Sunday Star Times
June 8 2003

Big names back new Ellis petition
by Guyon Espiner
Political Editor

The signatures of elite New Zealanders - including former prime ministers and distinguished artists and legal minds - are being gathered in a bid to force a top level inquiry into the conviction of Peter Ellis.

The petition, sparked by
Dunedin writer Lynley Hood's book A City Possessed, which questions the integrity of the Christchurch Civic Creche child abuse case, calls for a royal commission of inquiry - the highest government response possible.

The Sunday Star-Times has also learned that Ellis' lawyer Judith Ablett-Kerr is preparing a last-minute appeal to the Privy Council in
London before links with the court are severed.

The petition aims to gather the signatures of around 100 prominent New Zealanders. Former prime ministers David Lange and Mike Moore have lent their names to the cause, as have a range of MPs from across the political spectrum.

From the arts world, writers Keri Hulme, Witi Ihimaera, Maurice Gee and Brian Turner, painter Grahame Sydney and arts patron Jenny Gibbs have signed, along with historian Michael King and cartoonist Murray Ball.

Top legal and academic minds include the Queen's Counsels Stuart Grieve and Nigel Hampton, law professors John Burrows and John Prebble, and former ministers Michael Bassett and David Caygill. Prominent media figures to sign include Metro founder Warwick Roger, columnists Frank Haden and Chris Trotter, Listener editor Finlay Macdonald, National Radio's Geoff Robinson and National Business Review publisher Barry Colman. Sunday Star-Times editor Suzanne Chetwin and assistant editor Donna Chisholm are also signing.

The petition calls for a royal commission presided over by judges from outside
New Zealand to "inquire into all aspects of the investigation and legal processes relating to the Christchurch Civic Creche case".

It says the case is "one of great public and professional concern and raises serious questions about the administration of justice and the working of existing laws which must be addressed".

Ellis was sentenced to 10 years' jail in 1993 on 16 counts of sexual abuse of preschoolers but Hood's book says a sense of hysteria and moral panic created allegations of crimes which never happened.

Ellis was freed in 2000 and has always maintained his innocence.

The petition was the brainchild of National MPs Don Brash and Katherine Rich, who say they felt compelled to act after reading the book.

"I'm no legal expert but like many people who have signed, there is a great deal of unease people have about the case that simply needs to be reviewed," Rich said. "I don't have a view about innocence or guilt but I do feel uneasy about the safety of the process. There is enough there to warrant having another serious look."

Brash said he was drawn to act by his adult son. "My son Alan read the book and was pretty disturbed by it. I was occupied with politics but read it over the holiday period and it made me pretty disturbed as well. I decided I should really do something about it."

Hood said that in the 18 months since A City Possessed was published, it had been widely read and a consensus had developed that the justice system had failed catastrophically at every level of the case.

The petition would first be referred to a select committee but the go-ahead for a royal commission would ultimately lie with Justice Minister Phil Goff, who has rejected it in the past and remains unconvinced.

Goff said the case had been well traversed and he would need fresh evidence before recommending it be re-examined.

In March 2001, the governor-general declined Ellis' application for a pardon after a ministerial inquiry into the case by former chief justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum, who spent more than 400 hours looking at the case material. Eichelbaum said the case put forward on Ellis' behalf that the conviction was unsafe "fails by a distinct margin".

Goff said he was unconvinced there was a need to re-litigate a matter which had also been dealt with by seven judges over two Court of Appeal hearings.

But Hood is undeterred. "It takes a long time and a lot of public and parliamentary pressure to get any action, to get anyone to acknowledge there is a problem and to address it. But people don't give up, no matter how many times the government and courts say there isn't a problem."