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Grace Millane murder: 5 key questions the jury had to answer

Sam Hurley

New Zealand Herald business journalist

Warning: Contains graphic and sexual content.

His fate was in the hands of 12 ordinary Aucklanders, now it is in the hands of a judge.

A 28-year-old man, who still cannot be named for legal reasons, was found guilty and convicted of British backpacker Grace Millane's murder last November.

At 9am tomorrow he will be sentenced by Justice Simon Moore in the High Court at Auckland.

Focus Live: Served with a life sentence in prison with a minimum period of 17 years, NZ Herald court reporter Sam Hurley explains what's next for the killer.

During the nearly three week-long trial, which included nearly 40 witnesses, the jury were presented with two different narratives about what happened to Millane on the eve of her 22nd birthday in December 2018.

READ MORE:
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Prosecutors alleged the then-accused strangled Millane to death after their Tinder date in his downtown Auckland apartment and then took "trophy" photos of her body.

But the defence claimed he "freaked out" after an accidental death during rough sex, lied to police and then "tried to cover it up" by burying Millane's body in a shallow grave in a West Auckland forest.

The jury's decision, in the end, was unanimous - guilty.

Below the Herald names the five key issues raised during the trial by both the Crown and defence which the jury grappled with during their deliberation.

What happened in the apartment?

The biggest question which was disputed between the Crown and defence is what happened in the killer's CityLife hotel room on the night of December 1, 2018.

Only two people would ever know the answer.

"Grace can't tell us," prosecutor Robin McCoubrey told the jury.

The other sat in a large dock next to two security guards in courtroom 11 in the High Court at Auckland last November.

Prosecutor Robin McCoubrey, pictured during the Crown's opening address. Photo / Michael Craig
Prosecutor Robin McCoubrey, pictured during the Crown's opening address. Photo / Michael Craig

An enormous amount of CCTV footage was obtained by police - some six terabytes - which showed Millane and her killer on that fateful night after they matched on the dating app Tinder.

They can be seen kissing and enjoying themselves at three bars and eateries in downtown Auckland.

"But of course it's what happened inside the room that counts," McCoubrey told those in the courtroom.

Auckland's Crown Solicitor Brian Dickey and his team also relied on an analysis of the killer's black and green cellphone and forensic evidence uncovered in the apartment.

The smart phone revealed some suspicious Google searches.

At 1.29am on December 2 the killer searched for "Waitākere Ranges" - where Millane's body was eventually found - then at 1.31am a search for "hottest fire" was made, the web history revealed.

Several pornography sites were then accessed and photos were taken of a naked woman, which Dickey said was the lifeless body of Millane.

The killer's black and green cellphone. Photo / Supplied
The killer's black and green cellphone. Photo / Supplied

"It's plain that Ms Millane is dead at this point," McCoubrey said.

"He is trying to find a place to hide her body … he is trying to find a means of disposing of her body.

"There can be no reason for making those searches if Ms Millane was alive, unless there was a plan to kill her."

Dickey said the killer "eroticised the death of British backpacker Grace Millane" because of his "morbid sexual interest".

"And he has memorialised it for himself ... The ultimate triumph for the defendant over Grace Millane. His trophy photographs."

The murderer's chief defence lawyer Ian Brookie, however, told the jury there was no evidence the explicit photos of Millane were taken after she had died.

His client had also told police he and Millane were taking photos of each other during sex, while the internet searches may have been "two random Google searches".

A period of internet inactivity followed during the early hours of December 2 until after 6am when further searches were made on the killer's phone.

Grace Millane murder trial: Accused admits to disposing of body. Video / Chris Tarpey

This time they included "car hire Auckland", "large sports bags" and "rigor mortis".

Later searches in the day included "time in London", "flesh-eating birds" and "are there vultures in New Zealand".

The forensic evidence from inside the room, which included luminol tests, later showed two circles of blood on the apartment floor carpet near the bed.

There was also blood on the small white fridge from a "cast-off event" and on a bottle found in the room.

The blood which was sampled matched Millane's DNA profile.

Dianne Crenfeldt, an expert forensic scientist from the Institute of Environmental Science and Research, told the court the blood on the floor had "circular smearing within it".

She said there was "strong support" for the proposition that a clean-up of blood had occurred in the apartment, which also included small drips of blood, footprints and smears.

"Somebody with blood on their feet moved around the room."

She was, however, unable to say how much blood there originally was.

The bloody footprints in the downtown Auckland apartment. Photo / Supplied
The bloody footprints in the downtown Auckland apartment. Photo / Supplied

The killer admitted he encountered a small amount of blood on the floor and went about trying to clean it up after he found Millane's body.

He said there was blood coming from her nose on the morning of December 2.

In a second police interview on December 8, 2018, the killer said Millane had died in his apartment and confessed to his attempts to hide her body in the Waitākere Ranges.

His, however, remains the only account of what may have happened inside the apartment.

"We were kissing, we were talking," he told Detective Ewen Settle during that December 8 interview.

"She asked me to turn the TV off. I had the TV on the music channel."

Then, the killer said, Millane began talking about the erotic novel and film series Fifty Shades of Grey.

"We started having sex, at first it was just normal. It was very placid," he said.

Millane then introduced the topic of bondage and began biting her would-be murderer, he told the detective.

"She asked me to bite her, so I did," he said. "I stopped at first and said 'is this something you really want to do?'"

Grace Millane's murderer still cannot be named. Photo / Michael Craig
Grace Millane's murderer still cannot be named. Photo / Michael Craig

The killer claimed Millane said: "We're in the moment, let's just go with it."

He added the pair talked for a while before having sex again - this time Millane showed him how to restrain and choke her.

This type of erotic asphyxiation was "new to me", he said.

"We started having more, I guess, violent sex ... And then we kept going, she told me to hold her arms tighter ... And then she told me to hold her throat and go harder."

The killer said he then went to the bathroom - where he passed out in the shower.

Upon waking up, he claims he crawled back into the bed in a "pitch black room".

"I thought Grace had left," he said.

The next morning, however, he woke to find Millane dead.

"I screamed, I yelled out at her. I tried to move her to see if she was awake."

The killer, however, did not tell Settle about the internet searches or photos he took.

But when prompted by Brookie, who was also in the room, he did provide an explanation to why he was now confessing to police.

"Because I want her family to know that it wasn't intentional," he said.

"But I also want her family to have closure and the other night when I was questioned by police I was still shocked and I apologise for misleading. So yeah, it's basically so her family understand that it wasn't an intentional thing."

Consent and intent? 'You can't consent to your own murder'

The defence provided evidence which they said showed Millane had an interest in choking during sex.

She had asked her date to put his hands around her neck, they told the court.

A statement from a former sexual partner of Millane was also read to the court.

He said Millane enjoyed choking during sex and the couple had also practised BDSM (Bondage Discipline Sadism and Masochism), blindfolding and role play.

But, the statement continued, the two trusted each other and used a safe word.

A friend of Millane also had her statement read to the court.

Grace Millane murder trial: Sex expert on BDSM and 'breath play'. Video / Chris Tarpey

The female confidant said part of "girl talk" included the two discussing their sexual preferences.

Millane "enjoyed her partner putting his hands around her neck", BDSM and rough sex, she said.

The court also heard evidence that Millane held accounts on Whiplr and FetLife, online BDSM and sexual fetish communities.

She last accessed her Whiplr account on December 1 - the day she met her killer - from her backpackers in Auckland.

A man who spent the night of November 30 with Millane also told the court of their sexual encounter.

He met Millane at the Base Backpackers where she was staying in Auckland.

He recalled being attracted to the "outgoing" Millane who talked of future travels to Fiji.

During sex between the pair, he said had a hand "potentially on her neck" but "can't remember 100 per cent".

Police conducted luminol tests in the killer's apartment and found an apparent attempt to clean-up blood. Photo / Supplied
Police conducted luminol tests in the killer's apartment and found an apparent attempt to clean-up blood. Photo / Supplied

This all went to the core of the killer's explanation, Brookie told the jury, she had raised the topic of erotic asphyxiation.

"The only way he could've known that, because we know it's true from the evidence, is if she'd done exactly what he said," Brookie told the jury.

"The defence says to you that is a critical piece of evidence," he said.

But Dickey said: "This is not sex play, this is not restricted breath games."

The now convicted murderer, he alleged, gripped Millane's throat for five to 10 minutes, strangling the life out of her.

He must have felt Millane's "limp and lifeless" body but decided to carry on, he told the jury.

"You can't consent to your own murder."

The killer's propensity to 'dominate women'

Three women gave evidence during the trial about the killer's supposed predilection for erotic asphyxiation and sexual domination.

Dickey said the killer "gambled with the safety of women".

One woman recalled being on a Tinder date with him on November 2, 2018 and visited his apartment.

She told the young man: "We're not having sex."

However, the would-be killer soon removed his pants and she began giving him oral sex, she told the court.

But, as the witness explained, she would soon be fearing for her life.

"He just sat down on my face," she said through tears. "I couldn't breathe."

Grace Millane murder trial: CCTV shows alleged killer going through Millane's handbag. Video / Chris Tarpey

The murderer was also holding her down, the court heard.

"I couldn't move my arms, I couldn't breathe, so I started kicking - trying to indicate I couldn't breathe," she said.

"I couldn't breathe … I was terrified. He just sat there, he didn't move at all."

She finally managed to turn her head slightly and get a sliver of air before feigning unconsciousness, the court heard.

"'Cause then maybe he'd realise something was wrong," she said. "There were so many thoughts running through my mind ... This can't be the way I die ... I started thinking about my family and my friends. They can't read about this."

Finally the killer sat up, she said.

"I was gasping, I couldn't breathe properly and he just said to me, 'Oh what's wrong?'

"Almost accusing and quite cold he said, 'Oh you don't think I did that on purpose do you?'"

After the incident, the witness said she never wanted to see the man again.

But her text message history led to a lengthy line of questioning under cross-examination by one of the killer's lawyers Ron Mansfield.

He read some of the more than 700 messages between the woman and the alleged killer - some of which the well-known lawyer said appeared to show an interest in continuing a relationship.

The messages between the pair continued for several days because, the witness said, she "didn't want to make him angry".

"I was completely scared and fearful," she said.

"A person who can almost kill someone and suffocate them ... And then claim he has cancer to gain some sympathy ... he's a sociopath."

An Auckland waitress, who also matched with the soon-to-be charged murderer on Tinder, told the court of her date with him just a week before he met Millane.

"We asked each other what we prefer during sex," she said.

"I said, 'I prefer rough sex and choking'. He did say he likes rough sex as well."

Grace Millane's body was dumped in a shallow grave in the Waitākere Ranges in Auckland's west. Photo / Supplied
Grace Millane's body was dumped in a shallow grave in the Waitākere Ranges in Auckland's west. Photo / Supplied

On the night of November 22, 2018 they went to the CityLife hotel.

The killer "did choke me a bit because that's a preference of mine", she said, recalling he had one hand around her throat.

"It was fine, it was consensual," she said. "It wasn't too hard that I was gasping for air, it wasn't so soft that I wouldn't be able to feel it ... it was just the right amount of pressure."

The woman saw the killer again when he was on his date with Millane during December 1.

Another Auckland woman said she matched on Tinder with the man in February 2018.

While they never met, she said the killer did talk of an enjoyment of erotic strangulation, while his other sexual predilections included feet and domination.

"He would talk about enjoying it and why he liked it ... Because it made him feel more superior and in control."

The woman said the killer wanted to go on a date during the weekend he met Millane, but she "didn't feel comfortable meeting him with some of the things he wanted me to do."

She last heard from the man on about December 4 - just days before Millane's body was found crammed into a suitcase and dumped in a shallow grave.

What was happening when fatal pressure was applied to Millane's neck?

The Crown's expert forensic pathologist Dr Simon Stables said Millane died from "pressure on the neck" - an area of her body which displayed bruising.

But he only came to this conclusion after he was informed of the then-accused's narrative of erotic asphyxiation.

For someone to die from pressure to the neck, he said, the brain needed to be starved of oxygen for at least four to five minutes.

This injury would normally be a result of pressure over a "sufficient period of time and with sufficient force".

"It's not going to happen through a gentle touch of the neck," he explained.

Grace Millane murder trial: Pathologist describes Millane's injuries. Video / Chris Tarpey

Stables said he also noticed a bruise on Millane's front left shoulder, near the collarbone, and three small red bruises on the inside of her right upper arm, just above the elbow.

Millane's bruising was "probably around the time of death" and the pattern was consistent with "some sort of restraint", he said.

Dating the bruises, however, was notoriously difficult.

The killer accepts Millane died from pressure to her neck, but has always claimed it occurred in a moment of sexual misadventure rather than any intended harm.

While Stables said it was impossible to tell, he agreed with Brookie when asked if Millane's bruises might have occurred during rough sex.

The pathologist also talked of a lack of literature and reported cases for erotic manual strangulation leading to death.

"If it happens, this is incredibly rare," he said.

The defence called forensic pathologist Dr Fintan Garavan, who gave evidence via video link from Miami.

Garavan also said the "major participant" in Millane's death was pressure on her neck.

He, however, disagreed with Stables' position that alcohol would not have been a factor.

Ian Brookie and Ron Mansfield acted for the killer. Photo / Michael Craig
Ian Brookie and Ron Mansfield acted for the killer. Photo / Michael Craig

Millane's alcohol consumption may have led to a biological "safety valve" not kicking in, Garavan said.

The expert in the effect of drugs and alcohol on the body added it could "very well have been a secondary factor in the cause of death".

CCTV shows the backpacker had several drinks on the night she died, including shots of tequila and cocktails.

The doctor said the narrative of rough sex from the killer was also "an adequate" explanation as to how Millane may have died, given the bruising found around her neck.

Why did the killer lie to police?

In its closing argument the Crown told the jury the then-accused's first interview with police contained "complete fiction" and he had created a "labyrinth of storytelling and lies".

Originally from Wellington and having lived in Australia for several years, the killer was first spoken to by Detective Ewen Settle on December 6, 2018 as a person of interest.

"We met outside [SkyCity] on the front doors, I gave her a hug, she gave me a hug," the man told Settle.

"We decided that we were going up to Andy's Burger Bar."

The killer, however, said he wasn't sure Millane was going to be a "real" person and feared she may have been a catfish - a type of fake social media identity.

"If I meet at SkyCity ... If it is someone that it's not, I could just walk away," he said.

"On Tinder it's all about the way you look.

"If she wasn't who she said she was at least then in my mind I would be safe."

Grace Millane murder trial: Alleged killer lies to police about whereabouts. Video / Chris Tarpey

CCTV footage shows the murderer doing a U-turn as he walks towards Millane at SkyCity.

However, he turns back around when it becomes apparent Millane has seen her internet date.

Settle asked the killer a more pointed question: "How did the evening pan out?"

"Umm yeah, pretty good," the murderer replied. "We drank a few cocktails and we were having good conversations."

But the killer's story began to contradict CCTV footage of him and Millane.

He said after leaving SkyCity they went their separate ways at about 10pm and he bumped into a group of Chinese travellers.

Video footage, however, shows he and Millane went to two more establishments, the Mexican Cafe and Bluestone Room, before eventually the CityLife hotel.

The killer also lied when he said that on the night of December 1 he got blind drunk at a Queen St pub and may have been aided to his bed by hotel staff.

He said he woke at about 9am or 10am on December 2 in his apartment and went to an Irish pub in downtown Auckland.

He claimed to have eaten a scotch fillet steak - specifically it was medium rare with mushrooms, chips and salad.

In the afternoon, he said, he met a friend later in Ponsonby – the "friend" would later be revealed to be another Tinder date.

Grace Millane murder trial: The moment the accused realised he was a suspect

These would all later prove to be lies as the killer was confronted with CCTV footage of his movements showing his efforts to hide Millane's body in a suitcase and dump evidence.

"Is that you?" Settle said, pointing at Millane's killer in one of the images.

"Yes," he replied.

"That picture is in your hotel ... That's on Sunday morning at eight o'clock," Settle said.

"I'm sure that was 10 o'clock, I'm still sure of it," the killer replied.

A long pause then followed before he said: "Is there something you want to ask?"

"That's you walking in with a suitcase at 8.14am," Settle said.

The killer quipped: "I've still got that suitcase too."

"Where is it?" Settle said.

"In my room."

"What's in it?"

"Nothing."

"What was in it?"

"Nothing."

"Where did it come from?"

Grace Millane was a young British woman on her OE. Photo / Supplied
Grace Millane was a young British woman on her OE. Photo / Supplied

The killer finally admitted he bought the suitcase from The Warehouse in downtown Auckland.

His lies quickly unravelling, he added: "I might have got the times wrong."

"If you're assuming that I've used that suitcase for something, then I've still got it and you can have it."

Settle said: "You haven't told the truth about being completely drunk on Saturday night ... This is quite important."

The killer replied: "I'm being truthfully honest with you."

Brookie, however, said his client first lied to police out of fear.

Fear, he added, that his story of a rough sexual encounter gone wrong would never be believed.

It was the same reason why, the killer later claims in his second police interview, he didn't call 111.

"I dialled 111 ... But I didn't hit the button because I was scared at how bad it looked," he said.

"There's a dead person in my room, I thought it looked terrible."

"He reacted badly," Brookie told the court. "He acted selfishly. Once committed to that course he had to follow it through, he had to make it look like everything was fine.

"He lied and tried to cover it up, there's no dispute about that."

The killer eventually told police on December 8 that, in a "disorganised download of information", what happened to Millane.

"He chose to, not only did he choose to, he assisted the police in finding [Millane's body]," Brookie said.

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