16 Mar 2015

About-turn in likely time of death

8:08 pm on 16 March 2015

Pathologist James Pang this afternoon defended an apparent about-turn in his estimated time of death for Christine and Amber Lundy.

Warning: graphic content

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Mark Lundy. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Mark Lundy, 56, is accused of murdering his 38-year-old wife and seven-year-old daughter, whose bodies were found in their Palmerston North home on 30 August 2000; the Crown claims Mr Lundy killed his wife for her insurance money and Amber because she saw what he was doing to her mother.

Key points day 25:

  • Forensic pathologist Martin Sage puts the time of death at six to eight hours after the time Mrs Lundy and Amber last ate.
  • Pathologist James Pang said the only certainty around the time of death was that it was within a 14-hour period, between about 7pm on 29 August and 9am on 30 August; at the first trial he said the stomach contents put it about an hour after they ate.
  • Dr Pang did not test for body temperature or rigor mortis at the scene as he did not want to disturb evidence.
  • Dr Pang outlined Mrs Lundy and Amber's injuries and said all were inflicted by a heavy object with a sharp cutting edge and a handle. Mrs Lundy suffered multiple blows to her head and face, while Amber had six cuts to her head.
  • Fries, as well as possibly fish and possibly meat, were seen in Amber's stomach contents.

Defence lawyer David Hislop, QC, read Dr Pang's evidence from Mr Lundy's first trial, in which he put the time of death at about an hour after they ate their last meal. He based it on both having full stomachs, a lack of gastric odour and a lack of digestion.

However, today Dr Pang said the only thing he was certain of was that they died between when they were last known to be alive - at 7.06pm on 29 August - to when their bodies were found, about 8.45am on 30 August.

Mr Hislop repeatedly asked Dr Pang when he changed his mind about the timing, and he eventually said it was after the Privy Council issued its judgement.

"So I've not been talked into changing my mind by anyone," Dr Pang said.

"That's about 14 hours. Based on your observations at post mortem, they could have died any time during that 14-hour period," Mr Hislop said.

Dr Pang replied: "That's the only time I am certain of."

Mr Hislop asked whether Dr Pang accepted his position had changed between trials, to which he replied: "That was an estimate. This is for certainty."

Mr Hislop: "So you don't believe your position has changed at all, is that what you're saying.

"When was it, doctor, that you changed your mind."

Mr Hislop then asked Dr Pang if he was familiar with the code of conduct for expert witnesses, which stated they were obliged to give impartial evidence.

"You're not here to just bat for one side. You've got a duty to be impartial," he said.

Methods used to estimate time of death

There were three other methods used to estimate the time of death - body temperature, body stiffening, or rigor mortis and body staining.

Dr Pang did not test for body temperature as both victims were female so sexual assault needed to be ruled out; he did not want to compromise that by inserting a long thermometer into their rectums.

He also decided against checking for rigor mortis as he did not want to disturb evidence at the scene by moving the bodies, instead giving preference to allowing investigators to gather vital trace evidence, he said.

Dr Pang outlined Mrs Lundy and Amber's injuries and said all were inflicted by a heavy object with a sharp cutting edge and a handle.

Mrs Lundy suffered multiple blows to her head and face, to the extent that a "substantial" part of the front of her brain was missing.

She also suffered multiple fractures to her thumb, fingers and right forearm as she tried to fend off her attacker.

Amber had six cuts to her head, including the two which formed an X. The larger part of the X measured 102mm and went through the skull to expose the brain. The second part of the cross measured 84mm and, while it went through the bone, it did not penetrate the brain.

A further four cuts lay parallel to each other, 12-15mm apart, and all but one left comminuted fractures in the skull - like a shattered car windscreen - and lacerated Amber's brain.

"Some parts of the brain would have been lost," Dr Pang said.

What was at the scene important in Lundy case

Martin Sage, a forensic pathologist who has conducted about 9500 autopsies in 33 years of practice, said about 10 percent of his case load dealt with suspicious deaths and homicides.

Of those, about a quarter were "whodunnits", where there were no independent witnesses and therefore what was at the scene was important. The Lundy case fell into that category, he said.

At such scenes a decision would be made as to the priorities; determining the time of death might not be considered as important as preserving evidence. Usually there was a written record of the decision-making process and, while he supported Dr Pang's decisions at the Lundy scene, there was no written record of how they were reached.

As well, using body temperature to determine a time of death was accurate only to within plus or minus 2.8 hours, and also depended on factors such as a person's weight; Mrs Lundy, at 112kg, would have taken much longer to cool down than Amber, at 44.7kg. The ambient temperature would also have had an effect.

Dr Sage said Dr Pang was right that the only certainty around the time of death was one to 14 hours as no one knew when Mrs Lundy and Amber ate their last meal. He considered a range of six to eight hours from when they ate as the likely time of death, given the high-fat food seen in their stomachs and the fact they died during the night, when digestion slowed.

Amber suffered 'significant trauma to her head'

Police Inspector Brett Calkin told the court he assisted with Amber's autopsy and the extent of her wounds was revealed once her head and hair were washed.

He noted Dr Pang said Amber's stomach was full of food, including possibly fries, fish and meat but no vegetables.

"I was noting what Dr Pang was telling me but at that time I could also see food in her stomach myself," he said.

He recorded that Dr Pang had said very little digestion had taken place and that death had most likely occured within one hour of Amber eating.

Mr Calkin said he first saw Amber's body lying in the hallway of the family home and noted her head was an unnatural shape, with a large part of her skull "turned inside out".

She had suffered "significant trauma to her head" and her face was obscured by her partially bloodsoaked hair, Mr Calkin said.

Her head appeared to have been flattened, and there were three large breaks in it. As well, a large part of her skull had been turned inside out and there was a large depression on the right side of her head, above her ear.

Her head was in a large pool of blood, and brain tissue was lying on the floor next to it, he said.

"The whole head was a very unnatural shape."

Clarification - For the avoidance of doubt, please note that Radio New Zealand reporter Sharon Lundy is no relation to Mark Lundy.