The man accused of murdering a wealthy Gold Coast inventor almost three decades ago allegedly admitted to killing him, but his lawyer has told a Brisbane court it could have been “an inside job”.
Philip Stearman, 53, was extradited from Tasmania to Queensland last year and charged with the 1992 murder of Hugo Benscher.
The 89-year-old’s body was found by a friend, bound and gagged on the floor of his Paradise Point canal-front home with serious head injuries.
Mr Benscher, who immigrated from Hamburg to Australia in 1948, invented an inflatable ball bladder used in sporting equipment.
For most of his life he had lived in Sydney but moved to Queensland after his wife died, six years before his death.
Police have previously alleged Mr Stearman, who was living on the Gold Coast at the time, had been involved in a botched robbery of Mr Benscher’s home.
In the Brisbane Magistrates Court on Thursday, Mr Stearman’s lawyer Timothy Ryan made an application to cross-examine, at an upcoming committal hearing, more than a dozen people who had provided statements to police.
The prosecution told the court that some witnesses — including a police officer, separate persons of interest from the time, and Mr Benscher’s son — did not need to testify in person, arguing the defence’s reasoning for calling them was “irrelevant”.
Mr Ryan told the court it was important to test the reliability of the witnesses’ evidence, as the prosecution’s case against Mr Stearman was circumstantial and there was “no forensic evidence at all” linking him to the crime.
“He is alleged to have made admissions to persons who were close to him at that time.
“The issue of the identity of the offender or offenders has always been, and remains, the primary issue in this entire case.”
Mr Ryan said investigations over the years had identified several “key suspects” who had been ruled out, including the friend who found Mr Benscher and other people involved in break-ins in the area at the time.
“A number of different people came under suspicion,” Mr Ryan said.
He told the court that the widow of the friend who found the body should be subject to cross-examination.
Mr Ryan said he believed there was evidence the murder was “an inside job”.
“The persons who committed this crime must have had some idea of what they were looking for,” he said.
The court heard a police officer had also provided a statement to detectives, saying he had responded to a disturbance involving the friend at Mr Benscher’s house one month before his death.
Mr Ryan argued the police officer should be cross-examined, but crown prosecutor David Finch argued questioning the friend’s widow or the officer about that incident would be pointless, as their disagreement had been cleared up in the statement.
“Certainly they had their issues and spats from time to time, but generally it was good.”
Magistrate Belinda Merrin allowed the application and granted leave for nine of the contested witnesses to be cross-examined.
“I am satisfied that there are substantial reasons, in the interest of justice, to permit the cross-examination,” she said.
The committal hearing is set for August.
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