Murder-accused caught 'red-handed': Crown

Leigh Matthew Frederick Beer is on trial for the murder of Emma Field. Photo: RNZ
Leigh Matthew Frederick Beer is on trial for the murder of Emma Field. Photo: RNZ

By Robin Martin of RNZ

A jury has heard two vastly different accounts of the night 21-year-old New Plymouth supermarket worker Emma Field's life ended in a 2022 house fire.

In one, the Crown argued during its closing that Field's partner, Leigh Matthew Frederick Beer, had been caught "red-handed" with his blood on the "murder weapons" - a butane lighter and a cigarette lighter allegedly used to start the fire.

In the other, defence counsel said the case against him was "speculative" and someone else could have set the flat the couple shared on fire - in particular, a Mongrel Mob member seen on the property the night of the blaze.

The High Court trial of Beer, 31, is in its fourth week. He's charged with arson and murder following the death of Field, with an additional charge of assault with intent to injure, relating to a fight he had with someone who stopped to help battle the fire.

The Crown alleges after an evening of drinking and drug-taking, Beer tipped over a bed on which Field was sleeping, set the mattress alight and left her to burn to death.

Emma Field Photo: NZME
Emma Field Photo: NZME
Beer has consistently denied the charges.

In her closing, Crown prosecutor Cherie Clarke told the jury that fuelled by alcohol and angry at being left behind by friends who had gone into town, Beer walked back into the flat in a divided villa on Devon Street West.

He discarded a tea towel - being used to staunch a hand bleeding after earlier punching out the front door window - and was dripping blood through the flat.

Clarke said Beer grabbed the faulty butane lighter from a kitchen drawer and turned his anger on Field, who had gone to bed early, flipping the queen-sized bed she was lying on and setting the mattress on fire.

After setting the fire at about 10.50pm he had waited about 10 minutes for it to get a hold before beginning the "charade" of fighting the fire with a hose.

Clarke said this was important because he had the time to get a fire extinguisher, call 111 or set off a fire alarm.

Instead he had broken windows in the ground-floor flat, adding oxygen to the fire, and hidden the butane lighter under a step on an outside set of stairs.

Clarke said the blood spread through the flat was the same blood found on the "murder weapons", the faulty butane lighter and a cigarette lighter, used to ignite it. They were recovered from Beer's pockets when he was in hospital.

He had been caught "red-handed", she said, and he knew it, going so far as let slip to the upstairs neighbour Field's death was being treated as a murder investigation well before police had told anybody.

No motive, defence counsel says

Defence counsel Julian Hannam disagreed, arguing the case against his client was speculative.

He said the message to the neighbour reflected only that Field had been killed and he knew he didn't do it, but somebody must have.

There was no evidence that Beer was upset with Emma or wanted to kill her or damage the building, Hannam said. He loved Emma and had no motive for killing her.

"He would never flip her off the bed and set her on fire."

She was his "soul mate", he said.

Hannam argued the bloodstains did not prove who set the fire, only that Beer had moved through the flat, perhaps even to check on Field.

While his bloodstains were everywhere, there were none where the butane lighter was hidden, meaning it could have got there by accident rather than it being placed there.

Hannam said phone location data did not support the argument Beer was inside setting the fire at about 10.50pm. Instead it showed a wider location bubble - more than 20 metres in circumference - when logic said the bubble should be smaller as it had been previously when he was known to be close to the wi-fi router, at about 12 metres.

He also took aim at Crown witness Edmond Cook, a former Mongrel Mob member who gave evidence he had climbed the fence from a neighbouring social housing provider to give assistance on the night of the fire and then drifted away as emergency services arrived.

Hannam said Cook was a very bad man with more than 300 convictions, including for burglary and arson.

Where was the phone location data for Cook, he asked?

The Crown could not rule out someone else set the fire, Hannam said, and "we say it's possible he did it".

The defence counsel said the inconsistencies in Beer's police interviews were consistent with someone who had gone through a traumatic event, been in a medically induced coma, come out of it and later had time to reconsider events.

Similarly, his physical confrontation with a motorist who stopped to help fight the fire was consistent with someone who was determined to hang on to the hose so they could continue to fight the fire.

Hannam framed this as an act of self defence rather than an assault.

Justice Grau will sum up and give instructions to the jury on Wednesday morning.