Tale of 'panic and sadness' emerges in Pacific island trial

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The Independent Online

Tranquil, verdant Norfolk Island lost its innocence on Easter Sunday 2002, when a young woman's body was found at a picnic spot. Yesterday the Pacific island's first murder trial got under way, with the jury told a grim tale of how she was allegedly killed.

The court heard that Glenn McNeill, a New Zealander working as a chef on Norfolk, a self-governing Australian territory, hit Jeanelle Patton with his car while he was high on cannabis. Judging that "he had gone too far to take her to hospital", he stabbed her with a fish-filleting knife, the jury heard. He then wrapped her body in black plastic and dumped it. He went home and played video games. This, allegedly, was the account of events that Mr McNeill gave to police when he was arrested in New Zealand last year. He has pleaded not guilty.

The case has devastated the island, which lives off tourism and had the image of a crime-free haven. Selecting a jury from the close-knit community of 1,800 people was a tortuous task, with two-thirds excusing themselves because of connections with either the defendant or the victim.

Ms Patton, a 29-year-old Australian, had been working in a restaurant on Norfolk. She disappeared during an afternoon walk. Her parents, Ron and Carol, were visiting her at the time. Yesterday they sat in the public gallery, listening to the evidence against Mr McNeill.

Norfolk, about 1,200 miles north-east of Sydney, started life as a British penal colony notorious for its brutality. After the convicts were shipped out, it was settled in 1856 by descendants of the Bounty mutineers, migrating from their original home of Pitcairn Island. In recent decades it has become a popular holiday destination for Australians and New Zealanders.

The prosecutor, Dan Howard, said that Mr McNeill, 29, panicked after accidentally running over Ms Patton. He stuffed her in the boot of his car, he allegedly told police in a videotaped interview. After hearing "groaning noises", he stabbed her "just to be sure she was dead".

Mr Howard told the Norfolk Island Supreme Court that Ms Patton "resisted the attack and fought for her life, suffering defensive injuries inflicted by the accused". He said that Mr McNeill had written a statement saying that he was "sick and sad" about what he had done, and had attempted suicide.

The defence barrister, Peter Garling, said that a "very different picture" would emerge when the evidence was put into context. The prosecution had offered no motive for the killing, and its case was "complex and flawed", he said.

The case was investigated by Australian Federal Police, who took three years to arrest a suspect. During that time the islanders were under suspicion, with police suggesting they were shielding the murderer.

The trial continues.