New Zealand

Scott Watson appeal: Forensic Expert Questions Hair Evidence in Olivia Hope Case

A forensic scientist has expressed concerns regarding the handling of hair samples purportedly belonging to Olivia Hope during laboratory testing. This issue has surfaced as Scott Watson’s case returns to the Court of Appeal in Wellington, where he aims to challenge his convictions for the murders of Ben Smart and Olivia Hope in the Marlborough Sounds on New Year’s Day in 1998.

The contested evidence involves two strands of hair, one measuring 15cm and the other 25cm, allegedly discovered on a blanket retrieved from Watson’s boat.

Forensic expert Sean Doyle has questioned the authenticity of these hairs, suggesting potential contamination during laboratory procedures. However, during cross-examination by Crown lawyer Robin McCoubrey, Doyle acknowledged that contamination concerns were addressed in the original trial, with the presiding Justice Heron instructing the jury to consider this matter.

Doyle further admitted that Watson had access to four experts during the original trial. The Crown asserts that DNA testing confirms the longer hair likely originated from Hope, while the DNA evidence for the shorter hair indicates a possible connection to Hope or a maternal relative.

Doyle’s criticism extends to the procedural documentation, noting the absence of records regarding the cutting of the bag containing the hair samples and the use of tweezers during retrieval. McCoubrey defended the scientist’s discretion in these methods, suggesting individual preferences were acceptable.

Nevertheless, Doyle questioned the adherence to best practices in forensic laboratories, acknowledging significant changes in standards since the time of hair testing.

Ben Smart, 21, and Olivia Hope, 17, disappeared after disembarking from a water taxi onto a yacht moored in Endeavour Inlet on New Year’s Day in 1998. Despite extensive searches, their bodies and belongings have never been found.

Watson was convicted of their murders in September 1999 and sentenced to life imprisonment, with a minimum term of 17 years. He has maintained his innocence throughout his 26 years of incarceration.

The blanket, initially examined in 1998 with no hair found, was retested in March of the same year after samples of Hope’s hair were submitted to the ESR laboratory, revealing two strands of blond hair.

This latest appeal follows a royal prerogative of mercy granted in 2020, prompted by an application in 2017. The grounds for appeal focus on the reliability of DNA evidence, particularly regarding the contested hairs from Watson’s boat, as well as alleged police errors in utilizing a photo montage for identification, including a photo depicting Watson mid-blink, creating the illusion of hooded eyes consistent with a witness description.

Although Watson is not present at the Court of Appeal hearing, his legal team, consisting of Nick Chisnall KC and Kerry Cook, represents him. The Crown is represented by Madeleine Laracy and Stuart Baker.

The case is being heard before Justices Christine French, Patricia Courtney, and Susan Thomas, scheduled for a week-long duration.

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