LONDON - A New Zealand man was found guilty of murder Friday in the killing of Grace Millane, a British backpacker whose death last year rattled the nation and prompted soul searching in a country where such cases are rare.
Prosecutors told the court that the two had met on the Tinder dating app and that the man, a 27-year-old, strangled Millane, 22, in a hotel room in Auckland in December. They said he hid her body in a suitcase before burying her remains in a forest on the outskirts of the city.
In his testimony, the suspect, whose name could not be released by law, claimed that Millane had died accidentally during "rough sex," but the court rejected that explanation, according to The New Zealand Herald.
The prosecution, laying out a very different narrative, described him as exhibiting a pattern of violence against women and a "morbid sexual interest."
The harrowing details of Millane's killing shocked New Zealand, a country seen as socially progressive and relatively safe. It also prompted a re-examination of violence against women in the nation.
"This has been a particularly difficult trial," Simon Moore, the judge who presided over the trial, said before announcing the jury's unanimous decision to convict the defendant.
He is set to be sentenced Feb. 21, and under New Zealand law faces a mandatory life sentence with a nonparole period of at least 10 years.
Millane's father, David, and mother, Gillian, delivered an emotional statement outside the Auckland courtroom after the verdict was announced. He described their daughter as "our sunshine."
"The verdict of murder today will be welcomed by every member of the Millane family and friends of Grace," he said through tears, in footage carried on the state broadcaster TVNZ. "It will not reduce the pain and suffering that we had to endure over the past year."
He thanked the people of New Zealand for their support and said that he and his wife, who were in Auckland for the three-week trial, would return to England and "try to pick up the pieces of ours lives."
Grace Millane, who had arrived in New Zealand days before her death, was taking a yearlong break to travel around the world after graduating from university. Her family became worried when she suddenly stopped contacting them on her 22nd birthday in 2018, prompting a frantic hunt that found her body in a forest in Auckland.
After the discovery, thousands gathered for vigils across New Zealand in an outpouring of support for the family, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern delivered a personal apology.
During a December news conference, Ardern described an "overwhelming sense of hurt and shame that this happened in our country, a place that prides itself on our hospitality."
"On behalf of New Zealand, I want to apologize to Grace's family," she said, her voice thick with emotion. "Your daughter should have been safe here and she wasn't, and I am sorry for that."
Millane's family has started a charity initiative called Love Grace x, which is collecting handbags filled with everyday essentials for women in need, to honor her memory. They have also raised funds for White Ribbon U.K., an organization that campaigns to end violence against women.
Through its charity's social media accounts, the family offered a simple message after the conviction: "Today justice has been served."
The message continued, "Life will never be the same without you by our sides Gracie."