Sunday, June 5, 2016

New Zealand True Crime: In Dark Places

Although I mainly concentrate on the crime fiction part of crime writing here on Crime Watch, I have for a long time been interested in true crime as well. As a teenager I was fascinated by real-life stories of criminal investigations, and particularly miscarriages of justice.When given the choice, eg for high school history projects, I often ended up researching and writing about things like the death penalty. I think that's one of the reasons I studied law at university, although post-uni job offers veered me into corporate rather than courtroom law. But I've always been interested in the real-life criminal justice system, the effect it has on the lives of all involved, and how it can go horribly wrong at times.

Recently, this innate fascination many of us have for such cases has been shown by the popularity of the Making of A Murder series, but of course that was just another in a long list of questionable convictions - other famous cases that immediately spring to mind include the Birmingham Six, West Memphis Three, Leonard Peltier (still in prison), Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the Central Park Five, Lindy Chamberlain (the 'Dingo stole my baby' case), as just the tip of the iceberg.

It certainly seems miscarriages of justice aren't just restricted to particular countries or legal systems. Although we thankfully no longer have the death penalty in New Zealand, so at least systemic errors aren't fatal (anymore), we do have several famous miscarriage of justice cases. The most well-known one when I was growing up was Arthur Allen Thomas, a farmer who spent nine years in prison for 'the Crewe murders' after the police, sure he was the culprit, planted evidence to ensure a conviction. Thomas eventually received a Royal Pardon and compensation, after the court system repeatedly failed (even after his conviction was quashed, he was wrongfully convicted again at a second trial).

A more recent miscarriage of justice is the Teina Pora situation, where a 17-year-old car thief and gang prospect was convicted of rape and murder based upon a suspect confession, and later remained in prison even after DNA showed someone else, a notorious serial rapist, was the culprit. Pora was paroled after 20 years in prison, but a group of people continued to fight to fully clear his name and eventually his convictions were quashed by the Privy Council in May last year.

It's a case I've read about in various newspaper and magazine features over the past twenty years, but for those (like myself) who may like to delve a little deeper into what happened, and why, a book has now been published. In a recent review, Andrew Geddis of the University of Otago law school calls it "a sad and awful book told in a remarkably good way. You should buy it and read it at once."

Teina Pora, a 17-year-old car thief, was wrongly convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Susan Burdett, who had been beaten to death with the softball bat she kept next to her bed for her own protection.

Tim McKinnel, en ex-cop turned private investigator, discovered the long forgotten case 18 years later, saw an injustice had been done and set out to win Teina’s freedom.

Reaching from the mean streets of South Auckland to the highest court in the Commonwealth, this is the story not just of Tim’s quest, but also of how an innocent man who was left rotting in a prison cell for two decades found the inner strength to rise above the dark places to which he had been condemned.

You can read a little more about the Teina Pora case here, and Geddis' full review here.

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