Murray Wilson raped, assaulted and cruelly dominated dozens of women and girls over two decades before being convicted in 1996. Despite grave fears he will reoffend, he is due to be released in September - and last- minute moves by the government to keep him detained may run out of time. Adam Dudding comes face to face with the 'Beast of Blenheim'.
Murray Wilson wasn't looking too flash. His thinning, longish hair was greasily combed back over his scalp. He was wearing grubby stonewashed jeans, a dark fleece and worn sneakers. His lips had collapsed into the space left by his missing bottom teeth. I wasn't close enough to confirm it, but according to a prison officer, he was a bit smelly. She suspected not washing was a deliberate choice for this big day in front of the Parole Board.
Stewart Murray Wilson, 65, long-time inmate at Rolleston Prison in Christchurch. "Murray" to the dozens of women and girls he raped, assaulted or cruelly dominated over a period of decades. "The Beast of Blenheim" to the journalists who reported, with barely checked incredulity, the crimes alleged during his 1996 trial - beating his heavily pregnant de facto wife unconscious; forcing the same woman to have sex with the family dog; forcing his young daughter to eat her meals from a cat's bowl on the floor; taking a Danish tourist home for a meal only to drug her food and rape her. (Earlier convictions for bigamy, pimping, theft and being a peeping tom hardly seemed worth mentioning.)
But to the lawyers and Parole Board members and the Corrections psychologist at a "section 107" hearing at Rolleston nine days ago he was "Mr Wilson".
"There had been problems obtaining consent from Mr Wilson."
"Mr Wilson has not engaged in any offence-specific treatment."
"Mr Wilson remains likely to commit a specified sexual offence."
Often, Mr Wilson has a lot to say. An April 2011 psychological assessment describes him as "evasive, argumentative, litigious, solicitous, ingratiating, threatening and intimidating". But today he left most of the talk to his lawyer Andrew McKenzie, a tall, deep-voiced, bearded man with scuffed black shoes the size of small dinghies.
At stake was whether Wilson, having served his time, should be allowed to walk free immediately, or whether he should remain in custody for just five months more under the unusual "section 107" of the Parole Act - a clause that lets Corrections hold on to an especially high-risk offender right to the limit of their sentence.
The outcome was always predictable, given the mountain of evidence that Wilson is high risk, and that precious little seems to have changed since he was turned down at his last section 107 hearing in November.
But beneath the surface of what might be seen as a rubber- stamping exercise there loom weightier matters. For Wilson's case is one that is testing the limits of New Zealand law and politics. It's a case that has seen the government rush to enact legislation that plays fast and loose with human rights and constitutional principles. Unluckily for Wilson, he will struggle to find many people who will shed a tear.
Wilson is unusual not because his crimes are horrific, nor because his attitude towards rehabilitation has been hopeless (when asked last year if he would stick to a post-release condition that he have no contact with children under the age of 16 he said "I don't give a stuff about it"). He is unusual because those facts aren't enough to keep him locked up.
Under current sentencing regimes, Wilson would be a prime candidate for preventive detention - the open-ended jailing of sexual offenders deemed too dangerous ever to return to society. There are around 270 prisoners in this category, and although they are all technically entitled to parole, only a couple a year are ever granted it.
Wilson slipped that net because his sexual convictions pre-date the arrival of preventive detention.
Retired Blenheim police detective Colin MacKay, who led the 18-month investigation into Wilson, last week told the Sunday Star-Times that it was a matter of great regret that of all the sexual charges Wilson faced, "the one [a rape charge] for which he was found not guilty was the only charge that could have got him preventive detention".
As a result, the most the sentencing judge could do with 23 guilty verdicts for representative charges of rape, attempted rape, incapacitating women with drugs, assault and bestiality, commited over 25 years on 16 victims, was to run the sentences consecutively to a total of 21 years.
Under old sentencing rules that meant he could go free in 2008 after serving two-thirds of his time. Section 107 hearings every six months have stretched it out a further four years. But after September 1 even section 107 can't touch him, and Wilson must be granted parole. Except actually, he may not be. And this is where it gets complicated.
In November last year, Prime Minister John Key and then- Corrections Minister Judith Collins made an election promise: they would create a brand-new way of keeping high-risk offenders like Murray, who fell outside the preventive detention rules, locked up indefinitely under what they called a "civil detention" regime.
At the time, defence lawyer Greg King told media the proposal was a worrying, knee-jerk reaction to Wilson's case.
If Wilson's so very dangerous, though, why shouldn't the government pass a law aimed at ensnaring him alone?
Single-target legislation is a very bad look, says Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis. In its bluntest, historical form it was called a "bill of attainder", where the King would pass a law saying someone was a traitor, and he could then legally have them executed.
These days a fundamental principle of law is that it ought to be general in application - targeting Wilson alone would breach that principle.
In reality though, says Geddis, if parliament passes a bill it becomes law and there's not much to be done about it. "At the most there might be some grumbling from constitutional folk." New Zealand could also expect some criticism from the the United Nations Human Rights Committee, says Geddis, but that wouldn't be the first time.
The problem with Wilson, says Geddis, is that he's someone "who tests your commitment to principles to the limit".
Even if the proposed civil detention regime is bad law, "if he'd committed his crimes today it's pretty clear he'd have got preventive detention, so it's hard to argue, on a substantive basis, that he shouldn't be kept in".
As it happens, Collins, who is now justice minister, insists Wilson is not a singular target. In a written response to the Star- Times last week, she said the proposed "public protection orders" of the civil detention regime "are expected to apply to between five and 12 offenders over a 10-year period". Only time will prove how sound that prediction is.
If the government does want to see Wilson under a public protection order, it better get a move on. He is due out in less than five months, barely enough time for the legislation to go through the full process of three readings and a select committee, and so far not a whisper of the bill has reached parliament.
Geddis: "Given that [the bill] at the least raises some constitutional questions, and given that it's unusual legislation in terms of creating an entirely new way of dealing with dangerous people, you'd expect there to be full and considered consultation." Bypassing all that to hit a pre-September deadline would be "bad parliamentary process", says Geddis.
According to Collins, the legislation is currently "under development as a standalone bill, and will be introduced to the House as soon as possible this year. Once the legislation is introduced to the House, we will have a clearer idea of the time it will take to pass".
When asked directly if she expected it to pass in time to apply to Wilson, Collins ducked the question, referring back to the answer above.
She denied that drafting of the bill was being stalled by human rights concerns, writing that "the draft legislation will be assessed for consistency with the human rights affirmed in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990".
T HE SECTION 107 hearing took place in a low-ceilinged, anonymous sort of room in the Tawa wing at Rolleston. The three Parole Board members sat at a row of office tables, with white- haired Judge Sir Patrick Mahony in the centre.
Facing them were two tables: on their right, Wilson with his lawyer McKenzie; on their left Crown lawyer Philippa Currie and a female Corrections psychologist, who can't be named here.
Wilson has spent an extraordinarily litigious 18 years in jail. He appealed his initial sentence on the grounds that there were "too many" charges and that the charges of bestiality and cruelty to children were too "emotive". He later took a private prosecution against Detective Colin MacKay, laying dozens of charges, all of which were thrown out by the district court. He has taken 10 proceedings against the Parole Board, including judicial reviews of his section 107 hearings. He has written to newspapers, to the Queen, to the governor-general, to Phil Goff, insisting on his innocence. At his November section 107 hearing he represented himself, as McKenzie had briefly fallen out of favour. During that hearing he claimed, at length, that the Corrections psychologist was biased and unprofessional.
On March 13, during a judicial review hearing at Wellington High Court, Wilson said via video link from prison that he wanted to have a quiet release without any "media palaver", and that he would like future Parole Board decisions suppressed. Just two days later, on March 15, he wrote a letter to the Sunday Star-Times approving my request to attend this hearing. He is an intelligent and slippery customer. It's pretty easy to draw a direct line between the shocking control-freakery of his crimes and his subsequent attempts to keep on pulling the strings from behind bars.
Today, though, Wilson was pretty contained. (After the hearing, McKenzie told me he'd warned Wilson against saying anything "too extravagant" that might further stoke National's enthusiasm for a civil detention regime. "Obviously, with your presence here, I cautioned him against anything that may well cause a reassessment of the legislative priorities for this year.")
For most of the hour-long hearing Wilson sat at his side, gummily chomping his sunken mouth and occasionally scribbling a note with blue Biro on a refill pad and passing it to McKenzie.
Five minutes in, as the psychologist explained how she had attempted to engage with Wilson in a "civil and productive manner", Wilson glanced at her briefly with narrowed eyes. I tried to decide: was this the toxic glare of a cold-hearted monster, or was he, at 65, just squinting to see her. I'm still not sure.
The gist of the Crown's case for extending the section 107 order was that Wilson still denied his offending, still rejected offers of programmes that might address his offending and thus reduce his risk upon release, still refused to discuss meaningfully his plans post-release and still refused to take seriously such matters as the need to avoid association with children.
McKenzie worked gallantly with the feeble material at his disposal.
He pointed out that Wilson's crimes had generally involved prolonged "grooming" of the women and children that he subsequently raped or assaulted, suggesting he wasn't likely to jump into "instantaneous" or "rapid" offending once released. He argued that even if Wilson were non-compliant with parole conditions that would be no big deal, because "if he doesn't comply he'll be back in jail". He kicked the tyres of the statistical models that define Wilson as high-risk.
Finally, about 35 minutes in to the hearing, Wilson spoke.
His voice was deep, with the woolly timbre of the toothless. He complained, first, that ever since 1997 he has been denied the chance to enter counselling because he continues to plead not guilty. But in fact, he said, his voice growing querulous, "if they had asked me to do a programme, instead of demanding - the outcome would have been a lot different".
At this implausible claim, McKenzie rolled his eyes. I guess it was an involuntary reaction.
Wilson continued, his voice choking a little.
"I'm in my 18th year now. For 18 years I've maintained my not- guilty status. And because of my not-guilty status I am blamed for not doing anything to rectify the situation."
Perhaps I'd read a few too many stomach-churning accounts from the trial, of the multiple abortions Wilson had caused in his partner by kicking her in the abdomen, or of how he allegedly raped a 14-year-old in front of her mother to teach the older woman a lesson, but at this point I rolled my eyes too.
Wilson then asked for a newspaper article to be entered into the consideration of the board - a Westport News piece about the willingness of prison reform advocate Peter Williams, QC, to assist Wilson in his reintegration into society.
Eventually all had been said and done, and everyone was asked to leave while the board made their decision.
It took about 10 minutes, then everyone trooped back in to hear it: the Section 107 would be extended to September 1.
Wilson's head dropped for a moment then he sat back in his chair and chewed his cud a few times, staring intently at Justice Mahony. He requested a copy of the transcript, stood up and grabbed his little plastic bag of documents and pens and left the room - grubby jeans, shabby trainers and the slightest of swaggers.
W ILL WILSON ever get out?
Colin MacKay, the former cop who knows more than most about what Wilson got up to, hopes not.
"He is a person who still doesn't accept the seriousness of what he was convicted of, and is still not at all remorseful, and he presents a risk because of his attitude."
Wilson faced 26 charges concerning 14 or 15 victims, but many of those were representative: the number of victims on MacKay's files was more like 40, and many relatively minor charges such as indecent assault weren't even tried.
MacKay says after 37 years in the police he is a great believer in the philosophy that you serve your sentence and put it behind you. But an offender like Wilson, who offended for decades, who's taken no steps towards rehabilitation, "I think he is the exception".
Peter Williams, QC, the retired Auckland lawyer who has lobbied for the Howard League and more recently with the Prison Reform Society, says he has never met Wilson but is interested in his case.
"I would like to hear his side of it. We take the view that every human being is important. It may be unpopular, but we would like to at least examine if there are paths he could be on that would be rehabilitative."
Whether its preventive detention, or a new-fangled civil detention order, "it has been established by many criminologists that long terms are not conducive to rehabilitation.
"We've got to care for the people right at the bottom of the pit," says Williams. "I believe that very strongly. If we're a civilised society we have to do that, whether we like it or not. We can't just treat them like cockroaches."
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