Herald writer Steve Braunias spent a summer with Mark Lundy ahead of his retrial in 2015. Lundy, after seven weeks of evidence in that retrial, was again found guilty of killing his wife and daughter. Today, the Supreme Court declined his final appeal bid.
This piece was first published in April 2015.
It was an interesting summer. Once a week I'd visit Geoff Levick at his beautiful rural property in Kumeu, with its dark pond and its plum trees, and sometimes we'd sit on the back porch with his house guest, Mark Lundy. There was an understanding that Lundy couldn't discuss his case before he went to trial on February 9 for the murders of his wife and child. I tried small talk when we first met. It was kind of awkward and it ran out after about five minutes, and pretty much all we ever discussed after that was his case.
He was a big man, and he seemed very angry, very bitter. He was guarded, suspicious - the usual precautions in a journalist's company. He wore shorts, and had hairless legs. We had a beer or two. Levick preferred a balanced diet of instant coffee, and cigarettes. I liked Lundy, not overly; I liked Levick, a lot. The two of them were in such intense cahoots - they were fighting to clear Lundy's name, to beat the murder charges in court - but they made an odd pair. Levick was small, with startling blue eyes set in a red face, and his conversation revealed a brilliant, nimble mind. It was difficult to imagine them meeting in any circumstances other than their shared obsession with proving Lundy's innocence.
I said "Do you two actually have anything in common?"
Lundy spoke first. He said, "Nothing."
He helped out around the place. The next time I visited, he was up on a ladder, peering into a water tank. It didn't have much water in it. The ground was hard, and turned brown by the end of January. There was a creek that had nearly gone dry. I spent hours inside a small, hot room off the garage, which Levick had filled with massive amounts of paperwork from his 13 years of a diligent and genuinely awesome investigation into multiple inconsistencies in the Lundy case.
I suppose I was getting embedded. I daresay I was forming sympathies. The journalist and the murder accused, hanging out on Levick's porch in the afternoon shade, another time driving down the road to an icecream shop. The three of us spooned creamy goodness into our faces as we sat outside the store in beautiful weather.
These were his halcyon days. He was a free man, on bail, not exactly happy, often tense, but hopeful that his retrial would get him the right result - not guilty, at last, of the murders of Christine and Amber in their Palmerston North home on August 30, 2000.
He was found guilty at his first trial in 2002. He successfully appealed to the Privy Council in London, and his conviction was thrown out in 2013. His bail conditions allowed him to travel to Kumeu, and he'd also visited the graves of his wife and daughter.
I said, "Were you nervous someone would see you there?"
He said, "Terrified."
He sat and talked to them, he said. He called them, "My girls." He said, "I'm a Christian, and I know I'll see my girls in heaven."
But he murdered them. He executed his wife, brought an axe down hard on his daughter's head seven times, slaughtered the both of them - at least according to the jury at his trial in 2002, and another jury reached the same verdict this week, at the Wellington High Court, when he was found guilty on Wednesday afternoon. It didn't feel shocking.
It felt flat, inevitable. Lundy was escorted out of court, and returned a few moments later to immediately receive the terms of his sentence. I looked at his face when he came back in the room. He was dissolving.
One day inside the room in Levick's garage I reached for a folder marked SUTHERLAND. This was the name of the ESR scientist, Bjorn Sutherland, who had examined the crime scene.
Much of what Sutherland said in the first trial was challenged by Levick; in particular, issues concerning potential contamination of evidence, and Sutherland's findings on paint fragments found in Christine's hair. I opened the folder. It contained photocopies of various ESR forms that Sutherland had completed. Further on, it contained photocopies of photographs taken of Christine and Amber, dead.
They showed what happened to Christine that night when her murderer struck her head and face many, many times with a weapon that has never been found.
The photocopies were black and white; most of the images were black, with blood. Christine was killed in bed. Amber lay on the carpet in the doorway.
The theory is that she got out of her bedroom to see what was going on, and was killed as she turned to escape. She wore a nightie and little white socks. She was 7 years old, for pity's sake, and her left hand was curled beside her head.
I remember I was standing up when I looked at the pages. I remember a terrible silence in the room, and feeling very tired, and thinking: did he do that?
Everyone said he did. Everyone who came up to me and talked about it these past seven weeks said it was obvious, and sometimes they bothered to specify evidence of brain tissue on his shirt, but the thing they all mentioned, always vehemently, was the way he behaved at the funeral. Yeah, they said, he was acting. He was putting it on. He showed too much grief. In the catalogue of grave sins, Lundy's exhibition that day is held in only slightly less odium than the murders.
Was it some other affront? Was it also a resentment he had transgressed the New Zealand code of remaining taciturn at all times? Grief is permissible at a tangi. Not at a funeral in Palmerston North, not collapsing, heaving huge sobs, losing it. "I totally lost it," Lundy acknowledged, in a letter he wrote to Levick from Manawatu Prison in 2005.
"The pictures you see on TV were a shock to me. I have vague recollections of seeing people but that's all ... When I saw the 6pm news I was both shocked and embarrassed at what I saw."
He had lost his wife and child. They had been brutally murdered. His world had fallen apart ... Bullshit, responded the jury; bullshit, the public have said ever since his arrest, six months after the murders. His behaviour played a significant part in his first trial. Police claimed they observed Lundy display great distress on several occasions, but pull himself together whenever he thought he was out of sight.
Much was made, too, of his use of escorts, his drinking, his boorishness on a fishing trip ("All we need are the whores!" he supposedly said.)
One day at court I spoke with a detective on Operation Spring, the second Lundy investigation, and he pointed out all these "distractions" were absent in the retrial. It was a cleaner prosecution, he said, and he was right.
It focused on the science of possible brain tissue on Lundy's shirt, and the science of a possible match of paint fragments in Christine's hair with the paint on his tools. It looked at motive, opportunity, and various assorted evidential matters such as the mileage on his car and a bracelet found in the front seat. There were so many things - "building blocks", as Justice Simon France termed it - that pointed to Lundy. The case against him wasn't frivolous or absurd.
Not this time around, anyway.
In Operation Winter, the first investigation, police claimed Christine and Amber were killed at about 7pm. It was a preposterous estimate which demanded an accumulation of preposterous evidence to back it up - Lundy drove at impossible speeds (the Lundy Five Hundy) to achieve it, fled the scene disguised in a wig (according to a seemingly crazy psychic), and expertly tampered with the clock on Christine's home computer to make it look like she'd turned it off at 10.52pm.
She'd turned it off at 10.52pm and the psychic was crazy, but the drive was the thing that hooked Levick. We met during the trial at a food hall in the Westgate mall in Massey - the Thai is pretty good - and he mentioned that his sister had said to him how he'd only got interested because the drive didn't make sense. He wrote a book about the Lundy case, and called it, Meticulous or ridiculous? No one published the manuscript, or ever will; the constant use of bold type, capital letters, and exclamation marks are immediate signs of an obsessive at work, expressing himself in the typography and language of vitriolic scorn, but most of it's entirely right. The book reads like a prophecy.
The 7pm question was ridiculous. Police threw it out during Operation Spring, and shifted the likely time of deaths to about 3am.
No doubt the jury carefully weighed up all the evidence. They deliberated for 16 hours. But the one thing they requested to see was a video made of Lundy during a police interview; once again, he was being damned for the way he behaved. It was the funeral all over again.
Nothing to do with science, nothing to do with the judge's summing up - Justice France gave special weight to crucial aspects of Lundy's defence, and instructed the jury to ignore the prosecution's use of the term "killing journey" to describe the alleged drive to murder his family. The jury were on their own journey.
Lundy was shown photographs - colour, not black and white photocopies - of Christine and Amber, dead. "Yuck," he said. Yuck didn't cover it. He showed grief, but maybe this time he was judged to not have showed enough grief. Jurors exchanged smirks, knowing looks. That old tape of Lundy - made in the summer of 2001, casual in his shorts and yellow T-shirt, hungover from a session the night before, a hapless fatty there to help with inquiries, completely unaware he was about to be accused of the murders and placed under arrest after the camera was turned off - was playing to an audience who thought they could discern his guilt.
What a petty, hateful response. Maybe it was absolutely correct but I think the verdict was a gross injustice. I don't think he did it.
And yet my reasoning comes from the same inexact and possibly meaningless place as the haters who think they can divine from Lundy's behaviour that he's a liar, an actor, a phoney. The science in his favour was strong, and various assorted evidential circumstances further pointed to his innocence. But it's more that I just can't accept that Lundy behaved as if nothing had happened after killing his adored and precious daughter.
A lot is required. The guilty verdict means we have to believe that at about 1am he drove from his motel in Petone to his house in Palmerston North, slaughtered Christine and Amber, staged a break-in, disposed of his clothes, the weapon, and Christine's stolen jewellery box, somehow admirably succeeded in not spilling a drop of blood or brain in his car or on his glasses and wedding ring, and then drove back through Manawatu and along the Kapiti Coast, up and over the Ngauranga Gorge to Petone, arriving at about 5am. Perhaps he lay down and slept for an hour.
At just after 7am, he asked the motel manager if he had batteries for his razor. Sorry, the guy said. Lundy showered, and checked out. He bought batteries and a bacon and egg sandwich on the Esplanade in Petone. He shaved and ate his healthy breakfast in the car, then did his rounds of customers around Hutt Valley and Wellington. Same old Mark, they said. He stopped for morning tea at one firm. He sold a tap. He got out a scratch on a sink. All that after obliterating his wife's face and carving an X into his daughter's skull.
There were claims the mood between Lundy and Christine in the days before the murders were "tense"; Amber, though, was his beloved only daughter.
The guilty verdict means we have to believe that he killed her because she walked in on her father murdering her mother.
"Nah," said his lawyer, David Hislop QC, when I spoke with him two days before the verdict. "He's too weak. Doesn't have the balls."
The morning after the verdict, he emailed, "I am unshaken in my belief that the jury got it wrong."
I wrote to Levick but haven't heard back. I wonder if he's in that room off the garage, poring through documents; he told my colleague Jared Savage after the verdict that he was "more than a little angry".
We exchanged emails earlier this week. I said I expected to see him in Wellington. He'd avoided coming to the trial, exactly as he'd promised in January. "Don't think I could bear it," he said, when we were sitting on the back porch. There were hawks circling the neighbouring vineyard, and silver-eyes harvesting the plums. Lundy said to him, "But you will be there at the end, and we will go out and celebrate. There are no ifs and buts about it."
Then he said to me, "And there might be room for two journalists."
He also meant Mike White, from North & South, who wrote a remarkable story about the Lundy case in 2009. Good headline, too: "Meticulous, or ridiculous?"
White had gone through all the paperwork that Levick had accumulated, researched the science, conducted difficult interviews, and produced a masterpiece of careful thinking and thorough inquiry. It led to Hislop taking on the case, and winning the appeal at the Privy Council. I asked him what he thought when he read the story.
"Wow," he said.
It was actually the second crucial piece of journalism in the Lundy case. A story by Paula Oliver in this newspaper on January 10, 2003, caught Levick's interest, and marked the beginning of his campaign. It was about an effort by friends of Lundy, "a stoic few", to reinvestigate the murders. The most stoic of those few was in court this week. He has remained loyal to Lundy and it has cost him dearly. We had a chat. He desperately wanted to "fly under the radar", as he put it; there's no sense in naming him. He was a mess of nerves. He brought along a book to take his mind off things. He didn't show up for the verdict.
Neither did Levick. I emailed him on Sunday, saying I expected to see him in Wellington. He replied, "No, I have decided not to come down as I will be seeing Mark anyway probably on the same day as the Not Guilty verdict. Mark is informed and is ok with that..."
He was Karam to Lundy's Bain. Levick estimated he'd spent 10,000 hours working on it, and $100,000 - quite possibly a fair amount of that went into the pocket of a lawyer who was engaged for a few years on Lundy's behalf, and unearthed some important pieces of discovery from the police, but things eventually soured. Letter from Lundy, 2007: "I do not want Barry Hart to represent me anymore. If it were not for Geoff and the team, absolutely nothing would have been done for my appeal ... We just need the right lawyer to seal the verdict and take the glory and appreciation of those who believe in me. I am an innocent man. I need help!"
Enter Hislop. He got a retrial, and headed a team including former crown prosecutors Ross Burns and Julie-Anne Kincade, and private investigator Tim McKinnel, who successfully fought for Teina Pora's release. The team did not include Levick. There was a tragic falling-out with Hislop.
Letter from Levick: "I had in mind a full-out, all-guns blazing, attack on Miller's slides ... I have seen nothing to indicate that such a tactic would not have worked." He meant the slides prepared by Rodney Miller, in Texas, which provided the Crown's strongest evidence that the stains on Lundy's shirt were central nervous system tissue from the brain or spinal cord. Meaning, Christine's brain; meaning, guilty as charged.
Letter from Hislop: "You continue to impugn the manner in which we have sought to conduct the case on this issue ... I think the time has come when Mark must make a decision. Either he trusts the legal team or he does not - if he does not, then we go, simple as that. I do not intend conducting this trial with you condemning our every decision."
Reply from Levick: "I will not take any further part in this case except to debate matters with ML [Lundy]."
The last time we sat out on his porch, Levick said to me, "I basically got fired at the end of October ... My commitment to Mark Lundy was to get it to the Privy Council, and I did. I've done all I can do. I have no responsibility now. If anything, I'm relieved. I'm not worried about it. Other people can worry about it. He's stressed to the eyeballs but there's nothing, nothing I can do.
"What is going to be said and done next week" - the trial was due to start - "is set in concrete. The strategies are done. That's it."
That's it now. All the work, all the belief, all the hope, leading to a verdict said in a quiet voice in a depressing courtroom at two minutes to four on a Wednesday afternoon.
I drifted back in a little later. I'd applied to look at the crime scene photographs that the jury were shown. They were in colour, and there weren't as many in the SUTHERLAND folder. There was Amber on the floor - the carpet was patterned with autumn leaves - with her left hand curled by her head. Poor frightened little girl, killed. Did he do that? I don't know.