Scott Watson’s father hopes Court of Appeal will clear son

Scott Watson at the High Court in Christchurch in May 2015. Photo: Supplied
Scott Watson at the High Court in Christchurch in May 2015. Photo: Supplied
Just over 25 years ago, two young New Year’s Eve revellers, Olivia Hope, 17, and Ben Smart, 21, were spotted boarding a mystery yacht with an unknown older man. They were never seen again. Local boat-builder Scott Watson was arrested and later found guilty of double murder. But he’s always professed his innocence, and so has his father Chris, who hopes that a last-ditch appeal hearing in May will finally clear his son’s name. Kurt Bayer reports.

They still talk every day. A father and son leaning on each other, seeking comfort and solace.

Scott Watson has spent 24 years in prison. He’s failed to get parole four times and still denies killing, or even ever meeting, Hope and Smart after New Year’s celebrations in a Marlborough Sounds holiday hideaway in the small hours of January 1, 1998.

But the police, and Crown, maintain they locked up the right murderer and jailed him for life, with a minimum non-parole period of 17 years.

Watson, his father Chris Watson, and many other vocal supporters - both professional and amateur sleuths - vehemently disagree.

Now aged 75, the widower of 10 years is hanging his hopes of finally seeing “justice” in May when Court of Appeal judges take a fresh look at the case.

“I’d like to see this all settled before I go. I’m sure Bev [his wife who died in 2012] would have wanted it all settled before she went too,” Chris Watson told the NZ Herald in an interview on Saturday.

He was speaking after the Herald published an opinion piece about the Sounds murders saga by the broadcaster Paul Henry which he described as “our collective shame”.

Henry blasted detectives for “creative policing” who suffered from alleged “tunnel vision” in unerringly pursuing Watson as their prime suspect.

He also claimed there was “zero hard evidence” against Watson, saying no key witnesses ever identified Watson as the “mystery man” or that his small steel sloop, Blade was the “mystery vessel” the young couple had boarded.

Chris Watson agrees with everything that Henry wrote.

“Every word he has written is true,” he said.

“The tricky part is just getting someone to listen.”

He is confident in the specialist skills and experience of his son’s lawyer Nick Chisnall but, like Henry, knows that the Crown will be “wheeling out the big guns to protect themselves”.

“It’s taken 20 years to get back into court so hopefully we will get some traction,” he said.

“It hasn’t gone away. I would really love to see something done about it. But all I have seen so far is people trying to cover their tracks.”

Ben Smart and Olivia Hope. Photos: Supplied
Ben Smart and Olivia Hope. Photos: Supplied
The key issues of identification, disclosure, and forensic evidence, Chris Watson knows, will be crucial.

He is particularly interested to see what the appeal judges make of the two blonde hairs, almost certainly Olivia’s, which were allegedly found on Scott’s tiger-patterned blanket, onboard Blade.

There have been suggestions that the hairs could have become contaminated during the police handling of evidence.

But there have also been people who Chris Watson says he has spoken to who fear something more sinister has happened with the forensic evidence.

He recalls speaking to one private investigator – a former police officer - brought in to look at the case who had serious concerns over the two blonde hairs.

“The first thing he said was: planted,” Chris Watson said.

“Of course, you can’t say that in public because you become a nutter then. You can’t prove it and without proof, you’ve got to with possible transference and other things. But people that matter think that anyway.”

Chris Watson’s son phones him from behind bars most days. And he tries to travel down from his Blenheim home to visit him in prison every three weeks or so.

He says it’s important to keep in contact and “keep his spirits up”.

Asked how he is faring after 24 years in prison, believing he’s an innocent man, Chris Watson replies: “He’s about the same ... waiting, waiting. He gets along with almost everybody [in prison] and just ... waits.”

But he adds: “It’s got to take a toll. I don’t know if I would do as well as he has done.”

Gerald Hope, Olivia’s father, said he hadn’t read the Henry article and didn’t want to be drawn back into it on Saturday.

“I’m on holiday. It’s 25 years. I have no further comment.”

The police investigation that led to Watson’s arrest has been criticised in numerous newspaper articles, documentaries and books, particularly Trial by Trickery by Auckland journalist Keith Hunter, a stinging attack on those who put Watson away.

Watson and his supporters - the case has long divided public opinion – were given fresh hope in June 2021 after Justice Minister Andrew Little announced that Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy had referred his case back to the Court of Appeal for a new hearing.

It came after an investigation by former High Court judge Sir Graham Panckhurst QC raised concerns about forensic evidence used to convict Watson.

“The primary basis of his application was that the DNA evidence linking two hairs removed from a blanket seized from Mr Watson’s boat with Ms Hope was unreliable,” the Ministry of Justice said.

-By Kurt Bayer