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Mark Lundy: Three hours to kill

The Privy Council is hearing Mark Lundy's appeal to overturn his double murder conviction. In 2004 Denis Welch outlined the case against him.

NZ Listener, 26 June 2004, #3346, p.26

Mark Lundy on the first day of his murder trial.
Photo/Mark Mitchell

"Gidday, how are ya? Keeping out of mischief?" Dave Jones answers the phone in his Taihape home and natters away for the next few minutes. Then he hands over to wife Caryl, who talks just as animatedly to the caller. As you would, too, if it was your brother ringing up for a chat on a quiet Saturday afternoon.

In this case, though, the brother on the line is Mark Lundy, and he's calling from prison. Two years into a 20-year sentence, he has to make the most of each 15-minute call he's allowed. Dave and Caryl have even got themselves an 0800 number to make it less hassle for him to call.

Convicted two years ago of brutally murdering his wife Christine and seven-year-old daughter Amber in their Palmerston North home, Lundy has never ceased to protest his innocence. And Caryl and Dave have no doubt about it, either. Ask Caryl if she believes that her brother didn't do it and without a flicker of hesitation or ambivalence she replies: "Oh I know he didn't. He couldn't. No. There's no way. I've never even heard him argue with Christine. He couldn't even tell Amber off for being naughty, let alone do that sort of heinous thing."

Who would indeed hack a mother and child to death with a hatchet, splattering blood and brains around the room? Not Lundy, most people thought. In the immediate wake of the killings, he seemed like a genuinely grief-stricken family man - and he had an apparently clear alibi. His arrest six months after the murders turned public opinion against him, however, and as the Crown case unfolded at his trial, revealing among other things his use of prostitutes, the grief in hindsight began to look more and more insincere.

The turning point, what more than anything else put Lundy behind bars, was a pathologist's testimony that the fabric of one of his shirts contained the DNA of his wife's brain tissue.

Writer Peter Hawes sat through the seven-week trial, and at that point, he says, "You could feel it in court. Everybody, from there on in - suddenly you were looking at a murderer. It was a very strange moment. You just knew you were sitting next to a murderer - an axe murderer."

Two years on, however, many people remain unconvinced. The Joneses are by no means the only ones who feel that an innocent man has been jailed. And although you couldn't exactly say that a "free Lundy" campaign has gained the momentum of, say, the campaigns on behalf of Peter Ellis and David Bain, the website of a group called FACTUAL (For Amber and Christine - Truth Uncovered About Lundys) is attracting lots of hits. "We simply want to find the truth about what happened that night," says FACTUAL. "We consider that there are too many inconsistencies and unexplored areas in the evidence that convicted Mark."

Topping the list of shonky evidence, as sceptics see it, is the return trip that Lundy is supposed to have made between Wellington, where he had spent the day on business, and home on the night of the murders. Even those who think him guilty tend to boggle at the logistics of what can only have been - if it happened - one of the most audacious not to say maniacal open-road drives in this country's history.

According to the Crown, in two hours and 51 minutes, Lundy drove 150km from Petone to Palmerston North through rush-hour traffic, parked 500m from his house, hurried there, butchered his wife in her bed, cut down their child in the bedroom doorway, cleaned up, reset the computer, disposed of the murder weapon, ran back to the car in female disguise and drove the 150km back to Petone without attracting attention from a single speed camera, traffic cop or fellow driver - even though he would have had to hit speeds of at least 160kph to do it.

Mark Lundy (centre) leaves the funeral service for Christine and Amber. Photo/ Mark Mitchell

No one who has tried to replicate the road trip - and many, including the police, have had a go - has come anywhere near doing it in the same time. The man who has taken the most trouble over it, private investigator Paul Bass, made the northbound trip three times by different routes at exactly the same time of day and year as Lundy allegedly did (see map) and couldn't do it in less than an hour and 56 minutes - which would have left Lundy a physically impossible 55 minutes to commit the murders and get back to Petone.

Bass had backed himself to match Lundy, too.

"Before I did this," he says, "I thought I would be able to do it. When I was given this task, I thought, right - no sweat. I've been in the police force, I've driven very, very fast over long periods of time, and I thought, yeah, I should be able to do that. I couldn't."

Anyone who regularly drives between Wellington and Palmerston North will tell you that it can be done a great deal faster than an hour and 50 minutes. Without even breaking the law, you can do it comfortably in an hour and a half. But not at rush-hour, when streams of cars clog the highway both ways as far north as Levin. Not on a weeknight between 5.38 (a cellphone call puts Lundy in Petone at this point) and 7.15pm (the latest time the murders could have been committed, according to analysis of the victims' stomach contents).

"I just don't know how he was able to make the trip as alleged, without people being on their cellphones pushing *555," says Bass. "Because you would have to be driving like an absolute lunatic. And you are going to bring an awful lot of attention to yourself. If your focus is to go and do something discreetly and give yourself an alibi, it doesn't make sense that you would then draw attention to yourself."

Nor have answers ever been satisfactorily provided to these questions:

    •  Why was Christine, a well-known night-owl, in bed at 7.00pm, when she and Amber always watched Shortland Street?

    • If all the lights in the house were off next morning, when the bodies were found, and the murders took place no later than 7.15pm, how to explain the testimony of passers-by and neighbours who saw lights off (9.45pm) and then on (11.00pm)?

    • Who shut down Christine's computer at 10.52pm, or programmed it to do so? (echoes of the Bain murders here)

    • Was the man a witness saw running away from the scene wearing a woman's wig really Lundy, when an orthotic device he wore in his shoe made it hard for him to run?

    • And, above all, if Lundy so cunningly plotted the whole ghastly business, why would he leave an incriminating shirt in his car?

The shirt, yes. Without that, says Lundy's lawyer Steve Winter, "probably the Crown case would have crumbled. I wasn't on the jury, so I don't know what it was they put weight on, but that was pretty powerful forensic evidence, it has to be acknowledged.

"Without the shirt, you say, he might have got off. Without the shirt, I'm not sure he would have been charged."

On the morning after the murders, Lundy drove home from Wellington. Police stopped him before he could turn into his street, told him his wife and daughter had been killed and took him to the police station, where they confiscated not only his car but also his glasses, watch and wedding ring. Four days later they searched the car, which was full of junk and had patently not been cleaned for a while, and examined clothes found in a bag in the boot. Not a trace of blood connected with the crime was found anywhere in the car - not on the driver's seat, the steering wheel, the door handles - but tiny, almost invisible smears or particles of blood were eventually detected on a blue polo shirt taken from the bag.

At the trial, an ESR scientist said that the DNA in a blood smear on the shirt was 450 billion times more likely to be that of Christine Lundy than that of another unrelated female; and that "small red particles" were 19 million times more likely to be Amber's than any unrelated female's. Those findings alone, however, would not have convicted Lundy, as the blood might have landed there earlier - from a cut or scratch, say. What did for him was the testimony that microscopic tissue fragments in the left sleeve could only have come - or at least were 450 billion times more likely to have come - from Christine's brain or spinal cord.

This was established by a method called immuno-staining. It is not widely used in forensic analysis (ESR does not do it), and the officer in charge of the Lundy case, Detective Sergeant Ross Grantham - who declined to be interviewed - had to search the world for a lab to do it at all. All those he contacted apparently told him that a definitive result from such a tiny sample was highly unlikely. Finally, Grantham tried a Dallas company called ProPath, and it was ProPath's director of immunohistochemistry, Rodney Miller, who made the crucial call: testifying at the trial, Miller was adamant that the particles were brain or spinal cord tissue.

It was the first time the immuno-staining method had ever been used on fabric.

Well, not quite the first. A week before Grantham showed up at ProPath with the shirt, Miller did a little experiment. "I was rinsing off a fresh chicken to be used for dinner," he wrote later, "and noticed spinal cord tissue protruding from the severed neck of the chicken." Smearing some of this tissue on an old shirt, he was able to confirm its origin by immuno-staining. "Little did the chicken know," he added, "that she would be contributing greatly to putting a guilty man behind bars."

They certainly do things differently in Texas (Lundy, as Miller also noted, would have been executed there). But whatever you think of the method, Miller's finding swung the trial. In the jury's eyes, says Hawes, Lundy's genial image melted away. "Suddenly he grew fangs and horns," says Hawes, "and you just knew, knew, knew; and I could feel that everybody else in that room felt the same."

How to combat such damning evidence? All the defence could do was suggest that the tissue got into the fabric, either accidentally or deliberately, while the shirt was in police hands. Explains Steve Winter, who was one of the defence counsel at the trial: "We had to put to police witnesses every alternative, in order to do our job properly. I think everybody would like to think that it couldn't happen, but could you rule it out? Well, the jury found in this case they could."

The Crown line was that Lundy wore overalls or a tracksuit to do the killings, but that the blood and tissue somehow sprayed inside them, or he smeared the shirt with the overalls while taking them off. If he was the murderer, though, that still doesn't explain one thing.

As Dave Jones says, "If you've got rid of everything else, why would you keep the shirt you were wearing? If you've got blood and gore all over you, and you've gone somewhere and inside this bloody short timeframe you've been able to clean yourself up so they haven't found anything under your fingernails, in your hair, in your glasses, your watch, your rings, the zipper of your trousers - whatever, you've got rid of everything - if you've been so careful, why would you be dumb enough to keep the shirt? You'd dump the whole bloody lot, wouldn't you?"

Despite evidence of Lundy's serious debt problems, no credible motive has ever been established for the crime. Nor has anything ever emerged to suggest that this man, described by his sister as "a bit of a blowhard" at worst, was capable of such a savage act. He was a heavy drinker, but had no record of any kind of violence. Says Caryl: "I don't think he had a bad bone in his body. Has a bad bone in his body."

The puzzling questions remain, and may yet be answered. The FACTUAL group, for instance, though not yet ready to go public with its findings, claims to have discredited "just about everything the police said".

"Obviously it's a lot harder to discredit the so-called brain tissue," says a spokesman, "or, if it is brain tissue, how it got there. Everything else just falls apart, everything else is just a theory - no doubt about it."

When all's said and done, however, it's hard to get away from the likelihood that Lundy did do the murders. After all, if he didn't, who did? Rumours still abound, of course - of the neighbour who mysteriously vanished, of a P-crazed intruder, etc. And the idea of murder by a total stranger is not so far-fetched: Val Burr lived near the Lundys for many years, and once worked with Christine. Horrifyingly, a year after the Lundy murders, Burr's daughter Tanya was randomly murdered in a Rotorua home invasion. "The same thing," she says now, "could just as easily have happened in the case of Christine and Amber."

Hawes has no doubt that Lundy did it, and is equally convinced that Lundy has dissociated himself from the act. "He's totally convinced that he didn't do it - because it's gone. He took his wife's face off; he's taken his own bit of brain out that remembers this."

From Kaitoke prison near Wanganui, where he has been working in the laundry and studying for a degree in applied science, Lundy wrote a letter earlier this year, saying that one day the world will know the truth of what really happened on that August night. And it may have been he who sent the card attached to a bunch of artificial flowers propped up against Christine and Amber's mutual grave. It says: "Remember. Mark."

See also: Convicted murderer Mark Lundy has won a hearing at the Privy Council, at a time when the reliability of forensic evidence is being questioned as never before.