Abbott Murder Trial: How Many Shots Were Fired?
Prosecution Expert Casts Doubt On Police Account Of Wallace Shooting
Reporter: Richard Scott
An expert witness for the prosecution in the murder trial of Senior Constable Keith Abbott, has raised serious doubts on the accuracy of a police witness’ account of the events leading up to the fatal shooting of Steven Wallace in Waitara.
In April 2000, Wallace broke windows and attacked a police car before being shot dead after a confrontation with Abbott and another police officer, Constable Jason Dombroski. Abbott has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him, claiming that he acted in self-defence.
Peter Wilson, an experienced ESR (Environmental Science & Research Limited) forensic scientist, attended Wallace’s post mortem, examined the scene of the shooting, and conducted firing tests on Abbott’s Glock pistol. Wilson’s evidence throws doubt on the accuracy on oral evidence given by Dombroski last Wednesday, and on a written statement given by Abbott some 4 hours after the shooting which was read to the Court today.
At the centre of the inconsistencies raised by Wilson is evidence that Wallace’s body bore 4 bullet wounds, including a wound to the back. Last week Dombroski testified that Abbott fired 3 shots at an enraged Wallace as he launched a frontal assault on Abbott with a raised baseball bat.
This mirrors a written statement made by Abbott shortly after the shooting which was read to the Court today. Wilson’s forensic evidence challenges these accounts, suggesting that one of the 4 shots was fired into Wallace’s back as he was doubled over with his back to Abbott.
Wilson also suggested that the position of 5 bullet cartridges at the scene was inconsistent with Abbott’s supposed position, which was allegedly marked with tape by Dombroski shortly after the shooting.
Wilson testified that tests on the ejection pattern of cartridges from Abbott’s pistol, suggested that Abbott would have been in a position to the left of the marked position. Wilson’s evidence follows an allegation made last week by another prosecution witness, Barbara George, that she saw Dombroski pick something up from the road in the moments before ambulances arrived to tend to Wallace. Dombroski has denied this allegation.
Earlier in the day, the jury heard evidence from three further police personnel, including two senior police officers.
Constable Michael Sandle was an experienced doghandler who had been called to Waitara and was about to set out on short drive from his home when he learned of Wallace’s shooting and was told to stand down. The prosecution alleges that Abbott and Dombroski should have waited for Sandle’s arrival before attempting to confront the enraged and intoxicated Wallace.
Sandle and his dog, Jero, were experienced in the apprehension and pursuit of armed offenders. Susan Hughes, cross-examining Sandle for the defence, established that the use of a dog was no guarantee for successfully apprehending and disarming an armed offender.
Detective Senior Sergeant Grant Coward trained with Abbott and is a senior New Plymouth police officer who led the early stages of the investigation into Wallace’s shooting. He also served with Abbott as a member of the police’s Armed Offenders Squad (AOS).
Coward described receiving a call from Abbott shortly after 4am in which a “concerned” Abbott informed him that he had shot someone in Waitara. Upon being asked if the victim was dead, Abbott responded “No, but he could die”.
Coward described speaking briefly to Abbott at the Waitara Police Station, where he suggested that Abbott be interviewed. In response to questions by John Rowan QC for the prosecution, Coward testified that he had not conducted any firearm residue tests on Abbott or Dombroski, and had not conducted anything other than a cursory examination of the officers’ firearms.
Coward also confirmed that he had not required that a blood sample be taken from Abbott. A blood test, which is normally used for matching to evidence at the scene, could also have been used to detect the presence of “other substances”, such as alcohol or drugs.
The impression given by Coward’s testimony was that Abbott’s version of events had been taken at face value, and that normal procedure had not been followed with its usual strictness.
The jury was then shown a police training video about the use of the long-handled baton, which Abbott had with him on the night of 30 April 2000. A variety of assailants armed with baseball bats and piping were repulsed and disarmed using the baton.
An important part of the prosecution’s case is that Abbott and Dombroski had other less extreme means at their disposal to apprehend Wallace. Susan Hughes cross-examined Coward for the defence. Coward testified that, in his opinion, Wallace presented too much of a danger for Abbott and the other officers on the scene to have safely waited for the doghandler to arrive. He also said that he would not have deployed the three officers on the scene any differently.
The jury also learned more about Abbott’s character and personal qualities. The Court heard how Abbott excelled in marksmanship, and was a member of two gun clubs in New Plymouth.
The Court was also told of the intensive training Abbott underwent as part of his selection and induction into the AOS. Both Sandle and Coward considered themselves to be close friends of Abbott and spoke highly of his qualities both as a police officer and as a person.
In defense cross examination by Susan Hughes, a picture emerged of Abbott as mild mannered, even tempered and a good communicator, an “outstanding” police officer whose judgement was beyond reproach.
Hughes also delved into a previous incident in 1991 when Abbott and other AOS members foiled an armed bank raid by members of the Mongrel Mob in Motorua. Coward spoke of Abbott’s bravery in facing an offender armed with a shotgun, which was fired at him from close range.
Next in the witness box was Detective Senior Sergeant Garth Bryan who interviewed Abbott later in the morning of 30 April 2000, and had taken a written statement from him.
Bryan read Abbott’s statement to the Court. In it Abbott speaks of finishing the late shift in Waitara at 11pm, and then having a cup of tea, some food and watching TV before retiring to bed at around midnight.
Abbott’s statement closely matched the evidence given last Wednesday by Constable Jason Dombroski. Abbott did, however, state that he believed that Dombroski was alone at the scene and was unaware that Constable Jillian Herbert, who remained in a patrol car, had accompanied him.
This will provide further evidence to support the prosecution’s contention that Abbott, as the senior officer on the scene, should have developed a more coherent plan to intercept Wallace, rather than hastily drawing firearms and rushing out to apprehend him.
Bryan read Abbott’s account of the escalating tension in the moments preceding Wallace’s shooting. Abbott spoke of Wallace behaving dangerously and erratically, and his fears that he may have had a firearm in the boot of his car.
Wallace shouted words to the effect that “You are persecuting me and I have had enough” before threatening to “do” Abbott. Abbott claimed to have feared for his life as he retreated before an incensed Wallace who hurried towards him brandishing a baseball bat.
Interestingly, Abbott’s account also spoke of three shots being fired at Wallace. This is consistent with Dombroski’s testimony, but is challenged by the forensic evidence presented by Peter Wilson today and by other prosecution witnesses present in Waitara that night. At this stage Abbott himself is not expected to give oral evidence.
On a technical level, the charge against Abbott was today amended to one of murder only. In practice this will make little difference: Justice Chambers directed that the jury could still find Abbott not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter if his plea that he acted in self defence in shooting Wallace fails.
The Court will convene early tomorrow morning to hear evidence from David Painter, another expert witness for the prosecution. Painter is currently in the United Kingdom and his evidence will be presented to the jury by satellite link. Mr. Wilson will then conclude his evidence.
The trial is expected to continue for the next fortnight, with 3 members of the Wallace family anticipated to give their evidence later this week.
The trial is