Recently the name Steven Hillier came up in conversation which prompted me look into the case in order to understand the reasoning as to why he was acquitted of the murder of Ana Louise Hardwick and whether it was justified. The only sources reasonably available to me were the following judgements and I therefore offer a summary and opinion based on the information provided in those judgements.
Steven Wayne Hillier was charged with the murder of Ana Louise Hardwick who was found strangled in her Isabella Plains home on 2 October 2002. In 2004 Hillier was tried in the ACT Supreme Court by Gray J and a jury over 15 days and after deliberating for only a few hours returned a verdict of guilty. Hillier was subsequently sentenced to 18 years gaol with a non-parole period of 13 years.
Hillier appealed the verdict and in 2005 The ACT Court of Appeal held, by majority (Higgins CJ and Crispin P; Spender J dissenting) that the appeal should be allowed. The majority wrongly concluded that there was a real possibility that another person was responsible for Hardwick’s death. Reading Spender’s interpretation of what transpired left one in little doubt that the jury got it right and that Higgins and Crispin’s conclusions were speculative and erroneous.
Unsurprisingly the High Court in 2007 shared Spender’s views and indicated that Higgins and Crispin erred in their respective judgements. The end result was that the High Court allowed the appeal by the Crown and ordered that the matter be remitted to ACT Court of Appeal for rehearing rather than just simply order a retrial. So back it went to the ACT Court of Appeal who under Madgwick,Weinberg and Dowsett JJ agreed with Spender ‘s analysis, which was mandated by the High Court, and ordered that the case be remitted for retrial.
Hillier opted for a Judge only trial in 2010 knowing that that was his best chance of being acquitted particularly given there had not been a murder conviction in Judge only trials in the ACT for at least a decade. Judge Besanko,a Federal Court judge, heard the case and came to the following conclusions.
The Crown asserted that Hillier had a strong motive to murder Hardwick given that she obtained orders making her the main custodian of their children. Prior to these orders they had been engaged in a custody battle since 2000 during which time Hillier had been the main custodian. It was clear that Hillier was obsessed with having custody and was extremely angry with the new orders and decided to murder Hardwick in order to eliminate her as a competitor for the custody of their children. Besanko opined that motive was established beyond reasonable doubt.
Consciousness of guilt
The Crown submitted that Hillier caused damage to his hands a few days before he agreed to having his fingerprints taken given that it may establish his guilt and that he was conscious of his guilt. Some two weeks after police took his fingerprints Hillier saw his doctor re his damaged fingernails and denied they had been exposed to chemicals. Dermatologist Dr. Healsmith examined Hillier’s hands a few days later and indicated that the damage was more consistent with fingertips being immersed in an acid or alkali solution not Hillier’s assertions that he was cleaning a motor vehicle engine or a driveway or both without wearing gloves using a small brush with a caustic solution mixed with water. I find Hillier’s claims ludicrous especially given that he was an ex mechanic,who know better,and in my experience use degreaser and high pressure water to clean engines. However for reasons best known to himself Besanko ruled that the Crown did not establish consciousness of guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
This was problematic for a number of reasons;
Firstly there was no mention in the judgements that the CSI took swabs from Hardwick’s neck which had bruising consistent with strangulation nor were there swabs taken from her hands. While it’s likely the murderer was wearing gloves I am baffled as to why swabs from those areas weren’t taken given they may have potentially contained DNA and gone some way to revealing the identity of the murderer.
Secondly Hardwick’s pyjamas were placed in a room at the Forensic Laboratory and laid out on a table to dry. During the time the pyjamas were drying apparently other exhibits including items taken from Hillier’s premises were also, unbelievably, kept in the room. While there was no direct evidence that those items came into contact with the pyjamas it plainly was a situation that should never have occurred given there was a potential risk of contamination.
Thirdly there were issues raised re the method used which identified Hillier’s DNA on the swab taken from the inside right front of Hardwick’s pyjama top some 7 to 8cms below the collar. The defence expert submitted that the DNA sample tested by the forensic scientist was compromised given the DNA had been loaded right up to the maximum level that the machine would tolerate .However further testing using lower levels of DNA still revealed that Hillier could not be excluded with respect to the partial minor component, the major coming from Hardwick.
Finally,given the circumstances, Besanko ruled that the Crown had not established beyond reasonable doubt that Hillier’s DNA was found on Hardwick’s pyjamas, or if it was there, it wasn’t there by reason of contamination or indirect transfer.
In conclusion, regrettably for the Hardwick famiy, Besanko followed in the footsteps of Higgins and Crispin and found Hillier not guilty of the murder of Ana Hardwick. In my opinion,after giving appropriate weight to the evidence,i believe the jury got it right,Spender got it right,the High Court got it right and Hillier should be behind bars. But that was justice A.C.T. style in the 2000’s. Disgraceful!