'Junk' science landed mother of three in jail for husband's killing
On the evening of 23 April 2004, Elizabeth Donoghue was upstairs in her Hertfordshire home, running a bath and speaking with a close friend on the phone.
The mother of three teenage children then heard two loud bangs. At first, she thought it was a bus backfiring nearby. But when she opened the bathroom door, the smell hit her and she knew something was wrong.
Downstairs, she found her husband James in the living room lying in a pool of blood. Lizzi screamed out. Police and paramedics called by neighbours arrived soon after. Lizzi, in a state of shock, was taken to hospital. She later found out that James was pronounced dead at the scene, having been shot twice.
In May the next year, Lizzi found herself convicted of James’ murder along with the friend she had been on the phone with that night. The prosecution argued that the pair planned the killing in order to cash in on a life insurance policy which they falsely claimed had a forged signature.
However, the Centre for Criminal Appeals has found a number of flaws in the case against her, including that Lizzi’s conviction was secured on the basis of 'junk' forensic science.
The prosecution claimed that Lizzi lied about being upstairs at the time James was shot, insisting instead that she was downstairs opening the back door so that her friend – who they falsely described as her lover – could enter to carry out the murder. In fact, the crime reconstruction visuals presented to support this version of events are inconsistent with what is known from the actual crime scene photos and the pathologist's report.
Moreover, claims made by two experts at trial that cell site analysis – a field of forensics then in its relative infancy – could be used to pinpoint Lizzi’s location within the house were pure nonsense. A report by a third phone expert criticising this notion was never presented to the jury.
The Crown’s case also relied heavily on firearms identification – an area of forensics whose flaws and limitations are now much better understood. Gaps in the Crown’s case were filled in with unreliable witness testimony of the man who admitted to possession of the supposed murder weapon.
Unfortunately, the police investigation into James’ death suffered from tunnel vision: other lines of enquiry were not followed up, including suggestions his killing was drug-related.
Earlier in the evening of James’ death, Lizzi had noticed him speaking with two men at the front door who he was apparently familiar with. Witness descriptions of men seen near the crime scene around the time of the murder match far closer with her account of their appearance than that of her friend.
Lizzi is currently serving her minimum 30-year life sentence in prison, where she is known for her ready willingness to help other prisoners in need of support. Lizzi has the love and support of her mum and three children, who remain convinced that she is the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
Lizzi's children Helen, Paul and Claire were just teenagers when their beloved stepdad James was killed and their mum convicted. "In our eyes the person that done it is still out there. I just want my mum out," Helen says.
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