Protection against dodgy convictions

Last updated 05:00 03/02/2014

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OPINION: Tantalising question: what will the Privy Council make of the Teina Pora appeal?

Pora, now in his third decade behind bars following his conviction for the rape and murder of Susan Burdett, has been granted an appeal to the British law lords, who have in past cases provided robust scrutiny of some of our more contentious legal decisions.

This is surely one of them.

Pora was convicted in 1994, and an appeal to the Court of Appeal and retrial have failed to overturn it. Nevertheless, you'd be doing well to find any substantial pockets of supreme confidence in the validity of Pora's convictions.

Perhaps most famously, the Police Association itself - not a body known for its fondness of self-flagellation - has called for an independent inquiry, citing significant disquiet among rank-and-file police. Then you've got the Criminal Bar Association, the Maori Party and the Labour Party.

A Maori TV documentary The Confessions of Prisoner T, which screened in April, has fanned unease about the reliability of Pora's videotaped confessions, extracted over four days, without a lawyer.

The rape conviction has been hideously compromised after DNA evidence later showed the rapist was infamous Malcolm Rewa. Can we get a "sheesh" for that one?

Should the Privy Council determine either that Pora is not a rapist-murderer after all, or that the case against him should be retried (a for-the-record gesture, surely, since he's already served so much time that he's been eligible for parole several times) it's unlikely most New Zealanders would be especially surprised.

In past years the Privy Council has found some of New Zealand's most high-profile murder convictions, notably against Mark Lundy and David Bain, to have been unsafe. And our own Court of Appeal reached the same conclusion about the conviction of Southlander Rex Haig.

The thing is, in all those cases the men had either served their time anyway, or as near as damnit. Only convictions that have been heard by our appeal court before the end of 2003 can still be appealed to the Privy Council. More recent ones now pass to the the Supreme Court, the creation of which happened only after a clear steer from the law lords themselves that British and New Zealand societies were now sufficiently distinct that our highest court should be based in our own country.

It's still a slow grind, for all that. Which is why the Pora case has also fuelled calls for an independent New Zealand authority to investigate miscarriages of justice. The Labour Party is particularly keen on this. You might well think that that's what the Supreme Court/Privy Council route is for. Labour's justice spokesman Andrew Little's reply is that that appeal process "can sometimes be too narrow an opportunity to challenge what has gone wrong at trial".

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It's not just a political push, either. Canterbury University's dean of law, Chris Gallavin, says for cases involving "sloppy investigations" an independent Criminal Cases Review Commission would give an element of integrity above the current "clumsy and blunt" process. In the long run, he predicts, it would be cheaper for the taxpayer.

England and Scotland have created such bodies and the case for one here, though not completely proven, is certainly strong enough to warrant close study rather than instinctive support or rebuff. The trouble facing those who argue the present system ain't broken is how heavily it seems to hinge on the acceptance of 20-year delays before errors can be fixed up.

- The Southland Times

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