Falconio may have faked his own death in the outback, trial is told

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Peter Falconio may have staged his own disappearance in the Australian outback more than four years ago, a murder trial jury was told yesterday.

Barrister Grant Algie raised the prospect that Mr Falconio, of Huddersfield, could still be alive as he summed up the defence case at the trial of Bradley Murdoch, 47, of Broome, Western Australia.

Mr Murdoch denies murdering Mr Falconio, who was 28, and abducting and assaulting his girlfriend Joanne Lees on a remote stretch of highway on 14 July, 2001.

Mr Algie told the jury at the Northern Territory Supreme Court in Darwin that "from time to time some people disappear themselves for reasons best known to them".

He also suggested Northern Territory Police officers "manipulated the evidence" to strengthen their case against Mr Murdoch.

The court has heard the couple were attacked on the Stuart Highway about 200 miles north of Alice Springs.

The prosecution claims that Mr Falconio, whose body has never been found, was shot dead and Ms Lees, 32, a care worker who now lives in Brighton, was threatened with a gun, tied up and put into the back of her attacker's vehicle, before escaping.

Mr Algie said there was no evidence a gun was fired, saying no projectile was found and although the couple's camper van was swabbed for gunshot residue, the swabs were never tested. There was no human blood at the back of the van and no trail leading to or from a pool of Mr Falconio's blood found next to the highway.

Last month, two staff from an outback petrol station claimed they saw Mr Falconio days after he was allegedly murdered, 930 miles from the site.

Yesterday, Mr Algie said police could have framed Mr Murdoch, a known drug-runner. He criticised records designed to track prosecution exhibits, and suggested Mr Murdoch's DNA, found on a set of handcuffs, could have been planted.

The trial was adjourned until this morning.