Murder victim left alive 'to burn to death'

Emma Field, 21, was found dead at a property in New Plymouth in 2022. Photo: NZME
Emma Field, 21, was found dead at a property in New Plymouth in 2022. Photo: NZME
By Robin Martin of RNZ

A Taranaki woman was alive, but likely unconscious when she burned to death crumpled beside an overturned bed and mattress tipped over and set on fire by her partner, a jury has been told.

Leigh Matthew Frederick Beer is on trial at the High Court at New Plymouth charged with arson and murder following the death of 21-year-old Emma Field in May 2022.

Her body was found at a Devon Street West property in New Plymouth after a fire swept through part of a century-old house divided into flats.

Friends and family members of Field filled the public gallery many of them wearing 'Justice for Emma' hoodies.

Beer is also charged with assault with intent to injure for punching a motorist who stopped to help fight the fire.

His defence lawyer Julian Hannam said the 33-year-old had consistently maintained his innocence and that the evidence against him was circumstantial.

Hannam said the alleged assault was behaviour consistent with someone attempting to defend themselves or someone else.

Crown prosecutor Cherie Clarke told the jury on the night of her death Field, who was originally from Ōpunake, had left a drinking session at the couple's basement flat and gone to bed.

"No doubt in part because the defendant had been saying things in front of their friends about her, like she had 'no tits, no arse and he could get another girl'."

Clarke said "out of the blue" Beer, put his hand through a front door window, and later angry about being left on the street by his drinking mates, who had gone into town without him, used a butane lighter to set fire to bedding, eventually gutting the flat.

"The Crown says that the defendant walked back inside the apartment, ultimately entering the bedroom that Miss Field was last seen alive in and he overturned a very heavy wooden-slat queen-size bed that Miss Field had last been seen lying on."

Leigh Matthew Frederick Beer. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin
Leigh Matthew Frederick Beer. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin
Clarke said Beer then took a cigarette lighter and butane lighter and set the bedding and mattress on fire.

"In the minutes that followed, the Crown says, the defendant left the bedroom leaving Miss Field alive but likely unconscious underneath that furniture to burn to death."

When the fire was extinguished, Field was found lying face up on the floor underneath the window of the flat's master bedroom, her head up against a bedside table and the wall.

"A small part, the Crown says, of the overturned mattress ended up on top of her with the wires of the mattress later found to be embedded in her leg or lower leg."

Clarke said shortly after setting the fire the defendant smashed the bedroom and lounge windows from the outside, adding oxygen to the fire.

He then hid the butane lighter at the top of the same stairs from where he grabbed a fire hose.

"Once he had turned the fire hose on, he stood pointing the hose towards the [bedroom] window yelling Emma's name, telling her to get away from the door."

This disturbed an upstairs neighbour who was the first to set off a fire alarm.

The first 111 call was made by a passer-by at 11.02pm, about nine to 12 minutes after the fire was lit, the Crown said.

A motorist who stopped to help fight the fire was repeatedly punched by Beer and the assault charge related to that.

When emergency services arrived at the scene he was agitated and aggressive towards police and Fire and Emergency staff and was eventually sedated before being put in an induced coma at Taranaki Base Hospital.

Clarke said when first interviewed by police on 30 May, Beer, who had not been injured in the fire beyond cuts consistent with breaking a window, said he hadn't been at the flat at the time and had returned to an open front door.

Inconsistencies in his versions of events would be a feature of the trial, she said.

The Crown intended to call 60 witnesses including the pathologist who performed the autopsy on Field in Palmerston North after her body had been carefully removed from the flat on 29 May.

A positive identification had been possible via a distinctive lion tattoo on her back and another on her buttocks.

Clarke said the autopsy found soot in Field's airways down to her lungs and carbon monoxide in her blood.

"The pathologist will tell you that these factors indicate that Miss Field was alive at the time of the fire. She had inhaled fire product.

"The level of carbon monoxide was not fatal which indicates that death was due to incineration or alternatively could be due to inhalation of other products of combustion that weren't detected in the toxicology results."

Defence lawyer Julian Hannam told the jury Beer's defence started with his three not-guilty pleas to the charges he faced.

"He has said in those pleas 'I did not overturn the bed, I did not light the fire, I fought off Adam Hurle when he tried to take the hose off me and that was the hose I was trying to put the fire out with'.

"These are the things he told the police in 2022 and he stands by them today, now in this trial. He was consistent on those points each time he was spoken to."

Hannam said the Crown accepted that this case was a circumstantial one.

"Think of it like a jigsaw to put together and just like with a jigsaw you don't force the pieces together. It's my suggestion to you that when you take the pieces of evidence you don't jam them into the picture the Crown is painting for you, instead you make your own minds up on where those pieces go."

He said the issues for the jury to decide in this trial were straightforward.

"Could someone else [have] overturned the bed? And we say 'yes'. Could someone else have reasonably lit the fire? We say 'yes'. Did Leigh Beer intend to injure Adam Hurle. 'No'. Or was he defending himself or someone else? And we say 'yes' to that also."

Hannam said when all of the pieces of the jigsaw were considered the jury would have a reasonable doubt of the Crown's case.

The trial was being heard before Justice Karen Grau and a jury of 11 after one jury member was dismissed.

It is set down for at least three weeks.