Editorial: Not guilty it is, then

21:59, Jul 04 2012

Ewen Macdonald did make an outstanding murder suspect.

He said himself that the finger of suspicion pointed at him. If anything it did more than that; it just about poked a hole in his forehead.

During his trial on the charge of murdering his brother-in-law Scott Guy, Macdonald was shown to have been poisonously bitter about what he saw of an unfair partnership, given the workloads and rewards on the family farm at Feilding.

Only when investigators cornered him did he admit having lied in his denials of ugly vandalism and arson.

It says a lot about our justice system that a prosecution which could mount a case so strongly to Macdonald's discredit, still rightly failed when it went to the jury.

It amounted to a compelling account of what might have happened.


But plausibility isn't proof.

The standard required for a conviction goes far beyond "wouldn't put it past him". It is the famously and appropriately hard to satisfy test of being beyond reasonable doubt.

The lead investigator, Detective Inspector Sue Schwalger, said the police had put "the best available evidence" in front of the jury.

It was too circumstantial; too short on implacable forensic evidence.

In that context, the defence team's ability to raise doubts about whether a dive-boot footprint was the wrong size for their client was particularly significant.

Conflicting reports emerged, too, about whether it was really Macdonald who had corrected the man who found Guy's body, Dave Berry, about the death being from shooting, not a slit throat.

In this case the jury was, perhaps, able to distinguish between being truly persuaded to convict Macdonald, and being given an attractive invitation to do so.

The police have said they accept the verdict. This is not a case in which they should face criticism for having pressed on with the prosecution.

Had the footprint and manner-of-death evidence not been as effectively assailed by the defence as it was, the outcome may well have been different.

Few cases in New Zealand have generated this much public attention; far beyond what would normally be expected in a family-feud tragedy.

This was not simply the repellent tantalisations of a whodunit. The humanity of the Guy and Macdonald families, sometimes mightily sympathetic, helped impel the case into the public consciousness.

As for Ewen Macdonald, not only has he lost – as the headline pointed out – his wife, career and reputation, he remains in jail awaiting sentence on those admitted arson and vandalism charges.

Given that he has been in custody since April last year, he has almost certainly already served the bulk of any expectable sentence.

He will return to a community that should not apply any standards lower than those imposed on their representatives on the jury.

The Southland Times