New Zealand jurors to decide if British tourist was murdered

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A New Zealand jury on Friday was deliberating whether a British backpacker was murdered by a man she met on a dating app or was accidentally choked to death during sex.

Grace Millane died last December on her 22nd birthday after meeting a man through Tinder, going out for drinks with him, and then returning to his hotel apartment in central Auckland.

Prosecutors said the man strangled Millane to death, but defense lawyers said the pair had been engaged in consensual erotic choking that went too far.

After she died, the man stuffed Millane’s body into a suitcase, drove to the Waitakere Ranges forest and buried her in a shallow grave, where police found her body a week later.

Millane had been traveling through New Zealand as part of a planned yearlong trip abroad after graduating from university.

The judge asked jurors to decide the verdict Friday following a three-week trial.

The name of the 27-year-old man charged with murdering Millane is being kept secret for now by court order, a restriction that is sometimes imposed in the New Zealand judicial system. He did not testify during the trial.

If convicted of murder, the man faces a mandatory life sentence, which comes with a minimum 10-year non-parole period.

Millane's death shocked many in New Zealand, which prides itself on welcoming tourists and where many people travel abroad as well. Hundreds of people attended candlelight vigils after she died, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke about New Zealanders feeling "hurt and shame" that she was killed in their country. The case has been closely followed in Britain as well.

Among the key pieces of evidence for prosecutors was testimony from pathologists about the length of time, about five to 10 minutes, and amount of force it would take to kill somebody by strangling them.

Prosecutor Brian Dickey said that at some point, Millane would have lost consciousness, meaning the man would have needed to keep strangling her after she went lifeless under his grip, news organization RNZ reported.

One woman, who’d previously dated the man, testified she had feared for life during a sexual encounter with him after the man had sat on her face, restricting her breathing without her consent.

Prosecutors said the man took explicit photos of Millane after she died, RNZ reported, and used Google to search for “Waitakere Ranges” and “hottest fire” as he tried to figure out how to dispose of her body.

But defense lawyers said Millane’s death came down to two young, drunk and inexperienced people taking rough sex too far. The man told police that Millane had asked him to choke her and then encouraged him to use more force, RNZ reported.

The defense presented written testimony from a previous sexual partner who said Millane enjoyed choking during sex. The defense said she’d also been messaging people on Whiplr, a site for BDSM dating.

The defense argued the Google searches were random and it wasn’t until the next morning when the man woke up that he realized Millane was dead and panicked, deciding to bury her rather than calling emergency services.

Millane's parents traveled from Britain to watch the trial.

"It is natural for you to have sympathy for the Millane family and for Grace, who was here on what should have been a happy and exciting adventure," Auckland High Court Judge Simon Moore told jurors in his summing up, news organization Stuff reported.

But the judge said jurors couldn’t let media reports or their emotions intrude on their “solemn task” of reaching a verdict based solely on the evidence presented in the courtroom.

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