There were no witnesses, no motive established, no murder weapon found. It was celebrated as a landmark case as it was the first time in Australia someone was convicted of a crime on the basis of DNA evidence alone.
Towards the end of the six-day trial the prosecutor proclaimed to the jury, “These are amazing times. But they’re times the likes of Andrew Richard Fitzherbert has good reason to fear, every good reason to fear. The ability to identify those guilty of a crime [from DNA] … has reached an awesome stage.”
But was DNA evidence enough?
In August 1999, palm reader Andrew Fitzherbert was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Brisbane veterinarian Kathleen Marshall, 52. Marshall was subsequently dubbed the “catwoman” because she was president of the Cat Protection Society and at the time of her murder was caring for about 17 cats while she looked for homes for them.
Discrepancies in the case have puzzled observers for years, including such basic information as the time of death. A Health Department scientist told the court that Marshall probably died between 9pm on Thursday, February 27, 1998, and 3pm the next day.
On the basis of this, the prosecution argued that the murder was probably committed on Thursday night. Only family members could support Fitzherbert’s alibi for that night, hence the prosecution said this alibi was “a concoction of lies” they had all “cooked up”.
But it is much more likely the murder took place some time on Friday night. Four witnesses, including the local newsagent and pharmacist, testified they saw Marshall late Friday afternoon. Warren Smith, who lived across the road from Marshall, claimed he heard her front door close at about 6pm and again at 8pm that night. The door had a large doorknocker that made a loud and distinct sound whenever the door was shut.
Marshall’s body was found early on Sunday afternoon in the surgery beneath her home at Wilston, in Brisbane’s inner north. Four members of the Cat Protection Society went to her home for a directors’ meeting and noticed blood on the downstairs surgery door. They called the police, who discovered the decomposing body, in a white and blue striped dress, lying face down inside the surgery.
There were no signs of forced entry to the cream-coloured weatherboard house shielded from the road by overgrown trees. Her three dogs, including a german shepherd, had been cordoned off on the back veranda, leaving friends to believe she’d been expecting someone, that she knew her killer.
A post-mortem examination indicated Marshall had been dead for more than 24 hours and had died from about 50 stab wounds to her head, face, arms, chest, neck and abdomen. There were no signs of sexual assault. Slashes to her hands indicated she had desperately tried to fight off her killer. Twenty-five swabs of blood were taken from the murder scene - including five tiny spots of blood later analysed as being from a male - along with a variety of other items, and delivered to the John Tonge Centre.
In their investigation, police focused on members of the Cat Protection Society, whose aim is to promote the welfare of cats. Over the years there’d been constant infighting in the society and since the sacking of the treasurer, Virginia Houston, in August 1997, the clashes had intensified.
Houston went into hiding after Marshall’s body was discovered saying she feared for her life. She said she knew too much of the going-ons of the society and claimed the murder was connected to money, as a lot of money passed through from bequests of its elderly members. Though originally a “person of concern”, Houston was eventually cleared of suspicion.
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Mary Garden is a freelance journalist who lives in Queensland. Her articles on a wide range of issues have been published in magazines and newspapers in Australia and overseas. She is the author of The Serpent Rising - a journey of spiritual seduction (a memoir based on her years in India in the 1970s) and has recently completed her PhD titled "Blogging in the Mainstream:
journalist-blogs and public deliberation".