December 12, 2005

Drug running does not make an outback murder-judge

SYDNEY (Reuters) - An Australian truck driver's admission
he carried guns and ran drugs across the outback did not make
him guilty of murdering a British tourist and abducting his
girlfriend in 2001, a trial judge said on Monday.

Australian Bradley Murdoch has pleaded not guilty to
murdering Falconio -- whose body has never been found -- and
abducting and assaulting Joanne Lees, on the Stuart Highway in
Australia's Northern Territory in July 2001.

In giving final trial directions in the Northern Territory
Supreme Court in Darwin, Judge Brian Martin told the jury it
should not view Murdoch as a person of "bad character" simply
because he smuggled cannabis across Australia or carried guns.

"When evidence of illegal activity such as trading in
cannabis, use of's very important that you only
use the evidence for those purposes," said Martin, local
newsagency Australian Associated Press reported form the court.

"It (the drug running) provides the setting for the
accused's travels and explains why he was on the road that

The jury is expected to retire on Tuesday or Wednesday to
reach a verdict in the case which has attracted international
media attention.

Lees has told the court that Murdoch pulled them over on
the highway at night, claiming smoke was coming from their
orange van.

When Falconio went to check the back of the van, Lees said
she heard a loud bang. She said Murdoch then put a silver,
Western-style gun to her face and tied her up, but she escaped
and hid under bushes until he drove off.

The prosecutor said a forensic scientist had found
Murdoch's DNA on the tape used to bind Lees' wrists and on her

Murdoch has told the court that he was nowhere near the
alleged crime scene, but was driving across the Tanami Desert,
some of Australia's harshest terrain, at the time.

The Tanami Desert is a vast area of uninhabited red sand
plains, broken up by hills and ranges or spinifex grasses and
saltbush, with a few corrugated dirt tracks.

Murdoch said he used to smuggle "large quantities" of
cannibis, usually 22 to 24 pounds (around 10 kg) hidden in a
long-range fuel tank, across Australia, and preferred the
Tanami track because it had fewer police checks.

The prosecution has said Murdoch took the Tanami track back
toward Broome after murdering Falconio.