A violent offender who attacked a woman in a mental health unit, causing injuries that led to her death, walked free when prosecutors decided to charge him with only a minor offence.
Labour says it shows how Crown solicitors are doing plea bargains to reduce time spent in court, following the Government's decision to bulk-fund them.
"The pressure is on them to avoid going to trial if they can, so they do these plea bargains," said Andrew Little, Labour's justice spokesman. "It's putting the community at risk."
But the Crown Solicitor for Tauranga, where the woman died, said her 2011 death pre-dated the funding changes. Greg Hollister-Jones said the decision to charge the man with male assaults female was because he was not confident there was enough evidence to secure a conviction on a more serious charge. "The potential cost of a manslaughter prosecution had nothing to do with the decision-making process," he said.
The Sunday Star-Times uncovered details about the death of Susan King following criticism of the Crown in another Tauranga case, where a man charged in 2012 with rape and wounding with intent had the wounding charge dropped so the jury could focus solely on the rape.
The man, Neihana Rangitonga, was acquitted, prompting a senior detective to write a memo attacking the Crown decision to drop the wounding charge, saying it had effectively allowed a violent offender to walk free. Rangitonga was last week sentenced to four years' jail after admitting abducting a woman for sex in Mt Maunganui in May this year.
The Sensible Sentencing Trust said the decisions in both cases were "dubious" and a inquiry was needed.
"Decisions such as these . . . not only jeopardise public safety and victims' rights, they also fail to deliver justice and have the effect of under-representing true crime statistics," said spokeswoman Ruth Money.
King, 44, died in August, 2011, eight months after she was assaulted in Tauranga Hospital's Te Whare Maiangiangi acute mental health unit by fellow patient Te Tauri Bidois.
Health board sources say Bidois, 33, had a history of violence in the unit. The Bay of Plenty District Health Board said it was satisfied sufficient protections were in place, as "this type of incident is not able to be predicted".
The police summary of facts says King and Bidois were together in a dining area when they argued. King threw coffee on the 183cm-tall, 120kg Bidois, who thrust his arm, encased in a plaster cast, into King's throat with force.
She was taken to intensive care, placed in an induced coma and given a tracheotomy. She remained in hospital until she died eight months later. It is understood Bidois was discharged from the unit and went home just a few days after the assault. In March, 2011, police charged Bidois with wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment.
In July that year he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of male assaults female, which carries only two years jail. He was sentenced in March, 2012 to two years intensive supervision. In November, 2012, coroner Wallace Bain found that King died of respiratory failure following complications from a fractured larynx caused by Bidois. He ruled there was no need of an inquest.
Hollister-Jones said after a "careful review of the evidence" it was decided to reduce the charge against Bidois.
"This was because the assault was not witnessed, and Ms King did not provide a clear account of what occurred."
Hollister-Jones said after King died, he looked at whether a more serious charge such as manslaughter could be laid and concluded a conviction was unlikely.
Detective Senior Sergeant Greg Turner of Tauranga police said the death was treated as a homicide and investigated fully. The final charge was the most appropriate given the available evidence.
Bidois had not come to police attention since. King's brother, Paul, said he was surprised Bidois was charged with male assaults female, "especially considering his violent history". Family members had tried, without success, to have the case taken further.
Graeme Moyle, the Sensible Sentencing Trust's mental-health issues spokesman, said the prosecution was "shoddy" and the case should be re-opened.
"Even if the assault was not witnessed, Bidois admitted it by pleading guilty to it. Ms King could hardly provide a clear account of what occurred, as she suffered from mental illness herself, had a fractured and infected larynx and spent the remainder of her life in ICU. I don't accept Bidois didn't understand that his actions, on the balance of probabilities, could cause death, and neither would a jury."
- Sunday Star Times