A killer in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens

KILLER: Kevin Harmer, pictured, "hasn't got a murdering bone in his body" according to his current wife.
KILLER: Kevin Harmer, pictured, "hasn't got a murdering bone in his body" according to his current wife.

A convicted wife-killer - still serving jail time - has been working in one of Christchurch's prime tourist spots.

The Press can reveal Kevin Lionel Harmer - hidden from public view for 11 years - was one of six prisoners who spent time landscaping and gardening at the Christchurch Botanic Gardens this week.

The group of Rolleston Prison inmates - understood to include criminals with drug convictions - were part of a team supervised by a Corrections staff member near the central rose garden.

Harmer looked overweight and walked with a limp as he worked with a spade and hammer while edging. Members of the public - school children, the elderly and young families - strolled nearby.

A source close to the prison has raised concerns about Harmer's appearance in public - particularly if friends and family of his victim, former schoolteacher Jill Thomas, saw him.

Ross Thomas told The Press he had not been told his sister's killer was working outside the wire.

"It would be nice to know what's happening," he said.

Corrections allows groups of low or minimum-security inmates out to work with local and regional councils, communities or businesses.

The department said in a statement there was no need to tell victims because the offenders were supervised.

Harmer, 59, a former general manager at Selwyn District Council, was convicted in August 2002 of murdering his second wife.

Thomas, who had multiple sclerosis, was found in a burnt-out Land Rover on their Dunsandel farm in October 1999.

Harmer had not long known his current wife, whom he met in Wellington on a business trip. She was a $1600-a-night prostitute. The couple were married in July 2002, within days of Harmer's second trial.

The killer maintains his innocence and has unsuccessfully appealed his conviction. He is not eligible for parole until August 2016.

Corrections southern regional commissioner Ian Bourke declined to talk about Harmer's work outside the prison gates.

However, he said supervised groups known as "community work parties" allowed prisoners to help the public and "become productive and contributing members of society".

They worked without pay in areas such as forestry, horticulture, farming, construction and grounds maintenance.

In Canterbury, there were two groups of up to eight men in the programme. A similar group of up to 10 women worked in the community one day each year.

Recently, the men had helped clean up two golf courses in Selwyn after more than a thousand trees were felled by strong winds, Bourke said.

At the Botanic Gardens, they had pruned roses, painted park chairs and helped keep the park tidy.

Harmer's current wife, 35, who has name suppression, told The Press he was innocent and the couple would continue to fight to clear his name, but would not say how.

"He hasn't got a murdering bone in his body. He's one of the most passive people I've ever known."

She often visited her husband in prison. He told her work outside the prison "keeps him sane".

Harmer was first allowed out to do supervised work earlier this year, she said.

"He was a farmer so of course he enjoys getting out of the prison. He does not like being locked up."

Details of the high-profile murder case gripped parts of rural New Zealand.

Harmer was a champion Canterbury sheep farmer considered a model citizen by many who knew him.

Police initially accepted the fire that killed Thomas was a tragic accident.

But, eventually, they came to think that Harmer had killed his wife so he could have a relationship with a prostitute without risking losing the farm in a division of marriage property.

He was charged with murder after evidence was looked at by an overseas expert.

At trial, the Crown alleged Harmer killed his wife either by incineration when she was unconscious, or by killing her first and burning her body.

Fairfax Media