Aussie most dangerous criminals eye freedom amid police informant scandal
Melbourne, Australia - Some of Australia's most dangerous criminals could have their convictions overturned after revelations their defence lawyer was secretly feeding information to police.
For a decade before the turn of the millennium, Melbourne's gangland wars gripped Australia, with police seemingly unable to penetrate the city's shadowy underworld as the death toll soared.
The series of up to 40 bloody retributive murders came as rival gangs battled over Melbourne's lucrative drug trade and only eased when key mob figures were put behind bars.
But a legal scandal now threatens dozens - if not hundreds - of their convictions, with the shocking revelation that criminal defence lawyer Nicola Gobbo was also acting as a police informant at the time.
The former barrister represented some of Australia's most dangerous criminals on charges ranging from drug trafficking to murder, while also feeding information about her clients to police.
Prosecutors last year informed 22 people that they could have grounds to appeal.
But Gobbo - also referred to as Lawyer X and Informer 3838 - claims that at least 386 people were arrested and charged based on the information she provided, according to a June 2015 letter that was made public in December.
A Royal Commission inquiry is currently underway to determine how many cases have been impacted by Gobbo's double life, with hearings set to resume on Wednesday.
"Any conviction in any case where Gobbo played anything but a very minimal role in providing legal services is almost certainly going to be overturned," Melbourne University law professor Jeremy Gans told AFP.
Crime boss Tony Mokbel - who survived a stabbing attack in prison this February - is among those seeking leave to appeal his 30-year sentence for drug trafficking.
Also challenging his conviction is Faruk Orman, currently serving a 20-year jail term for driving the getaway car in a 2002 shooting murder, who has always maintained his innocence.
Gobbo acted as Orman's defence lawyer when he was charged.
His new lawyer, Ruth Parker, told AFP that the use of Gobbo as a police source was an example of "gross misconduct and corruption".
"Ms Gobbo and every investigator with whom she worked should be investigated both for misconduct in their duties as public officers but also for crimes," Parker said.
Victorian Police Commissioner Graham Ashton has staunchly defended the force, saying they acted in "good faith" and their conduct should be viewed in the context of the spiralling gangland war.
"It was a desperate and dangerous time and a general sense of urgency was enveloping the criminal justice system, including the police," he told reporters in December.
The period inspired a television series, "Underbelly", which gripped Australian audiences for six seasons.
Gobbo, who comes from a prominent Melbourne family, was a key police source during the critical years of gangland prosecutions between 2005 and 2009 but was registered as an informant as far back as 1995, two years before she was admitted to practice law.
She was recruited as a police informer after being charged with drug offences in 1993 when a raid on her shared house found a stash of cannabis, amphetamines and weapons. She received a good behaviour bond and no conviction was recorded, according to a police informant registration document tabled with the Royal Commission.
Victorian police spent five years and millions of dollars fighting in the courts to keep Gobbo's identity a secret, maintaining that she could be murdered if it came to light.
Gobbo herself has lost trust in the police and has refused to enter witness protection on the basis she did not believe her confidentiality would be respected.
In March, the High Court lifted the suppression order that had protected her anonymity, accusing her of "fundamental and appalling breaches" of her obligations as a lawyer, and accusing Victoria Police of "reprehensible conduct" for their role in the saga.
The Royal Commission is also investigating six other possible police sources in the legal profession, including legal secretaries and a former court clerk, though police said only one - a now-deceased lawyer - ever provided them with information.
Victoria Police said that the way informants are managed has now been completely overhauled, and that such a breach could not happen again.
The reaction to the scandal among Australia's legal community has ranged from shock and embarrassment to anger and disbelief, according to Adrian Evans, Emeritus Professor of Law at Monash University.
"Overall fairness absolutely requires silence, as otherwise, no one will trust lawyers or the legal system and that will lead to a dystopian existence," he told AFP.
The Royal Commission is due to release a report detailing its interim findings by July 1.AFP