The hung jury deliberated for 23 hours over four days in the case of David Charles Benbow, 54, who was on trial for the alleged murder of Michael McGrath in 2017.
The Christchurch High Court trial has heard more than 100 witnesses in the past seven weeks. But the jury today said it could not reach a unanimous decision and was dismissed by Judge Jonathan Eaton. He thanked the jurors for their efforts.
Benbow showed no emotion when the news broke, nor when the hung jury left the courtroom. He declined to comment to journalists outside of court.
He was returned on electronically monitored bail and will appear in court again on May 19 to decide what to do with his case.
McGrath’s brother Simon McGrath said he was “disappointed” that the jury was unable to reach a verdict.
Friends and relatives, including McGrath’s parents Adrienne and Kevin, his brother Simon, as well as Benbow’s mother and brother, had gathered in the public gallery of Courtroom 12 along with Detectives from Operation Renovation for the tense moment.
The jury of seven men and five women began deliberations last Wednesday at 12:48 p.m. and returned each day to resume their duties and pause for the weekend.
When Judge Eaton addressed the jury before they began their closed-door deliberations, she recalled that it was a “trial by a jury, not a trial by experts.”
They came back with several questions during that time, including a clarification on what “reasonable doubt” is. Judge Eaton told them that the Crown would only have passed the threshold beyond a reasonable doubt if they were “satisfied that Mr. Benbow is guilty of murder”.
Monday morning, the jury had another question, this time to tell the judge they were struggling to reach a unanimous verdict.
Judge Eaton gave them a majority verdict, saying that if they reached a point where 11 of them agreed, and one juror disagreed, they could reach a verdict. However, he said that if they didn’t agree at least 11 times, they couldn’t come to a decision.
But after 23 hours, they were still deadlocked and the decision of the hung jury was made.
Judge Eaton said there would be “likely” another trial. The judge also thanked both lawyers in what he admitted has been a “long and difficult process” in which everyone has worked extremely hard to present a complicated case to the jury and “everyone will share in a sense of frustration” that it did not happen. t resulted in a conclusion today.
The Crown had alleged that Benbow lured McGrath to his semi-rural lifestyle in Halswell on Monday 22 May 2017 and used his .22 semi-automatic rifle, with suppressor and subsonic ammunition, to shoot him dead just weeks after. telling a counselor that he wanted to “destroy” him.
This reportedly happened several weeks after Benbow learned that McGrath was seeing his ex-partner, Joanna Green.
McGrath’s body has never been found, despite widespread searches of property, rivers, waterways and the rubbish dump since his disappearance.
A missing persons investigation – which became a murder inquiry within days – was launched when McGrath, a fastidious carpenter, failed to show up for a weekly dinner date with his brother and mother.
Benbow became a person of interest after it emerged that he was the last person McGrath saw when he visited his home on Checketts Ave on Sunday, May 21, 2017, to ask him for help moving some heavy railway sleepers the next morning.
But Benbow has always professed his innocence, saying that McGrath did not show up that morning, as it was due to a severe frost, and after waiting for a while at 10:15 went to a consultant’s appointment in town.
During the trial, his lawyers alleged that the police had “investigative bias” and “tunnel vision” from the start of its investigation.
With no body, no murder weapon and little forensic evidence, the Crown had meanwhile relied on an indirect case.
In his closing address on Tuesday, lead attorney Marc Corlett KC told the jury that whether or not McGrath showed up at Benbow on the morning of May 22 was the crux of the matter.
“If Mr. McGrath did not come to Mr. Benbow’s house that Monday morning, then Mr. Benbow is in no better position than anyone in this room to tell what has become of Mr. McGrath,” he said.
He went over three aspects of the Crown’s case: power consumption data that he said cast doubt on whether McGrath was actually home at the time the Crown says he was killed miles away; CCTV evidence alleged to show McGrath driving to Benbow’s house; and the sighting by a key witness of two men matching McGrath’s and Benbow’s descriptions on the morning of the alleged murder.
“The Crown case is on fire in the dumpster; the electricity proof they relied on is wrong, wrong, wrong,” Corlett said.
“The only way [the Crown] to solve that problem is to throw a grenade into that dumpster fire and pretend none of that happened.
Corlett also asked the jury why McGrath would actually go to Benbow’s house, and if he did, why would he get in his car and park outside in the grass verge.
“The Crown case is a lot like a cheap Easter egg — once you squeeze through the opportunity, it’s hollow in the middle and the pieces of the shell start to crumble into a pile,” he said.
Corlett said Benbow didn’t “suddenly go from a big softy to a super ninja” thanks to a few days of training as a Correction Officer.
Explaining several questions, such as why there was no forensic evidence, Corlett said there was another reason.
“Mr. McGrath didn’t show up that morning and Mr. Benbow didn’t kill him.”
Crown Prosecutor Barnaby Hawes told the jury in his closing speech on Monday that Benbow had a “very clear and obvious motive” for harming McGrath.
He had been told by one of his children that they had seen Green kiss McGrath a few weeks earlier.
A week before McGrath disappeared, the private security camera system on Benbow’s property had been turned off, the court heard, and the Crown said that was no coincidence.
“Mr. Benbow is either responsible for Mr. McGrath’s disappearance or the victim of an unlikely and otherwise inexplicable coincidence,” Hawes told the jury.
It’s not lightning striking the same place twice. This is lightning strikes in the same place over and over again.”
The Crown claimed he had the motive, means and opportunity to carry out the murder.