Stains are from the brain or spinal cord, says expert, but are they human, or non-human?

The shirt, the shirt. If Mark Lundy goes down, a lot of it might be to do with his XXL Lancia polo shirt, made in China, 65 per cent polyester, 35 per cent cotton, with two stains on it which may or may not contain evidence of his wife's brain. No weapon ever found, no witnesses to the awful murders of Christine and Amber Lundy in their Palmerston North home on the night of August 30, 2000; the shirt is the closest the prosecution has to a smoking gun.

The shirt did for him at his first trial in 2002. It took up much of yesterday's proceedings at his retrial in the High Court at Wellington. Conclusive proof and grave doubts led an intense dance all day long. There were revelations and startling contradictions. There was a lot of talk about food. There was a Scotsman with a red nose.

Throughout, there was Lundy, a big guy in a blue suit sitting in the back of the court with his mouth usually wide open, and a question hanging low over his balding head: did he do it? Did this man kill his own wife and daughter?

Forensic neuropathologist Daniel du Plessis was called to the witness stand by the prosecution yesterday morning. He regretted to say he had plenty of opportunity to study the brains of homicide victims: "South Africa is awash in crime." New Zealand police contacted him in 2013 to look into the Lundy case.

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He replicated earlier tests on the polo shirt to establish the nature of the two small stains. In 2001, Dr Rodney Miller of Texas said his research showed that the stains contained central nervous system tissue from the brain or spinal cord; du Plessis carried out the same experiments, and announced: "He is correct."

Mark Lundy in the dock on the 27th day of his retrial. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Mark Lundy in the dock on the 27th day of his retrial. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Du Plessis was a very direct witness. He explained complex methodology in a simple and authoritative manner. He said, "All the boxes you expect to be positive for central nervous system tissue were ticked. None of the results were dubious or ambivalent."

There you had it. It was all over bar the pretty pictures. Beautiful images of the staining techniques filled the big screens in the courtroom. They were psychedelic abstracts, in deep purples and feminine pinks, magnified 200,000 times - one was shaped like a map of the North Cape, another was like a pencil drawing. Du Plessis took the role of art historian, helpfully pointing out salient features: "On the second slide, we can see layered stacks of the membrane. It looks like a stack of pancakes."

He also compared brain tissue to French cheese (dry on the outside, soft on the inside) and biltong, those dried strips of meat which in South Africa are considered to be food.

When his exhibition of slides came to an end, Crown prosecutor Philip Morgan, QC, asked him, "In your opinion, what was found on the shirt?"

Something else on the PowerPoint display came up on the screen. It had words on it. It was headlined, CONCLUSION. Du Plessis read it out: "Incontrovertible evidence of tissue of central nervous system origin [brain or spinal cord]."

The punchline was much the same as his opening statement but it felt even more damning to see it written on a screen. And then du Plessis, unequivocal to the end, told the jury: "The evidence is overwhelming and incontestable."

What are you left with after "overwhelming and incontestable"? Defence counsel David Hislop, QC, stood, and looked away - he rarely makes eye contact with witnesses.

Question: "You can't say, can you, if the central nervous system tissue that you say you found is human, or non-human."

Answer: "No."

The admission was almost like a revenge on du Plessis, who had raised the subject of food with his gourmet references to biltong, French cheese, and pancakes. Hislop's question was a reminder of evidence presented earlier in the trial that when Lundy's car was seized on the day of the murders, police found a wrapper for a beef and chilli pie. Was all of that testing - "it's extremely labour intensive work", du Plessis remarked - conducted on the spilled remains of a meat pie?

Dr Colin Smith, a neuropathologist from the University of Edinburgh, was called to the stand. The poor man had a terrible cold. He snuffled and wheezed, his nose glowed red. He said he agreed with du Plessis that the tests on the shirt revealed the presence of central nervous system tissue. "No question."

Morgan returned to the subject of food. He asked, "Based on your examination of the slides, are you completely against the notion this is some sort of food contaminant?"

Smith, holding a paper tissue to his nose: "To my mind, yes."

Hislop stood, looked away. "Do you," he asked, "know what's in New Zealand meat products?"

Smith said he did not. Hislop said the next witness, a Professor Ironside, might be able to shed some light on the subject. Another day in court beckons, and the question looms: did Lundy kill his own wife and daughter, or was he just a fat man with pie down his shirt?