Sunday Star Times
June 29 2003

Minister must act now on Ellis case
by Frank Haden

The nationwide demand for a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the shonky conviction of Peter Ellis now looks as if it will be satisfied by pressure from within the government caucus.

Many government MPs, restrained only by the party whip from signing the petition of prominent New Zealanders seeking a Royal Commission presented to parliament on Tuesday, are increasingly restive.

Prime Minister Helen Clark is understood to be uneasy about the continued refusal of Justice Minister Phil Goff to ignore the bad advice he is getting from the top levels of his ministry. She could do without the flak as she battles her rebellious Maori MPs over foreshore and seabed ownership.

Fuelling government MPs' misgivings about Goff's intransigence is a new justice ministry report on how to handle miscarriages of justice. This document, circulating with stamps warning about confidentiality, significantly refers to Hood's monumental book A City Possessed, touted as a worthy blueprint for a Royal Commission.

The government MPs' reservations have reliable precedent. The
Appeal Court manifestly had doubts of its own when it rejected Ellis' second appeal but suggested some aspects of the case could more properly be addressed by a commission of inquiry. That's where Goff went wrong. He didn't go far enough, settling on a limited ministerial inquiry by Sir Thomas Eichelbaum.

Tuesday's petition organisers scored with accusations that Eichelbaum did not talk to Ellis, to any of the non-complaining majority of creche parents, the creche staff or the family of the child who retracted allegations on which Ellis was convicted. She admitted lying because she thought that was what her mother and the interviewer wanted her to say.

The petitioners also hit home with accusations Eichelbaum did not have the assistance of two eminent international experts as specified. They said only one of the consultants was recognised as a mainstream expert, professor Graham Davies of Leicester University, and his report fell well short of dispelling doubts about the Ellis conviction.

They said the other, Dr Louise Sas, of
London, Ontario, had been involved in ritual sex abuse panics and believed small children could be ritually abused in daycare centres on a massive scale without anybody noticing.

It's clear the members of a Royal Commission will have to be from outside
New Zealand. Retired justice Laurie Greig, whose name is the most significant among all the prominent legal figures on the petition, told me it would be hard to find anyone in New Zealand without Ellis trial baggage.

He has sat on a number of cases in the same general area and drew on that experience in deciding a Royal Commission is needed to remove the shadow that now hangs over the justice system. Greig said his misgivings were about the whole Ellis case. The commission would have to go back to the beginning.

Goff's call for "new evidence" was irrelevant, he said. The whole of the material that led to the conviction must be looked at.

Ellis is not carried away by the prospect of a Royal Commission. He told me he had nothing to do with organising the petition but he found it deeply humbling to read so many names he had grown to respect throughout his life.

"Why did all those people sign unless they knew something was wrong?" he said. "I also respect the people, some of them very prominent, who I'm told wouldn't sign because they don't know enough about the case. I wouldn't want anyone to sign without knowing about it. But Lynley Hood's book and those signatures are now part of history, aren't they?"

Tuesday's petitioners were able to show Goff has led with his chin on the need for a proper inquiry. They produced a letter he wrote in 1995, when he was in opposition as shadow justice minister.

In the letter, Goff said it could be useful to conduct a full inquiry into the wider issues which had emerged as well as the specific issues involved in the Ellis case itself.

Goff should stop making a fool of himself by repeating the "new evidence" mantra. He knows Ellis was notoriously found guilty on the basis of allegations made in videotaped testimony without evidence to substantiate it.

It is not a matter of Ellis being innocent but of accepting there was no evidence any sex abuse crimes were committed by anyone at all. Goff knows the government can set up a Royal Commission to investigate a matter of public importance at any time without waiting for "new evidence".

The petition organisers also scored heavily by noting the Criminal Bar Association in
Christchurch, worried about the discredit the Ellis conviction has brought on their profession, voted 23-0 for a Royal Commission.

The petition's other influential signatures included that of Michael Deaker, the man who closed the creche on police advice in September 1992.

All over bar the shouting, I'd say.