Auckland prisoner not guilty of inmate assault

NOT GUILTY: Aaron Forden, in a 2008 file photograph, has been found not guilty for assaulting another prisoner.
NOT GUILTY: Aaron Forden, in a 2008 file photograph, has been found not guilty for assaulting another prisoner.

The prisoner nicknamed "Houdini" for his ability to give authorities the slip has been foudn not guilty of the assault of another inmate.

Aaron Stephen Forden was accused of stabbing a neighbouring prisoner during an attack that left the man so badly burned his skin was peeling off.

Forden, 31, was also accused of using a lighter to injure Terry Jason Nahi during the incident in the country's most notorious cellblock - Delta Block - at the maximum security prison at Paremoremo in August 2010.

He faced a single charge of injuring with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.

Two other inmates had already been convicted for their part in the attack - Tamati Renata for throwing the hot water on Nahi and Jesse Ibell for covering a security camera prior to the attack.

Forden had denied that he was part of the "plot", saying that he tried to break it up so the prisoners wouldn't lose their privileges for fighting.

Renata, who is now out of prison, was due to give evidence in Forden's defence, but he was pulled from the list after he was arrested by police on an outstanding charge when he showed up at Auckland District Court earlier in the week.

The trial was delayed while Renata was dealt with by police, with the defence lawyer Ron Mansfield finally deciding not to put him on the stand.

In testimony that kept the jury entranced with details of daily life on the prison wing, Forden instead took the stand himself to tell the court that Nahi was known as a bully and a troublemaker on the landing that housed all four prisoners, plus eight others.

Forden said Nahi would steal other prisoners' food, would stare at them to try to intimidate them and bragged about his gang membership to gain credibility.

He also "pulled moves" on people, Forden said, explaining that UFC or "Ultimate Fighting Championship" was a big thing on D Block.

"He would show how quickly he could put people to sleep," Forden said. "Or show how he could snap their arm."

Nahi's victims included another prisoner involved in the attack, Jesse Ibell, and William Bell. Forden, one of the smallest on the wing, was not a target.

Prosecutor Scott McColgan said Nahi's bully tactics were the reason behind the "hit", in which Forden's job was to be the sentry while the other two prepared.

CCTV footage showed Forden sitting outside Nahi's cell that morning, but did not show what happened after Renata ran inside with the hot water. The water had been heated with a "tea bomb" a kind of improvised kettle banned in the prison.

Forden had said he went in to the cell to try and help, pulling Renata off Nahi and telling him to calm down. The Crown said he pulled out a lighter and hit Nahi in the head with it.

Forden - handcuffed to one guard and accompanied in court by four others due to his history of escaping both from prison and from holding cells - told the court he did not hurt Nahi.

"I knew straight away that there was going to be a lock down [because of the fight]. It's hard to get unlocked as it is. I knew they were trying to fight each other so I was trying to break it up and stop it," Forden said.

Footage after the event showed all three prisoners running from the cell, where Renata picked up a broom and tried to attack Nahi again, until he was interrupted by prison guards.

Defence lawyer Ron Mansfield told the jury that Nahi's evidence about the stabbing could not be trusted. His eyes were shut at the time of the attack, Mansfield said, so he could not have known who hit him.

In turn, the McColgan told the jury that Forden's evidence could not be relied on. He said the attack was about "punishment and revenge".

Judge Grant Fraser told the jury credibility and reliability was key in coming to a verdict, and entrusted them to use their common sense.

The jury took four hours to reach their verdict.

Forden will now return to Paremoremo to await sentencing on other charges - including those for escaping custody - which is scheduled for December.

Forden gained the nickname "Houdini" after escaping from both police and Corrections custody on several occasions - most notably when climbed over the wall at Mt Eden prison using a rope made of sheets.

He was on the run from police three times last year and is known for changing his appearance to evade authorities.

He was the first person to escape the new $218 million Mt Eden Corrections Facility in October last year and in June was one of two prisoners who barricaded themselves in a tower at Auckland's Paremoremo Prison for 50 hours in a "peaceful protest" against prison conditions.

Auckland Now