Norfolk family describe 'whirlwind of emotions' as men found guilty of murdering Hemsby's Hannah Witheridge and fellow backpacker David Miller in Thailand
PUBLISHED: 05:20 24 December 2015 | UPDATED: 10:14 24 December 2015
Two Burmese migrants have been sentenced to death after they were found guilty of the brutal murders of Hemsby woman Hannah Witheridge and a fellow British backpacker on a beach in Thailand.
The battered bodies of Miss Witheridge, 23, and David Miller, 24, from Jersey, were discovered on the idyllic holiday island of Koh Tao on September 15 last year.
Bar workers Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo, also known as Win Zaw Htun, initially confessed to the killings but later retracted their statements, claiming they had been tortured by police.
At a court in Koh Samui this morning, three judges found the men guilty of murder and ordered that they face the death penalty.
They were both given 20 year jail terms for the rape of Miss Witheridge and both sentenced to death twice over for the murders of both victims - one for the killings and one for trying to conceal them.
The verdict came after 21 days of witness hearings which have not only put the spotlight on this tragic case, but the Thai justice system as a whole, amid accusations of shoddy investigation techniques, lost and incomplete evidence and even alleged brutality of the two accused in order to force a conviction.
Miss Witheridge’s family were not present in Thailand for the verdict, though Mr Miller’s were.
‘Whirlwind of emotions’
In a statement released after the verdict, Miss Witheridge’s family described their feelings as a “whirlwind of emotions and difficulties”.
They said: ““As the trial concludes and the verdict is delivered, our family, once again, find ourselves in the path of a whirlwind of emotions and difficulties.
“In these challenging times, we try to concentrate our efforts on remembering our beautiful Hannah for the fun, vibrant and incredible young woman that she was.
“Had her life not been tragically and unnecessarily cut short, she would now have completed her Master’s degree in Speech and Language therapy and would be about to embark on a fulfilling and worthwhile career.
“She would have gone on to make a significant difference to the lives of many.
“On the basis of Hannah’s dedication and passion for Speech and language therapy and the excellent feedback she received during her placements, the University of Essex has introduced an award for outstanding excellence in clinical placements in her memory.
“It will be named the ‘Hannah Witheridge Award for Clinical Excellence’. Hannah will be the first recipient. As a family, we are touched by this beautiful tribute to Hannah as the hard working, dedicated young woman that she was.
“The past year has served as an unimaginably impossible time for our family. We have found the trial process extremely difficult and our trips out to Thailand, to attend court, made for particularly distressing experiences.
“We found listening to proceedings very challenging and we have had to endure a lot of painful and confusing information. We now need time, as a family, to digest the outcome of the trial and figure out the most appropriate way to tell our story.”
The bodies of the British backpackers were found on a beach on the island in the early hours of September 15, 2014. The murder weapon, a garden hoe, was found nearby.
A post-mortem found that Miss Witheridge, 23, had died of head wounds and Mr Miller, 24, severe blows to the head and drowning.
Under intense pressure to find the killers, scores of Thai police officers were put on the case and in the days that followed Thailand was awash with rumours and theory.
On Friday, October 4, the country’s national police chief, General Somyot Poompanmoung, announced that two men faced charges of murder, rape and theft.
After initially confessing to the murders, the pair changed their pleas and continued to protest their innocence throughout the trial.
Prosecutors claimed DNA evidence collected from cigarette butts, a condom and the bodies of the victims, linked Lin and Phyo to the killings.
But lawyers representing the pair, both 22, said DNA samples from the alleged murder weapon - a garden hoe - did not match that of the two men.
The defence team said DNA evidence was mishandled by police and the defendants’ confessions was a result of torture in the context of “systematic abuse” of migrants on Koh Tao.
A bizarre reenactment of the murders in which the defendants were paraded in front of the media was also “staged under threat of violence”, the lawyers added.
Thai police denied using force during their investigation.
Miss Witheridge, a former student at the University of East Anglia and Mr Miller, who had just completed a civil and structural engineering degree at the University of Leeds, met on Koh Tao while staying at the same hotel.
Post-mortem examinations showed that both had suffered severe head wounds. Miss Witheridge had been raped while Mr Miller died after being hit over the head before drowning in the sea.
British police officers visited Thailand to help with the investigation into the deaths following a direct appeal from Prime Minister David Cameron to Thailand’s military ruler.
The intervention came after General Prayuth Chan-ocha was forced to apologise for suggesting that foreign visitors to his country’s world-famous beaches might be unsafe wearing bikinis following the murders.
The mothers of the two defendants also attended the hearing. One burst into tears after the verdicts.
Both men are now expected to be transferred to a maximum security prison in mainland Thailand within the next few days after 15 months in prison on Koh Samui awaiting trial.