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Barlow Verdict: Latest Episode for the Great Kiwi Whodunit Obsession

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Dave Griffith
Dave Griffith
John Barlow

John Barlow's appeal to the Privy Council over his convictions for the 1994 murders of Gene and Eugene Thomas has been turned down. It was ruled that some of the evidence against Barlow was misleading and "a miscarriage of justice" but when weighed against all the evidence "no substantial miscarriage of justice actually occurred". So there it is. Another chapter in New Zealand's long running obsession with real life whodunits.

In recent decades the names of Bain, Barlow, Watson, Thomas, Haig and Lundy have chewed up acres of media space. They have had their lives laid bare for all to see. The one thing they all have in common apart form being high profile murder accused is that there has always been that element of controversy about the convictions. Convictions that have been followed up by long running legal battles, some successful some not.

New Zealanders love a good whodunit. It is a national pastime. Years of best selling books by the likes of Agatha Christie, P.D. James and Patricia Cornwell and top rating TV shows like the CSI franchise prove the popularity of the genre. Look at the television content on any night of the week and we see an overwhelming proliferation of shows with murder solving as their core theme.

With local cases we get them played out in court in intricate detail for us all to hear. Like Rugby and the All Blacks, we can all have an opinion and are usually not afraid to share it with friends and colleagues. The cases I mentioned earlier have all been high profile because the trial outcome has been uncertain. The evidence is finely balanced. We love uncertainty. The All Blacks playing South Africa will always create more excitement than the All Blacks playing Italy because the result is less certain.

When it comes to the close cases it seems to be the little things that tip the balance. Often the moral credibility of the accused is a factor. Prejudices no mater how hard they are suppressed come into play. I believe that John Barlow would have been acquitted at either of his first two trials if he had not lied to police about his presence in the Thomas's office around the time of the murders. If someone is shown to have lied in the investigation process then it counts against their credibility as an innocent party. Similarly, there is a good chance that Mark Lundy would be a free man today if it wasn't revealed he was with a prostitute on the night his wife and daughter were murdered. The initial wave of sympathy for a loving family man evaporated in an instant. Scott Watson's extraordinary clean up job on his yacht did not stack up well if he was an innocent man with nothing to hide. In the close ones it can come down to little details like these that may sway a jurors vote.

Regardless of the actual verdict – for the accused their reputation is irretrievably destroyed whether convicted or not. Their wider family and friends are dragged into a vortex of controversy and publicity. For the victims – those photographs we have come to know so well. Mark, Olivia, Ben, Jeanette, Harvey, Laniet, Arawa, Margaret, Stephen, Gene, Eugene, Robin, Christine and Amber. To most of us they are strangers whose lives were selectively sifted over at the trials. But to many they were known and loved.

I only knew one of them - Gene Thomas. We learnt the violin from the same teacher as children. Years later up until his murder he was a good customer of the business I was managing. A friendly Christian guy who always had time for a chat. Who murdered him? I don't know. What I do know is that a good man is dead, and by many accounts a good man is in prison for his murder. Nobody wins. Maybe we should all try harder to keep our preoccupation with whodunits to fiction. At least there the pain and suffering is only on paper – not real people and real lives.           

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