"I didn't kill him: I love him, it wasn't murder," Dr Senga Whittingham told the police as they arrested her, beside the dead body of her former fiance, Dr Bill Saunders.
It was December 1953. Whittingham, 27, had scaled a fire escape, carrying a .303 shotgun, to arrive at a Christmas party in the doctors' quarters at Dunedin hospital, where she followed "Sexy Saunders" into the bathroom. She had only meant to frighten him, she said, and was shocked when the gun went off, killing him.
Fifteen months later, a similar, and equally celebrated case came in Auckland. "Not guilty: only guilty of being in love," was what Fred Foster planned to tell police after killing his former girlfriend, Sharon Skiffington, in a milk bar. Foster said he planned to fire his gun skywards as a mark of his thwarted love. He became one of the last men to hang in New Zealand before capital punishment was abolished. Whittingham, however, was sentenced to just three years for manslaughter, the jury pleading for a lenient sentence.
An author, Kerin Freeman, wanted to compare the two cases, and applied to the High Court to read the transcript of Whittingham's 1955 trial in Christchurch.
But in an unusual move, Justice John Fogarty has denied the request, saying it would prove too upsetting for Whittingham, now aged in her late 80s.
The court had already denied a request from Saunders' family a few years ago to see the transcript because of opposition from Whittingham, who emigrated to Australia on her release and became a noted academic. On that occasion, Whittingham - who declined to talk to the Star-Times - wrote to the court saying: "I am now 85 years old and for close to 60 years I have felt remorseful and, on many occasions, emotionally exhausted. It has been an enormous struggle for me to rebuild and sustain a useful life, one in which I have tried hard to make some positive contribution to the community.
"I have been deeply traumatised by the behaviour of a small section of people associated with the media in New Zealand who have sought my trust and then gone to extreme lengths to target my vulnerabilities and to test the patience of those around me."
Freeman is convinced Fred Foster was innocent. In researching her forthcoming book on the so-called "milk-bar murderer", the Hawke's Bay writer chanced across a letter he wrote as a condemned man in Auckland prison, in which Foster said: "I do hope that sometime, someone will find out about me and they will write about me, and that I am innocent."
Sherwood Young's book, Guilty on the Gallows, recalls that Foster, an English emigre, had been briefly married to an Australian before he moved to Auckland, where he met Skiffington, the daughter of his landlady. She fell "hook, line and sinker" for Foster, breaking off her existing engagement and moving to Auckland. But when Foster stalled on marriage plans, she rightly guessed he wasn't divorced, ditched him, and took up with a sailor.
Foster was distraught. He skipped work, telling his boss he was off to the cricket, stole a beat-up old shotgun from a flatmate, and went looking for Skiffington who, meanwhile, was planning to tell police he had raped her. He tracked her to Somervell's Milk Bar on Queen St.
Later, he said he planned to fire the gun in the air, draw a crowd and declare his love. Instead, he shot Sharon dead. The gun had a hair trigger and Foster, who briefly feigned insanity, then apologised, said he pulled it accidentally. The prosecution declared this "an insult to the intelligence of the jury", which apparently agreed, taking just 77 minutes to find him guilty.
A public appeal paid for his mum to fly from England to plead with the government and the Queen for clemency. She failed.
From his cell, Fred wrote that he "looked forward to the day Sharon and I are together again", and on the gallows, his last words were: "I am innocent, innocent."
The Communist newspaper People's Voice was among those who drew parallels between Foster and Whittingham. "It was said at the time there were a lot of similarities, yet she got three years and Fred was hanged," says Freeman. "It was a stupid moment . . . I really do believe he was innocent, guilty of manslaughter maybe, but definitely not of murder."
The timing of Foster's conviction was important, she believes: the government-commissioned Mazengarb report into "Moral Delinquency in Children and Adolescents" had just been delivered amid a moral panic about teen behaviour.
She also wonders about different standards for rich and poor defendants but she understands why Whittingham should be protected.
Whittingham was 27 when she killed Saunders. They had trained and worked together at Dunedin Hospital, where both were house surgeons. In May 1953, they became engaged when she was pregnant with his child, but the relationship ended when she lost the baby.
Saunders attended the December party with his new girlfriend, Zoe Kearney. Whittingham arrived later. Her defence said she had merely meant to frighten him, and thought the gun was pointed downwards when it went off.
The jury found her guilty of manslaughter, but asked the judge for "utmost leniency" in sentencing. Justice McGregor sentenced her to three years - she was out in less and immediately emigrated.
Newspaper reports were racy, and as much interested in what Whittingham and Kearney wore to court, than what was said. One headline declared: "Dr Senga will do the gaol washing", saying her scalpel-trained hands would "be roughened over the washtub in the prison laundry or in the sewing room, stitching mailbags".
Freeman will have to write her book without all the details of what reports suggest was a long and dramatic trial. In his decision, Justice Fogarty wrote: "In my view, Dr Whittingham is a vulnerable member of the community. She has served her prison sentence. She is now in the latter stages of her life, entitled to some peace."
The judge said the right to open justice was outweighed by the need to protect vulnerable people and the transcript could be opened when Whittingham died. "Upon her death the whole story will truly be a matter of history, which can be examined without further emotional trauma."
That has surprised legal experts. Victoria University lecturer Steven Price said he doubted every judge would agree with Fogarty. Price certainly doesn't, saying the judgement ignores the Whittingham case is well-known enough to have been made into a play and that a convicted criminal is not the kind of vulnerable person the privacy laws have in mind. Auckland University law professor Bill Hodge agrees. "Is there a good reason to protect the sensitivity of a person living overseas who is now in their 80s and was the perpetrator?" he says. "My gut is that it is no, no and no; she is not in New Zealand, it was a long time ago, and she is the perpetrator. The interest of the accused is way outbalanced by the need and legitimate interest of people to see and know what has happened in the courts, albeit a long time ago."
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