Property developer cleared of drowning wife in pool despite judge saying he 'likely' killed her

·3-min read
Donald McPherson, 47, was alleged to have murdered Paula Leeson, 47 - PA
Donald McPherson, 47, was alleged to have murdered Paula Leeson, 47 - PA

A property developer accused of drowning his wife for a £3.5 million life insurance payout has been cleared, despite a judge saying it was "likely" he killed her.

Donald McPherson, 47, was alleged to have murdered Paula Leeson, 47, in a holiday cottage swimming pool in Denmark in June 2017.

Mr McPherson had taken out seven "secret" life insurance policies and stood to gain a "vast fortune" upon the mother of one's death, Manchester Crown Court heard.

However, judge Mr Justice Goose halted the prosecution three weeks into the trial and directed the jury to return a not guilty verdict to the murder charge.

While he said it was "clearly more likely" that Mr McPherson had killed his wife than she died accidentally, there was insufficient evidence to prove it.

"There are two available possibilities," he said. "Firstly that the defendant physically restrained the deceased under water or otherwise overcame her in a struggle or pushed her to cause her to drown.

"Secondly, that the deceased drowned by an accident, whether by a trip, fall or faint causing her to fall into the water to drown.

"Whilst the first of these possibilities is clearly more likely, that does not mean that a jury, on the face of the pathological evidence alone, could be sure of it.

"It is clear from the evidence that the injuries to the deceased were consistent with both physical restraint to cause drowning and physical handling in acts of rescue and resuscitation."

Pathologists found that Ms Leeson suffered bruises on her face and arms, as well as internal bleeding at the back of her neck.

Jurors heard that her injuries may have been sustained while being restrained or in a rescue and resuscitation attempt, and accidental death could not be ruled out.

Mr McPherson told police his wife had complained of pain in her stomach and tooth and had been sick. He said they had been in bed and, when he woke up, he found her fully clothed, face down in the swimming pool.

When the ruling acquitting Mr McPherson was delivered, Ms Leeson's parents wept in court and her brother shouted to the judge: "God Almighty. You are making a big mistake."

John Ryder QC, defending, had applied for the trial to be halted. He argued that the prosecution's case was entirely circumstantial and amounted to "he must have done it".

David McLachlan QC, prosecuting, told the court there were no reasonable grounds for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to appeal the ruling.

Mr McPherson met Ms Leeson through her family's skip hire business and they married two years later in 2014.

He allegedly lied to her about his life during their relationship, claiming to have been abandoned by his family, whereas he really grew up with his parents in New Zealand.

Mr McPherson was said to be heavily in debt from buying and selling houses in the UK.

The day after Ms Leeson's death, he transferred £27,000 from their joint account to his personal accounts to clear his £67,000 debts, jurors were told.

Mr McPherson, in a statement through his solicitors, said: "On the 6th of June 2017, a terrible accident occurred in Norre Nebel, Denmark, that led to the death of my wife, Paula Leeson.

"A tragic accident is what it was and it saddens me, deeply, that the events in question should ever have been seen differently and that I was ever suspected of playing a part in Paula's death."

The CPS said: “We were satisfied on reviewing the case that there was sufficient evidence to put charges before a jury. However, we have carefully considered the judge’s ruling and concluded there are no legal grounds to appeal.

“We appreciate this is very upsetting news for Paula Leeson’s family and our thoughts remain with them.”

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