Lawyer Ross Burns was working on getting a tan in Cyprus, when Mark Lundy, working on getting off murder, sent out an SOS.

It was 1pm and Burns trudged up from his spot on the beach to a cafe, to order his first beer of the day. While he sipped on a pint, he tapped into the cafe's wireless internet.

Waiting for him was an email from childhood friend and lawyer, David Hislop.

Hislop was the lead counsel on Lundy's 2015 retrial and he needed an understudy. Would Burns do it?


The decision to defend Lundy, took all of "five minutes". "It's the sort of thing that doesn't fall in your lap all that often."

He says this, but his CV could be a Wikipedia entry of high-profile crime cases.

Nicknamed "third-degree burns", he's worked as both a defence lawyer and prosecutor here and in the UK, prosecuting in New Zealand among others, the Urewera civil disobedience trial, the Switched on Gardener case, and Teina Pora.

At 61, he's semi-retired and lives between Tauranga and Spain. His wife, Dee O'Neill, is a former GP who branched into appearance medicine. He admits he's had a "few pinholes" in him.

Together they run Litigation Preparation Services, preparing witnesses for trial.

At home in Maungatapu, he watched the NZME livestream of Lundy's appeal last month, as Lundy fights to overturn his convictions for murdering his wife Christine and daughter Amber in their Palmerston North home in August 2000.

Burns met Lundy in conference a couple of times before his retrial, but never had a personal relationship.

His gut feeling is that chances of a third trial are remote. "He's already had two. If they allow the appeal, I'd be surprised if they sent it back a third time. It's one of the most unusual cases I've ever had in my life."


He believes you can take identical facts and make two different, balanced cases for Lundy: One for innocence and one for guilt.

The problem has always been interpreting the scientific evidence, particularly 17 years on, when concessions made previously, can be challenged.

Burns is back in Tauranga after a four-month holiday, and has a lot of time to think. The business he set up has been slow to take off, and he's lounging on outdoor furniture, tanned, and "wrecked" from jetlag.

He and O'Neill spent three months in Altea, then a month in Barcelona, where they bought a house in Alicante. They spend New Zealand winters in Spain, then come home when "the sun comes out".

They're in the process of selling their waterview property in Maungatapu and are moving to the Mount. They're trying to learn Spanish on Babbel.

What would someone who doesn't like him, say about him? "That I'm pompous a***hole, probably! Ha, ha."

"All these bloody posh kids from King's (College) and stuff, and I was just from Kamo High School, you know?" Photo/Andrew Warner.

Wearing a longsleeved Ralph Lauren polo-shirt, jeans and rust-coloured boat shoes, he then gave an eye-raising fact: He'd once been a tally clerk, on the chains, at a freezing works.

He went to Whangarei's Kamo Primary, Intermediate, and High School, before attending Auckland University, which he "f**king hated".

"All these bloody posh kids from King's [College] and stuff, and I was just from Kamo High School, you know?" He chose to frequent the pub instead.

"I really hated law school. I didn't like law, the only aspect of law I really liked and understood was criminal law."

He dropped out of uni and went to Australia, working in construction and shipyards. From here, he did an unconventional OE through a string of politically unstable countries, before going to Greece, Scotland (he worked on oil platforms), then Israel, and back to New Zealand. He worked 12 months in a freezing works to "save some dough", before pushing his way back into law school.

"I had to have an argument with the dean and do an extra paper, which I did, and finished my degree by the grace of God."

He went on to have 30 years experience in criminal, civil and employment litigation and now has a private 180-degree view of Tauranga Harbour, a solar-heated pool and an impressive art collection. He claims not to have counted victories versus losses.

He was named a "millionaire legal aid lawyer" on the Whale Oil Beef Hooked website, but says that only came about because the fees for the Lundy retrial ($1.35 million) were funnelled through his bank account.

"I shoveled them out as fast as they came in. There was four counsel for the defence and I just happened to be the mug who passed the money around. I wish I was a millionaire legal aid lawyer."

In truth, he's hardly unsuccessful.

In court, his cross-examination style was "full-on".

"I always tried to be as logical and sensible as possible, and as economical as possible. My shortest ever closing speech was 5.5 minutes and that was in a murder trial. If you can't make your point in a couple of succinct sentences then you obviously haven't got a point to make."

He played guitar in his old work band, Hostile Witness. He's not very good, but was needed for "rock n roll credential".

He's got a special room in his house where he keeps his guitars. They're next to his sauna, which is conveniently placed, to look out to his TV.

Looking back at his career, the number one highlight was prosecuting in the Urewera civil disobedience trial. The history-making terror raids which took place in 2007 kept him busy for five years, finishing with the appeal in 2012.

These days, life is quiet. Does he miss being in court?

"When you get in the zone, when you've got a case in your head, nothing distracts you. I just pass through life with blinkers on." - lawyer Ross Burns. Photo/Andrew Warner.

"Ah, it's a bit like playing competitive sport, you know? At the time you're in there, it's really horrible and you don't know what you're doing, then you come out the other side, breathe a sigh of relief and think it wasn't that bad."

Overall, he found it physically and mentally challenging. "It got to a point where it was like: 'Why am I bothering sitting in an office?' I mean, I've still got all my teeth, let's go and do something while we're still alive."

Previous colleagues saw themselves like doctors - there to perform a service to the community until they died.

"One of them, we had to send a junior partner up to take papers off him while he was in the hospice dying of cancer."

He and wife, O'Neill, both married before, gave up their careers at the same time. In 2007, she featured on TV programme, 60 Minutes, speaking in favour of the controversial tanning drug, Melatonin. Her daughter, Jordan Rondel, owns the successful business, The Caker, in Auckland, helped by sister, Anouk.

Burns has children himself, daughter Katie and son Andrew.

He is a founding member of the Criminal Bar Association and was on the list of counsel eligible to represent accused and victims before the International Criminal Court.

He began his legal career in Napier, before working as a barrister in the UK for five years.
He came back home and got a job as a prosecutor and partner with Auckland's Meredith Connell, making headlines in 2010, when he picked up a luxury 300sqm Auckland penthouse in a mortgagee sale. He had to call the cops on Christmas Eve when he found the former owner, a fraudster, was there and refusing to leave. Burns served him with a trespass notice. He sold the apartment to move to Mangawhai ("20x God's holding paddock"), before Tauranga in 2015.

What does he do when he isn't running his business?

"Not a great deal. We've got all The Man Booker Prize finalists. I'm in the middle of reading the latest one. I can usually get through two to three books a week. And we get bored to be honest, sitting around doing nothing. After both having very active lives, you don't have time to develop hobbies. I don't potter in the shed or anything like that."

He thinks for a while.

"You just made me realise that outside my professional life I've got nothing. I'm off the edge of the cliff in a few minutes."

Truth is, he misses being busy. He used to drive O'Neill insane with work talk.

"When you get in the zone, when you've got a case in your head, nothing distracts you. I just pass through life with blinkers on."

Nowadays they have "proper" conversations, not involving "murder and mayhem and bloodstains and brain tissue". Morbid, horrible stuff.

He recalls prosecuting on the case of Ngatikaura Ngati, the New Zealand-Tongan toddler who died of child abuse in January 2006.

"He was beaten to death by both his mother and stepfather. His injuries.... They were appalling."

He's overcome by sudden emotion recalling the story.

"He was just a little kid. Sometimes you just can't believe what humans are capable of. It's, yeah, a hard job."

One day he knew it was time to bring down the gavel: "That's enough. I've done my bit, I've contributed." He's never got bored with exploring what people are capable of doing though. "People say: 'Aren't all the cases the same? And the answer is: 'Never."

As for the victims of crime, they show enormous dignity.

"You just think: 'F**k people are amazing.' By the time people get to the court they've been through the mincer, and it's like the point of the chisel when it's about to get smashed into the wood."

Watching Lundy's appeal on the telly, he asked himself: "Do I really want to be doing that again?

"No, not really."