OPINION: The critical moment in the Scott Guy murder trial occurred when defence counsel Greg King cross-examined forensic scientist David Neale, a prosecution witness.
Until that point honours were about even in a case that contained many of the elements of a Shakespearean drama a handsome, photogenic cast seemingly living the New Zealand dream but, beneath the surface, riven by jealousy and resentment. The Crown had established motive the accused, Ewen Macdonald, resented the fact his brother-in-law worked shorter hours than him on the family's Feilding farm and was anxious about his future on the property. It had also established Macdonald's capacity for duplicity and destructive conduct. After initially denying torching an old house on the farm and vandalising the new home Scott and his wife, Kylee, were about to move into, he admitted his involvement after being told his co-offender had dobbed him in. But for every question the Crown raised the defence had an answer of sorts.
The boot impressions left by Scott's killer at the crime scene shaped as the clincher. The Crown established that the impressions were made by dive boots no longer readily available in New Zealand, that Macdonald had once owned such a pair of boots and that the impressions left next to Scott's body could have been made by a boot matching Macdonald's shoe size.
But then Mr King asked Mr Neale to count the number of wavy lines on the sample size nine boot that had been presented in court. The number came to 29, three or four fewer than the number visible on three of the casts made at the crime scene. "Could that size nine dive boot," he asked, pointing theatrically to the sample boot, "have made that impression?" "No, it couldn't," Mr Neale said. The Crown put forward other explanations for the discrepancy, but the prosecution was unable to dispel the doubt raised by Mr King's line of questioning.
The case against Macdonald, still to be sentenced on charges of arson, vandalism and theft, was compelling. If the jury had been asked to reach its verdict on the balance of probabilities it might have come to a different conclusion. But the bar for conviction in the criminal courts is deliberately set high.
Beyond reasonable doubt means exactly that. After nearly 11 hours of deliberation, the jury found Macdonald not guilty. The case against him was not conclusive.
For the family that means more heartache. As Scott's father, Bryan Guy, said after the verdict, the family are still left wondering who killed their son and brother. For most New Zealanders, however, the verdict should be a source of comfort.
"Better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer," wrote British jurist William Blackstone in his famous commentaries. No-one should be convicted of a crime while reasonable doubt lingers.
The justice system has worked as it is supposed to. The jury should take pride in having set aside emotion and reached a verdict on the basis of the facts presented in court.
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