No evidence cops coerced confession

CONVICTED: Joyce Conwell.
CONVICTED: Joyce Conwell.

Allegations police coerced a woman into confessing to involvement in two South Island murders in the 1990s have been declared unfounded.

The Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) today released a report on its examination of police conduct relating to Joyce Conwell's convictions for the attempted murder of psychiatric patient Doreen Middlemiss, 62, in Dunedin in June 1998, and the murder of Alec Rodgers in Christchurch in September 1999.

The IPCA found two aspects of the police investigation into the murders were ''undesirable''.

SHOOTER: Murray Childs.
SHOOTER: Murray Childs.

Namely, that they failed to get evidence corroborating her confessions, and that she was driven to prison by one of the police investigators working on the case unattended.

However, the IPCA found there was no evidence officers coerced Conwell into confessing to the crimes. 

In 2011, Joyce Conwell's sister, Denise Lane, made a complaint to then Ombudsman David McGee of possible misconduct by police over the murder convictions, which was referred to the IPCA.

SHOT DEAD: Alec Rodgers.
SHOT DEAD: Alec Rodgers.

Lane claimed her sister confessed to the offences as a result of police coercion.

Middlemiss was found dead in her bed in a Dunedin care hostel, where Conwell had worked, in June 1998.

She had abrasions to her face and the backs of her hands, her dentures were beside the bed, there was a screwdriver, torch and rubber band in the bed and a crumpled note on the dresser that read: ''Robert keep out or I'll chop off your fingers''. 

Conwell, who went by the surname alias Blondell, was a close friend of Middlemiss and the pair had gone for a walk the previous night.

Police considered the death suspicious, but a pathologist ruled her death was from natural causes and her injuries were consistent with a fall. 

Conwell was a pallbearer and even helped put make-up on Middlemiss' body. Police only re-opened the Middlemiss case after Rodgers was shot dead at close range in Christchurch in September 1999.

Rodgers' partner, Susan Sutton, worked at the Dunedin hostel where Middlemiss died. The man who shot him, Murray Childs, also worked at the hostel. 

Childs claimed he shot Rodgers over a drugs deal gone wrong, but police found no evidence supporting that and the motive was never established. 

In December 1999, Conwell went to the Dunedin Police Station and admitted to murdering Middlemiss and, to her lawyer's surprise, also confessed to giving Childs the shotgun used to shoot Rodgers. 

However, there were discrepancies in her account of events leading up the shooting, the IPCA report said. 

Conwell was charged over both deaths. Because of the pathologist's report into Middlemiss' death, saying she died of a heart attack and her injuries were consistent with a fall, Conwell was charged with attempted murder, rather than murder. 

She pleaded guilty in January 2000 and received a four year jail sentence. 

Lane claimed that in February 2000, her sister made a statement in prison retracting her confessions, the IPCA report said. 

Lane said Conwell made the statement, which was recorded and compiled by a private investigator, while Lane and others were present. 

Conwell allegedly said she confessed to playing a role in both killings due to ''long term intimidation by police officers''.

One officer, whom she allegedly claimed to have had a ''long term abusive sexual relationship'', came up to her in the street, threatened her family and told her what to say, the statement said. 

Conwell's lawyer told the IPCA that she ''quickly distanced herself'' from the retraction, and, against his advice, pleaded guilty to Rodgers' murder in March 2000. 

She was sentenced to life imprisonment for his murder the following month. Conwell has since been released on parole. 

She has maintained since her release that she did not give the shotgun used to kill Rodgers to Childs, the IPCA report said. 

The IPCA re-interviewed Conwell three times, reviewed the police files into the investigations, and reviewed the ''so-called 'retraction statement'".

It found the statement was unreliable, as Conwell did not see or sign it after it was produced, nor was it given to police. 

The IPCA also interviewed the officer she allegedly claimed intimidated her on the street, who ''emphatically denied any involvement'' and rejected the allegation.

IPCA chairman Judge Sir David Carruthers said the police investigation was detailed and extensive, but failed in two respects. 

First, investigators failed to make inquiries to corroborate Conwell's confession to being involved in killing Rodgers, due to the discrepancies, before she confessed to his murder in court. ''[That] was undesirable,'' Sir David said. 

Second, after her first court appearance, Conwell was escorted, unaccompanied, from Dunedin to Christchurch Women's Prison by a detective senior sergeant. 

They discussed both deaths and Conwell took notes, which she and the officer initialled.

That should not have happened, Sir David said. "In all other respects ... the police acted appropriately,'' he said. 

There was no evidence to support claims police coerced Conwell into confessing, he said. It was not within the IPCA's statutory remit to decide whether Conwell's convictions should be ''revisited'', he said.

The Press