge the reliability of the late Guy Wallace’s identification of Watson as the mystery man.

AUT Law School Professor Kris Gledhill says the Court of Appeal will determine whether a conviction amounts to a miscarriage of justice.

“That will usually involve the question of whether the guilty verdict is a correct one. There can also be questions of whether a trial was unfair, in which case there is no need to consider the verdict because you cannot rely on a verdict from an unfair process,” says Professor Gledhill.

He says that a guilty verdict requires that the evidence shows guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Often guilt arises not just from one “blockbuster” piece of evidence, but a collection of facts and circumstances that together point to guilt. Here you can imagine a set of scales where all the evidence together adds weight that tilts the scales firmly in favour of the prosecution. But if the weight of one or more of those pieces of evidence evaporates, that may leave the scales not fully in favour of the prosecution. If the scale now leaves a reasonable doubt, the verdict is no longer correct,” Professor Gledhill told Newshub.

He says new evidence is central to this appeal. 

“The prosecution position will be in one of three broad categories: one is where they accept that there has been a miscarriage of justice; the second is where they accept that there is a proper reason for the Court of Appeal to look again but they present counter-arguments to make sure that there is a proper exploration; and the third is where they argue more strongly that there has been no miscarriage of justice because the evidence still adds up to guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” he says.

University of Auckland Law Professor Mark Henaghan says it can take years to put an appeal together. 

“It’s painstaking, meticulous work. It’s a massive enterprise. Lawyers go the extra mile and do hundreds of voluntary hours,” he told Newshub.

“If the appeal is successful, the convictions would be quashed and a re-trial could possibly be ordered if there’s sufficient evidence for one,” said Professor Henaghan.

Chris Watson -  who is now almost 77 years old, wants to be reunited with his son in the real world before it’s too late.

“We’d sit and have a yarn. I’m sure he’d like to go fishing. His brother has a room waiting for him. We’ve had jobs arranged for him in the past,” he says.

His brother Tom adds that while he’s seen Scott occasionally feel “down” in jail, most of the time he can “get his head back up.”

“He wants to start living again and get back to his interests of fishing, sailing and motorbike riding,” Tom Watson says.

“He’s been out of circulation for a long time. He would find the world a completely different place. I don’t think people really even had cell phones back then.”

“This has been our life for the last 26 years. We’ve all served a sentence too. It’s just waiting and waiting. He (Scott) has got used to that as we all have. Nothing happens quickly. My wife would have liked to see the end of all of this. You keep trying as that’s all you can do,” says Watson Snr.

Scott Watson’s appeal is set down for five days starting on June 10 in Wellington.

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