Greg King: Defending the indefensible

BY EMILY WATT
Last updated 10:56 19/09/2009
Greg King
PHIL REID/The Dominion Post
AT THE COAL FACE: Greg King says he's no different to anybody else. 'In fact, I'm probably worse because I'm exposed to the horrific face of crime on a daily basis.'

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Greg King, the son of a prison guard, is one of the country's best defence lawyers, with clients including Clayton Weatherston and John Barlow, and others even he describes as "absolutely horrible bastards".

I am not a young gun anymore, Greg King bemoans, but it appears he has hit 40 with the safety-catch off and both barrels loaded.

In the months leading up to the milestone birthday this week, the Wellington barrister represented murderers, child-sex offenders and murderers of child-sex offenders, presenting his arguments before judges from Porirua to the Privy Council.

He also made headlines when it was revealed he had the third highest legal aid earnings in the country, receiving $1 million in public funds in the past year.

Mr King is accustomed to criticism for defending what others consider indefensible. He received abusive phone calls and his mentor Judith Ablett Kerr, QC, received death threats when they defended university tutor-turned-murderer Clayton Weatherston, sentenced this week. Such public censure barely ruffles his affable composure.

Weatherston's attempts to argue he was provoked did not sway his jury and outraged the public, dovetailing into the Government's announcement that the defence provision would be scrapped.

That decision was a "knee-jerk reaction to an unpopular case", Mr King says. He has used the defence in several high-profile cases, including successfully appealing against two murder convictions in the Supreme Court and reducing to manslaughter a murder charge levelled at Janine Rongonui, who stabbed her Miramar neighbour Pheap Im because she refused to babysit.

The defence is, he says, "simply a recognition that a normal person faced with extraordinary circumstances can kill".

"We can all think of situations: Come home, find someone molesting your child, you lose the plot and kill them. Now, with provocation gone, you're a murderer. And that scenario happens reasonably often. A woman who is battered and tortured for sometimes decades who reacts and kills her husband should not, in my view, always be labelled a murderer."

Mr King lives in an airy, modern home with expansive views of Hutt Valley. One of the walls is dedicated to mementoes: Photos of the Wainuiomata Rugby League under-17 team he sponsors, a cartoon depicting the day he was attacked in Porirua District Court, media clippings placing him in a Power List, and photos of his racehorse. And at the end of the row is a framed note from 1988. "To Greg. Good climbing!" it reads, above a photo of a fresh-faced Mr King beside the late, great climber Sir Ed Hillary.

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The endorsement, offered the year after he graduated head boy of Turangi's Tongariro High School, proved prophetic.

The Wanganui-born son of a prison guard graduated in law at Otago University and spent a three-year apprenticeship with hard-hitting defence lawyer Mrs Ablett Kerr. Fresh out of law school, he was plunged into assisting on cases including Peter Ellis in the Christchurch creche case and the successful defence of Vicky Calder in the poisoned professor case.

Then Mr King followed his girlfriend Catherine Milnes - now his wife - to Wellington and set up business on his own. His reputation as a young gun grew quickly. Twelve years on, he can pick and choose his cases, he travels the country for high-profile trials and appeals. Only 10 New Zealand cases have been allowed to make an appeal to the Privy Council in 150 years - and three of them were his.

Mr King's clients are some of the country's most notorious criminals, people who have murdered their neighbours and partners, stabbed hitch-hikers and children, committed race-hate and homophobic killings, cut off earlobes and even penises, drowned a loved one in cultural exorcisms, and molested children in their care.

Opening the defence case for Weatherston's murder trial earlier this year, Mr King told the jury "No-one is asking you to like him".

It was somewhat of an understatement. Weatherston became the most reviled man in the land, not only for the brutal act of stabbing Sophie Elliott 216 times, but also for the university tutor's smug arrogance and the contempt shown for his victim during several days on the witness stand. This week, he was jailed for 18 years. The jury, it seemed, did not want to know about Weatherston's claims that Miss Elliott had provoked him.

The defence's tactic of putting the narcissistic killer on the stand was controversial. Commentators speculated it was Weatherston's arrogant insistence to testify, against his own lawyers' advice.

Mr King won't comment other than to say that no matter what advice a lawyer gives, the decision on whether an accused person takes the stand always rests with the accused.

The public's vitriol was not reserved for the murderer alone.

"How can Judith Ablett Kerr and Greg King lie straight in bed and sleep at night?" screamed one letter to the editor.

"Both Kerr and King should hang their heads in shame."

Mr King understands such a response. He agrees, some of his clients are "absolutely horrible bastards" - some of his cases give him nightmares.

"I'm no different to anybody else. In fact, I'm probably worse because I'm exposed to the horrific face of crime on a daily basis. We're not immune to it, we deal with the victims, we hear them, we cross-examine them."

* * *

While it may seem at odds that his father and brother work as prison guards to keep inmates behind bars, while he works to keep people out, there is a shared humanity, perhaps learned from the prison staff community he grew up with in Turangi.

"I don't think any normal person could not be struck by the people we lock up," he says.

Behind every crime is the person the public call the criminal - someone with a family, emotions, problems.

Low intelligence, poor support, horrendous background and illiteracy are common factors among his clients.

But ultimately, he says it is not his job to like them or to judge them guilty or innocent.

For Mr King the cardinal right to a fair trial is unquestionable.

"Unless we do our job for an individual, the whole society suffers. I really do justify it to myself in those terms. When I stand for someone, I'm standing for the citizen versus the state.

"Unless I'm prepared to do that to the best of my ability, the system fails. If no-one was prepared to act for Clayton Weatherston, they wouldn't have been able to try him."

But it's a part of the process the public seems to resent paying for.

When figures were made public listing Mr King as collecting more than $1 million in legal aid, he was not happy.

He was reminded of lawyer Donna Hall, whose foster child "Baby Kahu" was kidnapped for ransom soon after Ms Hall's legal aid earnings were published.

But it is not just for the safety of his family that he wants to set the record straight.

The public funding, he says, covered 100 cases in the past year, about a dozen of them murder allegations. The bulk of that funding goes on expenses. Fees for assistant counsel, psychological assessments, private investigators, DNA profiling - each costs in the thousands.

While preparing for this year's appeal for John Barlow before the Privy Council, photocopying, printing and couriering documents, which piled thigh-high and needed to be replicated 15 times, cost $20,000 alone.

Mr King says prosecutors have untold resources, in police, government scientists, support staff. "But the public don't mind how much it costs to prosecute a case because they're doing the work of the angels."

He welcomes a Government- ordered review of the legal aid system announced this month but says it should be wider. Incentives to drag out a case could come from all sides, the accused, prosecution and defence.

* * *

Mr King is the first to acknowledge he's not doing badly. The couple's modern art collection - hung beside vibrant playschool works by daughters Pippa, 3, and Millie, 1 - includes Hotere and Picasso ("They're lithographs. Don't go thinking legal aid buys Picassos," he jokes).

He has spent years passionately buying watches and his collection numbers about 400, dating back to the 1700s. And he has a new hobby. He and his wife now have a T-shirt label, many of the Kiwiana designs were doodled in hotel rooms while out of town on trials.

He puts his taxable income at $300,000 to $400,000.

"That's a huge amount of money, I don't shy away from that. But it's less than what a senior judge would get and I'd wager I would work twice the hours."

During summer he took just two days off - Christmas Day and New Year's Day - as he put in 16-hour shifts to prepare to front the Privy Council. On his birthday on Thursday, when The Dominion Post calls, he has taken the day off, but admits he'll go to work that afternoon.

Ms Milnes, a lawyer who works with him, is "incredibly understanding".

But he wants change. Being able to pick and choose the cases that interest him and travelling the country, he is aware his career has railroaded through his children's life.

He missed the birth of his second daughter Millie last August, "missed half her life", he says.

"On one level, you try to justify it by thinking 'I'm working hard, long hours and I'm working away from home for them', but it kind of defeats the purpose when you're not with them."

The not-so-young gun has no plans to pull his punches, but he will, he says, try to stick to cases closer to home.

He has no plans to move to a more popular career.

"We could all go out and act for the SPCA and look after fluffy puppies and everyone would love us.

"But at the end of the day, I've never measured what I do by how it's going to be perceived by anyone else.

"What do you do? Say OK, I'm only going to act for nice cases that attract good press? Or are you going to do your job and act for someone who needs your services?

"I'm not here to be popular. I'm here to do my job."

KING'S CLIENTS

*  Joseph Ogle, who admitted  murdering his former partner and  her 16 year-old house guest in  Porirua.

* Two members of a family charged with the makutu killing of Wainuiomata mother Janet Moses. One acquitted, the other convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 150 hours' community work.

* Haydon McKenzie, convicted of the hate-killings of a Korean tourist and a homosexual man on the West Coast.

* Shopkeeper Virender Singh, charged with assault after defending himself with a hockey stick against two teenagers trying to rob his Auckland store. Mr King worked for no fee and the charges were thrown out.

* Gun-shop worker Greg Carvell, who shot an intruder threatening to kill him with a large machete. Charges thrown out.

* Ashley Arnopp, one of the two men convicted of killing a gay Palmerston North man, cutting off his ear lobe and slicing off his penis.

* A Nelson father accused of murdering his five-month-old baby the day she was diagnosed with severe brain damage. The man was cleared of all charges.

* Bruce Howse, convicted for the murders of his stepdaughters Saliel Aplin, 12, and Olympia Jetson, 11. Mr King personally stumped up $50,000 to take the case to the Privy Council. The council rejected his appeal in a split decision and Mr King was reimbursed.

* Scott Watson, convicted of killing Ben Smart and Olivia Hope. Mr King took the appeal to the Privy Council. The council refused to hear it. Mr King launched a petition to the governor-general.

IN HIS OWN WORDS

*  On aiding people to walk free  whom he suspects are guilty

"I don't lie awake at night patting myself on the back about it. But it's my job to do. And I don't actually make the decisions. Whether I think they're guilty or not, it's not something that can affect my work. I always go by the mantra: we have courts of law, not courts of justice. Courts of law are human-made institutions. Justice is something which God oversees."

* On appearing before five Privy Council law lords

"The first time it was terrifying. After you've been there once and you know how bad it is, the second time it's really, really terrifying. You're appearing before five extremely clever people, to be asked any aspect of the case and any aspect of the law. It is like going on Mastermind and John Barlow is your special topic."

* On unpleasant cases

"To think that we're immune to it is wrong. When you're getting up and cross-examining a parent who's lost a child or you're cross- examining a child that's been sexually abused by someone, if people think that you get some sort of pleasure from that or you wouldn't rather be doing anything else in the world or be anywhere else in the world at that particular moment . . . . but it is essential that you do your job. You do it as professionally as you can."

* On empathy

"Often I get that call, I go down to the police station and meet someone and realise they are a person. They've got families, they've got emotions, they've got problems, they've got redeeming features. Just like everyone else."

* On the Government's changes to depositions hearings:

"I think it's going to result in real carnage in the court system."

* On sequestering a jury

"I don't have a problem with the non-sequestering of a jury. Why is there something magic that happens after summing up?. . . You either sequester them for everything or nothing, and I guess everything is not an option."

* On repealing the defence of provocation

"It really does worry me. It's a knee-jerk reaction to an unpopular case. We can all think of situations: Come home, find someone molesting your child, you lose the plot and kill them. Now, with provocation gone, you're a murderer. And that scenario happens reasonably often. A woman battered and tortured for sometimes decades who reacts and kills her husband should not, in my view, always be labelled a murderer. It simply is a recognition that a normal person faced with extraordinary circumstances can kill. It is not a defence in that it puts you back on the street . . . no-one walks on it."

- The Dominion Post

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