Peter Marco Falconio (20 September 1972 – c. 14 July 2001) was a British tourist who disappeared in the Australian outback in July 2001, while travelling with girlfriend Joanne Lees and is now presumed dead.
He was 28 years old at the time of the disappearance. Falconio's body has never been found. Bradley John Murdoch was convicted of his murder on 13 December 2005. The case attracted considerable public and legal attention worldwide.
He was born on 20 September 1972 in Hepworth, Huddersfield, in West Yorkshire, to Joan (née Reynolds) and Luciano Falconio, an Italian immigrant. Falconio had three brothers, Nicholas, Paul & Mark Falconio. Peter was a graduate of University of Brighton.
Missing person or murder?
Lees stated that while travelling at night along the Stuart Highway near Barrow Creek (between Alice Springs and Tennant Creek) in the Northern Territory on 14 July 2001, the pair were stopped by a man waving for the couple to stop their Volkswagen Type 2 "Kombi" van and indicating trouble with their vehicle's exhaust. Falconio got out of the van to investigate, and shortly afterward Lees heard what she believed was a backfire. Later, she believed that Falconio had been shot. Earlier that evening, they had passed a burning branch in the middle of the road. Lees remembers this as being 'abnormal' and of notable significance, as they had not seen this before and she considered it to be a warning of what may have happened. However, in Australia it is not unusual in dry country, particularly in the winter and spring for fires to start by vehicle exhausts or carelessly thrown cigarettes.
At the committal hearing in December 2004 Lees told the court that her assailant then tied her wrists together behind her, put a sack over her head and forced her into his ute (pick-up truck). She also stated that the person forced her between the seats of his vehicle and into the rear of his vehicle. She said she escaped from his ute and fled into the dark, hiding under bushes, while he tried to find her with a torch. Expert Aboriginal trackers, called from a nearby settlement could find no sign of tracks other than Lees' in the vicinity. Tracker Teddy Egan stated, "I see tracks where she run and fall down beneath tree. She lie there, hiding". It was also noted that a pool of Falconio's blood that had been covered in soil had attracted no ants or flies, considered to be much more out of the ordinary by Territorians than a roadside fire.
Falconio's body has not been found despite a massive police search. Much doubt has been cast on how Lees may have been able to escape from her bindings, as when she flagged down a passing truck for assistance, her hands were in front of her body. Lees however was able to demonstrate in court how easily she was able to bring her bound hands from behind to front. Police, however, found no vehicle that was able to be accessed from the front seats to the rear canopy area without leaving the vehicle.
Some two years after the disappearance, Bradley John Murdoch, a man living in Adelaide and previously acquitted of a rape charge, was found to have a possible connection to Barrow Creek on 14 July 2001. Murdoch was found not guilty of the rape but Northern Territory police applied for extradition to face charges of abduction and murder. Lees identified his photograph as being the man who abducted her after being shown a photograph of a person in custody in Adelaide by a journalist in the UK, and the DNA from the bloodstains on Lees' clothing matched Murdoch's DNA.
Trial of Bradley Murdoch
Bradley Murdoch's jury trial began on 18 October 2005 in the Darwin branch of the Northern Territory Supreme Court, where he was tried for the murder of Falconio and assaults on Joanne Lees. The trial concluded in May 2006 with the conviction of Murdoch on all counts. He was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum non-parole period of 28 years.
Northern Territory Director of Public Prosecutions Rex Wild said in court there are three pieces of evidence linking Murdoch to the scene of the crime. His DNA was a match with bloodstains on Joanne Lees' t-shirt, a smear of blood on the gearstick of the couple's car, and DNA located on tape used by the killer to bind her wrists. These assertions have all been disputed by Murdoch's defence team.
To cope with the demands of the trial and the huge media contingent covering the trial proceedings, the Darwin branch of the Northern Territory Supreme Court was refitted at a cost of A$900,000.
Defence's closing argument
Grant Algie and Mark Twiggs, the lawyers representing the accused, Bradley John Murdoch, argued the following:
“ Peter Falconio faked his own death, and that when Peter Falconio and Joanne Lees stopped by the side of the road near Barrow Creek, it was to meet with a third man, of description unknown, in order to take Peter Falconio away, alive.
Police planted evidence, with the assistance of Murdoch's former drug-running partner James Hepi, who had both motive and opportunity to frame Murdoch, after Murdoch had been central to Hepi's arrest.
Algie and Twiggs pointed to the absence of blood at the crime scene, the mix-ups with DNA, the lack of a body, apparent sightings of Falconio in the days thereafter, inconsistencies in Lees' testimony, the poor police procedures in handling evidence, and the lack of a positive identification of Bradley John Murdoch.
The defence suggested that sometimes, for reasons best known to themselves, people just disappear. The defence said that sometimes they are found again, sometimes not.
Prosecution's closing argument
Rex Wild stated that this is what really happened:
“ Bradley John Murdoch saw Joanne Lees and Peter Falconio while in Alice Springs, and believed that they were following him. So he drove behind them as they travelled along the Stuart Highway, and then stopped, so as to get rid of them, because he feared that they may be spying on him and may contact police in relation to his drug-running.
After stopping them, he panicked and killed Peter Falconio, making sure that there was no blood anywhere by making a shot directly to his head, then abducted Joanne Lees, binding her with cable ties, and putting her in the back of his vehicle.
After putting Lees in the back of his vehicle, Murdoch was trying to dispose of the body when Joanne Lees escaped into surrounding shrubland. Murdoch then searched for her with his dog and a flashlight, but after five hours of searching, he gave up.
Murdoch then buried Falconio in an unknown place in the Central Australian outback, having wrapped Falconio's head with Lees's denim jacket so as to prevent any blood getting in the vehicle.
Then Murdoch panicked, and, rather than driving through the bush straight to Broome, he drove all the way back to Alice Springs, where he was spotted on closed circuit television at the truck stop, getting supplies before heading out to Broome, where he travelled non-stop at great speed, taking amphetamines to keep himself awake and alert.
Murdoch then altered his physical appearance as well as his vehicle's appearance so as to avoid detection, and immediately stopped running drugs because he feared that he might be linked to the murder.
Wild suggested that there was no evidence whatsoever of any police corruption, and urged jurors to dismiss any suggestions as an unfounded conspiracy theory that was "plucked out of thin air". He suggested that all of the evidence points to one obvious conclusion: that Murdoch killed Falconio. He stated that while no body has been found yet, it will be eventually, that it was only a matter of time, but that it "may be quite some time".
Wild stated that Joanne Lees should be expected to have mild discrepancies with Murdoch's appearance, such as the length and colour of his hair, not noticing his teeth, the description of his car, and other inconsistencies, because Lees was under a lot of stress and pressure during the incident.
He asked the jury to ignore the evidence of the sightings of Peter Falconio and to dismiss them as inaccurate, highlighting discrepancies in the stories of the various people who were said to have seen him alive in the days after the attack. He stated that the DNA did match, and that there was no chance that it was not Murdoch's DNA and hence the jury must find him guilty.
Wild said that Murdoch was a methodical killer, and that the crime was premeditated to "get rid of" someone, and suggested that he may have thought that Lees was travelling alone, since Falconio was asleep in the back when she drove by. Mr Wild stated that the methodical actions to get rid of any evidence suggesting Murdoch committed the offence, as well as quickly getting away suggests the acts of someone with extreme premeditation, and that it was the work of an obsessive methodical person, a man just like Murdoch.
Wild asked the jury to ignore coincidental evidence that seemed to suggest that Murdoch didn't do it, stating that he had ample time to change the evidence to fit the story, to later suggest that he didn't do it.
Chief Justice's summation
Chief Justice Brian Ross Martin, the trial judge, made the following instructions to the jury:
“ How you approach the evidence is a matter entirely for you. There are many issues that have been raised for your consideration. You may or may not find it necessary to resolve all the issues. You may or may not be able to resolve all of the issues. You must put aside the flamboyant suggestions of counsel that we do not need experts from the mother country to teach us colonials a thing or two.
Please put aside all the hyperbole and concentrate on the evidence before you. That's why you look at all the evidence, not just the experts. The question to be considered by you is whether you are satisfied the accused's blood came to be on the T-shirt in the course of attacking Miss Lees. Are you satisfied that the DNA came to be on the item because of contact in the course of the accused attacking Miss Lees? Or is it a reasonable possibility that the DNA came to be on the item through an innocent contact, or through some form of contamination either deliberate or accidental?
The judge said that if the jury was satisfied that the blood came from Murdoch, the Crown put the case that it was deposited while he was attacking Miss Lees.
“ Ladies and gentlemen, if that's your view, if you are satisfied the Crown's submission is correct, and you are satisfied that the man who attacked Miss Lees killed Peter Falconio, then the Crown will have proved its case of murder.
You must not reason that because of those other activities the accused is the type of person who is likely to have committed the offences charged. It provides the setting for the accused's travel and explains why he was on the road that weekend. If, from a consideration of all the other evidence, you are satisfied it was the accused and his vehicle at the truck stop, it will follow that you are satisfied that the accused has not been truthful with you and others.
Red Rooster claim
During Murdoch's committal hearing, Lees mentioned that she and Falconio had stopped at a Red Rooster restaurant in Alice Springs. Murdoch claimed to have stopped at the same restaurant to buy chicken for himself and his dog, "First thing in Alice, pulled into the Red Rooster... Chicken roll, box of nuggets for Jack...full chicken for the trip." Grant Algie suggested that Murdoch might have cut himself and inadvertently left blood at the restaurant which later transferred to Lees' shirt, explaining the presence of his DNA there.
In April 2006, The Bulletin reported that Murdoch had refused to be served chicken while incarcerated during the committal and trial, claiming he was allergic to it, and that he has a standing medical certificate at Berrimah Prison requesting that he never be served chicken.
Subsequent to his conviction, Murdoch appealed the conviction and sentence. On 10 January 2007, the Northern Territory Court of Criminal Appeal (NT CCA) dismissed both limbs of the appeal.
Murdoch then applied for Special Leave to appeal to the High Court of Australia. On 21 June 2007, the High Court refused to grant Special Leave. Under the Australian judicial system, Murdoch has now exhausted all opportunities of appeal. Subsequent to the High Court of Australia refusing to grant Murdoch's application for Special Leave, there has been media speculation that Murdoch will lodge a further appeal. Perth-based QC Tom Percy is believed to be preparing Murdoch's appeal.
The appeal comes after the collapse of the case against Sean Hoey, who was acquitted in December 2007 of 58 charges, including 29 murders, related to the Omagh bombing in 1998. The NT Department of Public Prosecutions said they had not been notified of the action, and the Northern Territory Police would not comment.
Evidence against both Murdoch and Hoey was given by Dr Jonathan Whitaker of Britain's Yorkshire-based Forensic Science Service using a controversial technique called low copy number DNA. At Hoey's trial in Belfast, however, several experts said the low copy number DNA technique used to identify the accused was unreliable, and the judge was highly critical in his assessment of Dr Whitaker's evidence. British police suspended use of the technique, but it has now been resumed following a review by the Crown Prosecution Service which concluded that "the CPS has not seen anything to suggest that any current problems exist with LCN". The findings have been questioned by other forensic experts, including Allan Jamieson, director of the Forensic Institute in Glasgow, who gave evidence at the Omagh trial questioning the validity of LCN.
Films inspired by events
In early 2005, the Australian horror film directed by Greg Mclean Wolf Creek was shown at the Cannes Film Festival and shown on national release in the United Kingdom and Ireland on 16 September 2005. It was released in Australia on 3 November 2005 (apart from the Northern Territory, where it was released in January 2006 after the trial had finished so as not to influence the jury unduly). The film was advertised as being based on "true stories", although the producers have said that it is not directly linked to any specific stories.
Joanne Lees: Murder in The Outback
In March 2007, Channel Ten in Australia showed Joanne Lees: Murder in the Outback, an account of the murder, covering the period from the night of Falconio's death through to sentencing, from Joanne Lees' perspective. It was also shown by ITV1 in the UK on 8 April 2007, and by Tv1 in New Zealand on 10 June 2007.
- ^ Barkham, Patrick. "Outback case doubts echo dingo baby hue and cry". The Guardian. July 2001. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2001/jul/28/world.patrickbarkham
- ^ Darwin prepares for the Falconio case » ABC Darwin
- ^ New twist in Falconio case
- ^ Murdoch v The Queen  NTCCA 1 Link: http://www.nt.gov.au/ntsc/doc/judgements/2007/ntcca/20070110ntcca01.html
- ^ http://www.ntnews.com.au/article/2008/05/04/4033_ntnews.html
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