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Last Updated: Monday, 17 October 2005, 16:04 GMT 17:04 UK
Lees negotiates first court test
By Phil Mercer
BBC News in Darwin

Joanne Lees has come face-to-face with the Australian man she believes murdered her partner on a deserted outback highway four years ago.

Joanne Lees
Miss Lees was 'business-like' at Darwin's Supreme Court

The former girlfriend of missing British tourist Peter Falconio has been giving evidence at the trial of Bradley John Murdoch in Darwin.

The 47-year-old mechanic, from the remote town of Broome in Western Australia, has denied charges of murder, abduction and assault.

Miss Lees is expected to be the prosecution's star witness. The court was told that after Mr Falconio was shot dead, his girlfriend was subjected to a chilling ordeal.

Over the next couple of days the former travel agent from Sussex will have to re-live her experiences at the hands of a gunman she's referred to simply as "the man".

Miss Lees, now 32, began her evidence late on the first afternoon of this high-profile hearing at the Supreme Court in Darwin.

Trying circumstances

She glanced briefly towards the defendant when she entered the packed courtroom.

Bradley Murdoch, a burly man with short-cropped grey hair, shuffled in his seat and shook his head. As she was quizzed by the prosecution, Mr Murdoch took notes, barely raising his eyes towards her.

Joanne Lees
Miss Lees looked at ease with the gathered photographers

The English woman appeared calm and resolute in what were exceptionally trying circumstances. There were even brief moments of levity when she recounted memories of her former boyfriend.

A slight nervous cough was also apparent. Perhaps this was a hint that beneath a composed exterior lurked gnawing apprehension.

Miss Lees spent 45 minutes on the stand. She wore a charcoal skirt and crisp white shirt. Her long, dark hair was tucked neatly into a ponytail.

Her business-like appearance matched her forthright attitude - a far cry from the nervousness she displayed during a committal hearing in the same court last year.

This was, however, the easy bit. When this gentle set of questions by the chief prosecutor Rex Wild QC is over, Miss Lees will be in the hands of the defence. It is led by Grant Algie, a seasoned and expert lawyer from Adelaide.

His intention could well be to undermine the witness and to present to the jury a woman who cannot be trusted and whose credibility must be questioned.

Illicit relationship

Perhaps with this in mind the prosecution has asked Miss Lees to admit to an affair with another backpacker in Sydney in the months before Peter Falconio went missing.

She didn't say a word but looked at ease as she climbed into an unmarked police car

The aim of this tactic could be to let the jury learn about this explosive revelation in a composed and measured way. The alternative would have been to allow the defence to expose this illicit relationship in a far more robust way.

Joanne Lees will be wondering just what Bradley Murdoch's defence team has in store for her. She will inevitably feel the pressure. Her words could help either side land a very telling blow.

During last year's preliminary hearing her private life was vigorously examined by the defence. It must have been a very awkward experience but the signs are that Miss Lees has returned to tropical northern Australia far better prepared.

She left the court amid the glare of photographers' flashes and camera lights. She didn't say a word but looked at ease as she climbed into an unmarked police car at the steps of the courthouse.

The first round has been negotiated, but rougher waters are likely to be just around the corner for Peter Falconio's former lover.

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