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Convicted Norfolk murderer could fight for freedom - if court rules in favour of retesting DNA

PUBLISHED: 10:55 22 May 2014 | UPDATED: 10:55 22 May 2014

Toni Lopes, pictured in 2002

Toni Lopes, pictured in 2002

An asylum seeker jailed for murdering his partner and dumping her violated body in a Norfolk river could fight for freedom if the Supreme Court rules DNA samples can be retested.

A woman with a big heart

On April 28, 2002 a family on a Broads cruiser saw a body on the muddy banks of the River Bure in Great Yarmouth.

It was the body was Dominguez Olivais, a 30-year-old asylum seeker who had moved to England with her partner Antonio Lopes in the early 1990s. The couple, who met as children in the African state of Guinea Bissau, lived at the Montague Hotel in Kent Square, Yarmouth while waiting for their asylum application to be processed.

Ms Olivais, who was studying hairdressing at Great Yarmouth College and worked as a cleaner at the town’s Asda supermarket, was known as a hard-worker, a woman with a big-hearted and a fie sty character. Her violent death shocked friends and neighbours, while police faced a complex investigation. They believed Lopes collected his partner from work and drove her to the riverside where he killed her and dumped her body to be washed out to sea.

Lopes, now in his mid-40s, denied involvement in her death, claiming she disappeared after he dropped her off. When he was jailed for murder in October 2003, a judge said he would spend 16 years in prison for the “wicked brutal killing of an innocent woman”.

Antonio Lopes is serving a life sentence after a jury at Norwich Crown Court found him guilty of the “wicked and brutal” killing of Dominguez Olivais in Great Yarmouth in 2002. Ms Olivais’ body was found washed up on the muddy banks of the River Bure in Yarmouth on April 28.

Lopes was found guilty of strangling her, violating her dead body with a piece of wood and dumping her in the water.

More than a decade on, jailed Lopes continues to protest his innocence - and he could soon challenge his conviction if a test case at the Supreme Court rules in favour of allowing DNA samples in a Suffolk murder case to be reexamined.

Lopes’ defence lawyer James Saunders said the outcome in Kevin Nunn’s case could see his client’s conviction reviewed by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), the body charged with examining potential wrongful convictions.

Toni Lopes and Domingas Olivais Toni Lopes and Domingas Olivais

It hinges, he said, on access to a stick which was used to attack Ms Olivais.

Nunn, of Woolpit in Suffolk, is currently serving a minimum of 22 years for the murder of his former partner, Dawn Walker.

If the London court rules that Nunn’s defence team, lead by Mr Saunders, can use today’s advanced technology to look again at DNA in his case, it would open the way for Lopes to appeal.

Mr Saunders said the evidence used to convict Lopes in 2003 was mainly circumstantial - a vehicle believed to be his car was seen on CCTV on Tar Works Road near the Bure hours before Olivais was murdered and again after. The prosecution said that showed premeditation.

Lopes, who claimed he was at McDonalds on the night, had scratches on his face and neck. There was damage on the inside of his car, including cracks to the windscreen.

At her funeral he acted “as normal”, and one person questioned by police believed the couple had argued in the days before her death.

The prosection said Lopes’ DNA was found on fingernail cuttings taken from Ms Olivais’ body and forensic examination of the car indicated a struggle inside.

Mr Saunders, however, said: “The DNA work was unsatisfactory at the time and in the 10 years since there have been huge advances.

“The key exhibit here is a stick which will logically have the DNA of the killer on it.

“That stick is currently in a sealed bag in a Norfolk police station somewhere and we can’t get to it.

“I have to have some belief that the Supreme Court will see the possibility of finding out the truth and having the guilty behind bars.”

Opponents claim a ruling in favour of retesting DNA samples could lead to a lack of finality with the justice system - as science improves, more and more closed cases and convictions based on circumstantial evidence could potentially be reopen.

Mr Saunders, however, believes the Nunn ruling would lead to “dozens or maybe a few hundred” appeals.

“It’s a manageable number, and this is so important,” he said.

“This is not just about getting innocent people out of jail. These cases are predominately rapes and murders and those are the ones we want in prison.

“Just look at the Victor Nealon case.

“He is a man who didn’t do it, whose case was turned down by the CCRC two times. He served 17 years in jail and now we know he is innocent. What happened in that case illustrates what could well happen in Toni Lopes’ case.”

Earlier this week the CCRC apologised to Mr Nealon who was wrongfully convicted of attempted rape in Redditch in 1996.

His conviction was quashed last year after he approached CCRC for a third time.

Lopes has previously sought a CCRC review through a project at Cardiff Law School, but the application was refused.

Mr Saunders said he would not apply again until he knew the outcome of Nunn’s hearing which is expected by the end of July.

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