Never short of a few good words
TRANSPORT AND METRO REPORTER
Greg King is a good talker. It used to get him in trouble, now it gets people out of it.
At 42, he is known as one of New Zealand's premier criminal lawyers. But had he not been a regular in the Tongariro High School detention hall while growing up in Turangi, his life might have followed a different path.
It was the school librarian who suggested he put his special talent towards something more constructive, after seeing him return time and time again for talking too much in class.
"She took me aside and said I should be a court lawyer because I was good at talking," Mr King said.
"She was the first person, I guess, who really sowed the seed in my head. I'd always wanted to be a policeman as a kid but law was something I'd never really considered. I'd never met a lawyer in my whole life."
Mr King admits he was always destined to play some role in the New Zealand justice system.
He was born in Whanganui. His father was a guard at Turangi's Hautu Prison while Arthur Allan Thomas was a resident.
He grew up in a prison house, surrounded by people living in other prison houses, who more often than not discussed crime.
But somewhere along the line, Mr King made that mouth of his work for him as well.
He has a law degree from Otago University, but having watched his boisterous, at times theatrical, defence of Ewen Macdonald this past month, you would be forgiven for thinking he also took a few drama classes. After his closing address last week he was told off by a friend for yelling at the jury.
"That's just me. It's not an act ... I'm basically a passionate person and quite expressive," he says.
"In that situation, I've got to get up and make 20 or 30 points, which I can't give the jury in writing, and I'm making them at a time when they've heard four weeks of evidence and four hours of a closing address from a Crown solicitor.
"By the time I've got to them, they must be exhausted, so I to try and make points in a way that actually grabs their attention."
Mr King honed his oratory skills alongside one of the best during a three-year apprenticeship with lawyer Judith Ablett-Kerr, QC.
Mr King assisted with the defence of Peter Ellis in the Christchurch creche case and Vicky Calder in the poisoned professor case.
Now based in his own practice in Wellington, he doesn't have to look for clients.
Some clients do not gain the sympathy of the public. Clayton Weatherston, whom Mr King helped Mrs Ablett-Kerr defend in 2009 for the murder of Sophie Elliott, has been called the most hated man in New Zealand.
But the popularity of his clients does not deter Mr King.
"It's usually the opposite," he says.
"I think it's when people are so despised that the rule of law becomes so much more important and it requires fearless advocates to stand up and to advance it."
His favourite quote from American civil rights activist Martin Luther King,
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere", sums up his approach to law, he says.
"I've always been inspired by things like fights for liberty, fights against the oppression of the state."
He is also able to laugh off most criticism. When told that a Dominion Post photo of him from the Macdonald trial drew comparisons to a "mature Harry Potter", he cracks up.
The criticism has not always been light-hearted, but Mr King prefers to worry more about his clients than himself and he likes to prepare them.
Six days before Ewen Macdonald was to spend a month in the dock in the High Court at Wellington, he was in court for a pretrial hearing.
Mr King took the chance to ensure his client knew where everyone was going to be sitting, introducing him to the court staff and to the prison escort that would be with him every day.
One of the court reporters even got an introduction.
But Mr King's relationship with his clients does not kick in a week out from trial. He knows that in many cases, his clients have a long wait between their arrest and their day in court, and often Mr King isn't just their lawyer, he's their only friend.
"When people are charged, there's a massive expectation that they're guilty, and people turn on you.
"As much as anything else, we're support networks for people; they're often abandoned by people who they thought were their friends, so they need someone to be on their side and to be working hard in their corner.
"I always tell people going into trial, from day one, that it's a marathon, not a sprint. It's going to take a long time to sort itself out.
"If you're charged with murder today, it's going to be probably 18 months before your case is going to trial, so if you just sort of lie awake every night you're not going to survive until your trial.
"I have various phrases. I tell people 'Look, you're not to worry about your case. I'm a professional worrier and it's my job to worry' about their case. Just to give them confidence."
Mr King knows also about impressions. He understands people will be looking and judging based on his client's appearance, however unfair that is. Rarely do his clients appear in court other than impeccably dressed, although he denies stage-managing every client to that degree.
"But sometimes you have people who literally have no clothes and they're looking at turning up to a jury trial in prison trackpants and a prison shirt, and you just can't get a fair trial in that situation. So if that's the case, and there's no-one else there to do it, we'll buy them a jersey and a pair of pants."
These days, Mr King also has to worry a bit more about himself during a trial, having been diagnosed with diabetes in December.
His blood-sugar levels are now another thing he has to think about before launching into another exhausting piece of theatre in front of a jury. "It has been a struggle to kind of get it under control and sometimes my blood sugars are a little bit out.
"I get a bit manic. It's good recent wake-up call. I've got some ongoing problems with nerve damage in my hands, feet and my eyes, and it's a case of trying to stop that deteriorating further.
"I started noticing it in July last year when I started getting numbness and pins and needles sensations in my toes."
Mr King says his future, for the time being, involves knuckling down and getting on with work.
He is booked up solidly with jury trials until the end of the year. But with his presenting role on now-defunct TVNZ7's Court Report wound up, he is excited about having a bit more time to spend with wife Catherine, also a lawyer, and their two daughters – Pippa, 5, and Millie, 3.
Like everyone else, he has interests outside of work to keep him distracted. There are chickens in the back yard. He is a watch collector, and loves boxing.
But his battle to keep people out of jail does not end at the courtroom doors.
Mr King returned in mid-May from a two-month stint in the United States, observing radical attempts there to lower the prison population.
He went there courtesy of an Eisenhower Fellowship, set up under American president Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 to help mid-career professionals make positive changes and contributions to their society.
Mr King was the 17th New Zealander and first lawyer chosen since the founding of the fellowship.
He visited 14 cities in 10 states, observing the Supreme Court and death row, as well as "rehabilitative courts" the US has for people whose crimes relate to drug and alcohol or their experiences serving in war zones.
The US is employing radical ways to reduce its prison population and Mr King is now lobbying "anyone who will listen" in the hope such initiatives will find their way to New Zealand some day.
"There are things that are working elsewhere in the world that we're not trying here."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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