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Woman convicted of cheating online buyers turns to phone records to challenge conviction

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Simone Anne Wright at her trial in Christchurch District Court in August 2020.

JOHN KIRK ANDERSON/Stuff

Simone Anne Wright at her trial in Christchurch District Court in August 2020.

A former Australian TV host convicted of defrauding unsuspecting Kiwis into thousands of dollars has appealed her conviction based on phone records she says prove her innocence.

Simone Anne Wright was found guilty last year in Christchurch District Court on seven charges of solicitation after she claimed she needed money for her son’s specialist cancer treatment.

Wright has always denied the allegations, saying she was used as a pawn by her crook ex-husband, Paul James Bennett, but this was rejected by the court judge.

At Wright’s trial, one of the victims said he was responding to a motorcycle ad that read, “our son has cancer and can no longer ride his pride.”

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He said he spoke on the phone with the seller, who identified himself as John, and agreed to pay $2,650 for the bike and delivery.

The buyer later got the bank account details by email from someone named Susan, who said they were John’s partner. He said he spoke to Susan on the phone, and she told him they planned to use the money for specialized cancer treatments for their son.

The bike never arrived and “John and Susan” were beyond reach.

Wright said she never spoke to anyone on the phone about motorcycle sales. She claimed it must be Bennett pretending to be a woman.

Wright and Paul Bennett when they were together.  (File photo)

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Wright and Paul Bennett when they were together. (File photo)

On Thursday, Wright’s attorney Sarah Saunderson-Warner said Wright had since discovered phone records that could have made a significant difference to the outcome of her trial had it been available at the time.

Saunderson-Warner said the records showed that a number attributed to Bennett called the victim on June 5, 2008 for 6.5 minutes. This matched the victim’s evidence that “John” had contacted him to sort out the details of the sale.

The next day, there was 43 seconds of call from the victim to Bennett’s phone. Saunderson-Warner said this was not an answered call, but a voice message.

At 10:22 p.m., Bennett’s phone rang the voicemail number for 48 seconds, a time equivalent to someone listening to a voice message.

Saunderson-Warner said there was never another call that was answered between Bennett and the victim. She suggested that if Wright had been aware of this data at the trial, the victim would have been questioned about his claim that he had spoken to a woman, as this was not supported by the phone records.

Wright appears in Christchurch court.

JOHN KIRK ANDERSON/Stuff

Wright appears in Christchurch court.

Saunderson-Warner said she wasn’t suggesting that the victim lied during the trial, but may have mistakenly believed he was talking to a woman because he already had the impression that he was communicating with a woman via email.

More than ten years had passed since the fraudulent sale in 2008 and the victim’s testimony in 2020.

Saunderson-Warner said that because much of the case against Wright was circumstantial, the judge attached great importance to the testimony related to this phone call. In its written decision, the judge described the appeal as “a fatal flaw in Ms Wright’s case”.

Jamie Eng, on behalf of the Crown, said Wright’s appeal was just “an opportunistic reconstruction after the fact.”

There was no evidence that Bennett checked a voice message during the 48-second call on June 6, as the defense claimed, he said.

Eng also pointed to the victim’s testimony that a woman told him they intended to use the money for specialist medical treatment for their son, and that he had expressed his condolences.

“That’s quite a detail to be mistaken about.”

He said the victim provided detailed evidence and spoke with confidence during the trial.

The victim had no motive for lying about what happened, Eng said.

“We are far from an error of counsel and an error of justice,” he said.

Judge Cameron Mander has reserved his decision.

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