New inquest into Maria James murder

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The "daunting passage of time" that has passed since Melbourne mother Maria James was stabbed to death may mean not all questions can be answered about the unsolved murder, a coroner has been told.

In June 1980, the 38-year-old was stabbed 68 times in her bedroom of her home, which was attached to a Thornbury book store where she lived with her sons Mark and Adam, who were 13 and 11 at the time.

Ms James' former husband had phoned the shop shortly before she was killed and heard her speaking loudly and a scream before rushing over. He arrived 15 minutes later and discovered her body.

Two years after her death an inquest found she was murdered by an unknown person, but no one has ever been charged and the case remains under investigation by Victoria Police's cold case unit.

A fresh inquest began on Monday, 41 years after the murder, to examine the cause and circumstances of Ms James' death, identify the killer and assess the adequacy of the police investigation.

Over three weeks, 37 witnesses will give evidence with more than 3600 pages of evidence submitted including crime scene photos, police handwritten notes, suspect interviews and witness statements.

Counsel assisting Sharon Lacy said six main suspects had been identified by homicide detective Leigh Prados, but only one is still alive - a man accused of having an affair with her at the time she was murdered.

Other suspects include two priests, Father Anthony Bongiorno and Father Thomas O'Keeffe, who both allegedly molested Ms James' son Adam on the weekend before the murder.

Peter Keogh, who stabbed his partner Vicki Cleary to death seven years after Ms James' murder, and a man convicted of assault after picking up two female hitchhikers in August 1980, were also named.

Detectives believed they had a DNA profile of her killer from a bloody pillow case, which was used to rule out some suspects. But the pillow case actually came from a different crime scene.

Ms Lacy said "14 years of potential progress" in the investigation had been lost due to this error, which was only discovered in 2017 and by that time several people of interest had died.

Other evidence, including Ms James' blood-stained clothes, have long been missing from the police exhibits.

In June this year a quilted bedspread was recovered, but Ms Lacy said "there is presently, no forensic material that may assist in identifying the offender".

"This coronial investigation has yielded a great deal of material, but there has been a daunting passage of time, in which recollections fade and information is lost," she said.

"It might be that Your Honour is unable to reach conclusions about all of the questions that beg for answer in relation to this wretched crime."

Forensic pathologist David Ranson gave evidence on Monday afternoon, after examining Ms James' 68 stab wounds using photographs and reports taken at the time.

He said a "large U-shaped injury like a horseshoe" at the top of her head may have been caused by blunt force, while "clusters" of injuries on her front, back and sides indicated her body was moved during the stabbing.

Prof Ranson said markings found on her wrist showed her hands may have been bound during the attack.

Three police officers are due to give evidence on Tuesday, as the inquest before Deputy State Coroner Caitlin English continues.

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