Warwick Gendall - from judge to gatekeeper

LONG CAREER: Hon Justice John Warwick Gendall, CNZM.
LONG CAREER: Hon Justice John Warwick Gendall, CNZM.

In one of his final trials as a Crown prosecutor, Justice Warwick Gendall was tasked with sending reviled sex offender Stewart Murray Wilson to jail. Now, 17 years later, he has been named chairman of the Parole Board - and just as he arrives in the job, the man he worked so hard to put behind bars has been freed. Clio Francis reports.

After 45 years in the law, Justice Gendall is no longer surprised by coincidences. In 1996, months before he became a High Court judge, he was the lead prosecutor in the Crown case against Stewart Murray Wilson, the man reviled as the Beast of Blenheim.

The trial remains particularly memorable for Justice Gendall, as his wife gave birth during it. "My youngest son was born right in the middle of the trial. But that is long gone now. I had kind of forgotten about it completely, until now."

That's because Wilson, who was sentenced to 21 years in prison for a horrific litany of crimes, including seven rapes, stupefying women for sex, the wilful ill-treatment of children, bestiality and assault, has now been freed to a home on the grounds of Whanganui Prison, to the widespread condemnation of nearby residents.

'Time passes very quickly, for some of us anyway," Justice Gendall said.

"It seems like just yesterday I was doing that case."

During the trial, he said of Wilson: "He would try it on with any women who crossed his path. Young, not so young and not so mature. He would treat them like objects and then rape them. He has a ruthless, cruel mind."

He told the jury of eight men and four women they had heard about more than 24 years of appalling behaviour. He said Wilson's violence, sexual abuse and the drugs he gave the women who lived with him made them punch-drunk.

"He scrambled their brains . . . just like Muhammad Ali at the end of his career. In subjugation and degradation, he not only cut off their hair but had their clothes taken off them, beat the hide off them, not allowed [them] to wear underwear - it was a concentration camp existence."

He recounted the charges relating to each victim, repeating the details of rapes and abuse, assaults and ill-treatment of children.

"Whenever anything happened that Wilson didn't like, the women around him suffered."

Seven months after the trial ended, Justice Gendall was appointed a judge of the High Court. In the 17 years since, he has presided over some of the country's most high-profile cases.

He has seen a great deal of human suffering and locked eyes with many violent criminals.

In 2002, he presided over the trial of Dartelle Alder, who was convicted of the murder of Wellington jogger Margaret-Lynne Baxter.

She was run over, raped, bashed and stabbed 35 times while running in the countryside near Hastings.

Justice Gendall called Alder's crimes "cruel and unspeakable".

That same year he presided over the trial of Jules Mikus, the man responsible for the murder and rape of 6-year-old Teresa Cormack in 1987.

The judge could find no redeeming features to Mikus. "That is a dreadful thing to have to say about a fellow human being, but it is true."

Ten years on, Justice Gendall hopes his experience with victims in the courtroom will help in his new role as chairman of the Parole Board - the organisation that has freed Wilson.

"In both those trials the courage and the dignity of the victims was amazing," Justice Gendall said.

"The family of both of the victims were there and I was very impressed by them.

"So coming to this job I do hope I have some empathy with the victims, who we have to see, and we do."

The Parole Board's role is to assess the risk of long-term prisoners and decide the threat they may pose if freed early. They also set release conditions for those who are freed.

After years working as a prosecutor and a judge, where the job descriptions often required him to send people to prison, his new role will be a change of pace.

'It's different but you don't forget the experience of working with criminals and victims, and the humans that you've dealt with."

He believes some prisoners are capable of change.

In his first week in the job at the Parole Board, a woman 'lifer' now on parole arrived for a progress update.

Justice Gendall realised hers was the first murder case he presided over as a judge.

'She'd murdered someone . . . and she'd been inside for more than 17 years. She is now doing well.

"Working, highly regarded by the probation officer, no longer on drugs, in good accommodation.

"It was very pleasing to see.

"I remember saying to her: do you remember me, and she said: I think I recognise you. I said: yeah well, I sentenced you and do you mind me doing this, and she said: no, no.

'I said to her: you're a success story, not for the Parole Board, but for yourself."

In 2009, the Independent newspaper carried out a survey, asking a group of top barristers to rank judges across the country. They agreed to do so only if guaranteed anonymity. Some reviews were scathing but Justice Gendall received a glowing report.

'Good, solid, reliable and hard- working," said one.

"Shrewd, in the sense of being informed," said another. "Old school.

"Gets stuck in and does a lot of messy criminal cases."

The law is a family affair for Justice Gendall. One of his sons was recently admitted to the bar and his younger brother, David, is an associate judge at the High Court in Wellington.

The pair are the first and only set of brothers to be called to the High Court bench. 'Our paths are completely different in the court. I see him at morning tea. We're professional colleagues but he's still my brother.

"It was nice to have him there."

A father of six and grandfather of nine, Justice Gendall has spent his life in Wellington. Sport, particularly football, has been one of his great loves.

For many years he served as president of the New Zealand Football Association, and until recently coached and refereed junior football. At the age of 70, he still plays club cricket.

At the beginning of the year, when it was nearing time for his retirement from the High Court, he was asked whether he would consider the Parole Board role. 'I thought it was worthwhile contributing or doing something more for the community."

He is not ready for retirement.

'Certainly my wife didn't fancy me doing that. "When I said that the attorney had asked me whether I'd take this job, she said: well, you're taking it, aren't you! I'm honoured to do it and pleased. You just want to do as best you can."

Last month, Justice Gendall made one of his first appearances for the Parole Board, at Rimutaka Prison.

In the morning session, four murderers and a prolific sex offender appeared in the small room for their hearing. Only one was granted parole.

The first two prisoners had spent nearly half their lives in jail.

Both killed men when they were teenagers and now, in their early 30s, are eligible for parole.

The first man appeared confident.

He spoke in the language of the rehabilitation courses he has attended. He beat a man to death but now has begun a work release programme to get him used to life outside the wire before his release.

But there was a problem - he dislikes killing animals but his placement was at the meatworks.

"I was put right in the slaughterpen.

"It was really disturbing for me.

"I can't keep chopping up the cows."

He was hopeful of getting a job when he is finally released. "Finding jobs for someone like me isn't easy.

"Not everyone is going to want to employ a convicted murderer."

The other prisoner was softly spoken. He killed a stranger and has now started day visits outside the prison. The board asked him whether he was still tied to any gangs.

'I've been unassociated from them for years," he said. "The hard thing is they're family. I can turn my back on what they're involved in but I can't turn my back on my family."

Then a sex offender with wispy hair and clad in a dirty grey tracksuit arrived. For him, there is currently no prospect of release. First he must attend a sex offenders course and the next vacancy isn't until 2014.

His offending is complicated to treat, with his propensity to abuse children, women he knows, and strangers. The board asked if he had told his family what he did.

'I've told them what I've done. I'm upfront with it." They still visit him.

The last prisoner is older. He was convicted years ago of killing a woman he once loved. He has been a model prisoner, doing NCEA courses and helping other inmates.

'I used to be such a selfish person, I was self-centred," he said. "When I first came to prison I had no remorse at all because I blamed her for what I'd done. I was living in a fantasy land.

"I'm truly sorry for what I've done . . . and anything I can do to bring her family any peace, I'll do."

Later, Justice Gendall said he could feel sympathy for some of the prisoners. But with the Parole Board it comes down to risk assessment, not emotions.

In the 2010-11 financial year, the board held nearly 9000 hearings.

'In the three weeks since I started, I've been to Rolleston Prison, Invercargill Prison, Otago Correctional Facility Prison, Rimutaka Prison and Whanganui Prison," Justice Gendall said.

"I've also heard hearings from Hawke's Bay and Manawatu via video link here in the office. Sometimes, we hear 8, 9, 10 a day."

He believes the New Zealand parole system is one of the best and most highly regarded worldwide.

"If we didn't have a parole system, we'd have prisoners walking straight out of jail and into the world without any conditions.

"Some of these people have been in jail for as long as I've been a judge.

"You come out after 18, 19 years and you don't know how to live on the outside. That's why programmes like release-to-work and day release are so important - they help people learn how to be members of the community again."


2002 Justice Gendall is on the bench for the trial of Dartelle Alder, who was convicted of the murder of Wellington jogger Margaret-Lynne Baxter. Baxter, 38, was run down by Alder's car, while she was running in the countryside near Hastings. Baxter was raped, bashed and stabbed 35 times. Justice Gendall called Alder's crimes "cruel and unspeakable".

2002 That same year he presided over the trial of Jules Mikus, the man found responsible for the murder and rape of 6-year-old Teresa Cormack in 1987. "A much-loved, innocent and vibrant daughter, granddaughter and sister were taken without warning by your atrocities," he said. "If you have any sense of decency or human compassion, you had better reflect upon the dignity and courage of these two parents when you serve your sentence for the rest of your life."

2007 He sentenced Kevin Little to a minimum 17 years' jail for the murder of his 6-month-old daughter, Alyssa. Justice Gendall said Little showed no remorse for drowning his daughter in the bath. "You are a large able-bodied man and you killed a defenceless child and you must be held accountable for the harm done. The slow drowning of an innocent baby in the hands of a man is chilling."

2008 Justice Gendall was one of two top judges to preside over the contempt of court case between Fairfax Media and the attorney-general. Fairfax Media and Dominion Post editor Tim Pankhurst were eventually cleared of the contempt of court charges for publishing extracts from bugged conversations that sparked police anti-terrorism raids.

2009 Macho posing by thugs led to the death of Whanganui toddler Jhia Te Tua, Justice Gendall told the court. Jhia, 2, was killed instantly as she slept inside her parents' home when a bullet passed through a window and the back of a couch. Her father, Josh Te Tua, was a Black Power gang member.

2010 "Count yourself lucky," Justice Gendall told 57-year-old Joanne Jasmine Tahuri, of Marton, as he sentenced her for the manslaughter of her 3-year-old granddaughter. He made the remark after observing that Cherishsiliala Tahuri-Wright, known as Cherish, died in Wellington Hospital on February 19, 2009, after being struck by her grandmother two days earlier, two months after the law was changed requiring tougher, deterrent sentences for such violence. "People must learn to keep their hands to themselves."


1997 Justice Gendall noted the other day that the press were pushing the truth when they described rugby as South Africa's national game, given that far more South Africans were players and followers of the round-ball game. Diary readers get no prizes for guessing which High Court judge was president of the New Zealand Football Association before his appointment to the bench.

1999 Is Justice Gendall too tough in dismissing creative excuses from unwilling jurists? The judge told a panel of hopefuls how on an earlier occasion he had been slipped a note from a divorced husband and wife called up together. They had never been able to agree on anything when married, it said, so why would it be any different when they were sitting on a jury? Could one of them be excused? But no, the judge ruled they both had to stay.

2011 Judges must curse the invention of photocopiers and computers as the number of pages they are expected to read rises with each passing year. Convicted axe murderer John Ericson was representing himself in the High Court recently, complaining about the Parole Board's decision to keep him inside, when he presented Justice Gendall with a bundle of more than 400 pages. "Madam registrar, get a forklift truck and bring those 400 pages up," the judge said. Goodness knows how much more he would have had to read if Ericson had not been told at an earlier hearing that he should keep his submissions brief.

The Dominion Post