Defence lawyers for the New Zealand man accused of murdering Grace Millane have told a jury the accused had no motive to murder her, that there were no signs of violence in the hotel room, or on Millane’s body.
A 27-year-old man, whose name is suppressed, has pleaded not guilty to murdering the British backpacker on the night of 1 December last year. Prosecutors allege Millane was murdered by the accused in his hotel room after a Tinder date, while the defence says she died accidentally while being consensually strangled during sex.
It is not disputed by either side that Millane died in Auckland’s CityLife hotel by strangulation, and that the accused buried her body in a suitcase in the Waitakere ranges, a bushland area west of the city. The defendant has chosen not to give evidence himself.
Opening the defence case, Ron Mansfield told the jury: “All the evidence shows that Miss Millane was a loving, bright, intelligent young woman, and she was. That is her reputation and that should be her reputation and her memory at the start of this trial and at the conclusion if it.”
“It’s important that we are fully informed. It’s not the time for embarrassment or immaturity. If this couple engaged in consensual sexual activity which included pressure being applied to her neck with her consent and that went wrong, that is not murder.”
Mansfield said residents in neighbouring rooms heard no sign of a struggle or distress and there was no evidence on her body that she had defended herself from an attack.
“Why … would this otherwise happy couple who were clearly enjoying each other’s company that night, end up in a situation where there was anger or hatred or violence to the point where he was prepared to assault her, let alone kill her?” Mansfield said.
“You might think that there is an absence of any motive. Or any basis at all at which the accused might lose it to the point where he assaulted her to the point where sadly she died.”
While the accused’s actions following her death were “reprehensible” – and included contorting her body into a suitcase and burying it in a shallow bushland grave – Mansfield said his client’s series of poor decisions were brought on by stress, intoxication, and fears he would not be believed regarding how Millane had died.
Evidence that the accused had frequently and repeatedly lied to Millane and other Tinder dates about his life, occupation and income were no more than a symptom of the “Instagram age”, Mansfied said, and indicated nothing more sinister than an attempt to make women interested in dating him, because he felt insecure.
“What we have seen is a young man who was 26 at the time, single, playing out his life through Tinder,” Mansfield said. “He may not have done the right thing afterwards because of a concern no one would believe him. But don’t prove him right”.
Later in the day forensic pathologist and toxicologist Dr Fintan Garavan gave evidence for the defence, testifying that after examining more than 300 pictures of Millane’s body he found “no evidence” that she had engaged in a struggle, and she had no marks or abrasions on her neck or fingernails that would indicate she had attempted to pull the accused’s hands off her. She also had no defensive wounds that would indicate she was fighting back from a violent attack.
However under cross-examination from the prosecution, Garavan acknowledged that some of the bruises on Millane’s upper body were consistent with being “restrained”, and this may explain why she was unable to fight back. If Millane had already fallen unconscious due to pressure being applied to her neck – from which she eventually died – this would also have rendered her unable to defend herself, the doctor acknowledged.
Last week the Crown presented evidence that Millane had a “conservative” sexual history. On Tuesday, the defence said Millane was an active member on BDSM dating websites, and had practised choking in the past.
One former sexual partner of Millane, whose identity has been suppressed, gave a written statement to the court saying the 21-year-old expressed an interest in choking and the pair had tried it together. “Grace and I explored this and researched safe practice. When we researched it we knew the word was asphyxiation,” the witness said.
The pair used a safe word or tapped the other person three times to indicate they wanted it to stop, the court heard.
A friend of Millane, who also has name suppression, testified that Millane had mentioned that she enjoyed choking.
“Grace told me that she enjoyed her partner to put his hands around her neck. I can’t really remember the exact words used but it was something like that, said in a jokey way as we talked about sex.”