Arthur Allan Thomas celebrates 30 years' freedom

BY TIM HUME
Last updated 05:00 13/12/2009
Photo: The Press
THIRTY YEARS FREE: Arthur Thomas as he is today.

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As Arthur Allan Thomas prepared last week to celebrate three decades of freedom since he was released from nine years of wrongful imprisonment, he was visited by the other New Zealander to have walked in his shoes.

David Bain, accompanied by supporter Joe Karam, visited Thomas at his Taupiri, Waikato, home on Wednesday, to mark the impending anniversary of Thomas's Queen's Pardon on December 17, 1979.

Thomas has been in contact with Bain since his convictions for murdering his family were quashed by the Privy Council, and earlier this year called for Bain to be compensated $1 million for every year he spent in prison, if acquitted in a retrial.

"He's doing very well now that he's a free man," said Thomas, 71, whose conversation with Bain centred on "trials, courts, juries". "That freedom... It's like a big monkey on your head to have a conviction, and all of a sudden it's gone."

Yesterday, Thomas's friends and supporters gathered "for a bit of a piss-up" in a Waikato woolshed to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of his pardon of convictions for the murders of Pukekawa farming couple Jeanette and Harvey Crewe, and release from Auckland Prison.

Thomas was found guilty in 1971, then reconvicted when a re-trial was ordered on appeal. A Royal Commission of Inquiry into the case in 1980 found that two detectives had planted a cartridge found in the Crewes' garden, which appeared to have come from one of Thomas's rifles. He received $1m compensation for his lost nine years.

The murderer has never been found.

"The judiciary failed me, totally failed. I lost a lot as a result," said Thomas.

"I really trusted the police, told them everything. I had nothing to hide. And they used it against me."

Although fellow inmates mostly treated him well, his nine years in jail were "bloody hard". He kept his sanity by focusing intently on advancing his case.

The hardest period was in 1975, when the Court of Appeal rejected his case, and his wife divorced him.

"I went right downhill. I refused visitors, that's how bad I was. I was just blown away by how the system was," he said.

But his attitude turned around when he read a book called The Power of Positive Thinking – and four years later he refused parole until he was exonerated. "I told the Parole Board to stick it. I said `I will stay in prison until I'm proven innocent'."

While his wrongful imprisonment had cast a long shadow over his life, he said, "I try not to be bitter about things." He felt he had much to be thankful for, and he owed his freedom to the "retrial committee" made up of supporters and members of the public who campaigned on his behalf to draw attention to his case, and changed public opinion.

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"I'm very grateful to the New Zealand public. Can you put that down? Thanking people is very important," he said. "Justice must be seen to be done. And people saw justice was not done in my case."

The awareness campaign over his case even changed the stance of then-Prime Minister Robert Muldoon.

"I went to see him and thanked him for the pardon. He said `Arthur, I thought you were guilty until I met your wife. I looked her in the eye and I changed my mind'."

Thomas said he still had grave reservations about the justice system. "It bloody well needs overhauling," he said. "Nothing's changed since my day. The system of justice failed me and it's going to fail everybody else in New Zealand if something's not done."

He believed an external higher court – such as New Zealand used to have through the Privy Council – would be the best safeguard against cases like his own, in which he believed the system had been slow to concede an initial verdict had been flawed. He believed his juries had been swayed in favour of the prosecution by their comfortable treatment at the hands of police. "They were given champagne by the police – when it came to deliver the verdict, they returned the compliment. The jury took just over an hour."

The plan for yesterday included a few drinks, possibly a visit from some microlights (Thomas has a pilot's licence), and some reflection on his lost decade, an ordeal he still often thinks about, although "not every day".

"I would say it hardened me up a bit. But I'm a better man, because I realised that any time you're down in your life, you've only got to look back to see it could be worse. I've got a saying: Every day is Christmas Day."

- Sunday Star Times

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