The Christchurch Civic Creche Case

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Poneke’s Weblog
January 12 2008

More judicial Peter Ellis concerns

Former High Court judge Sir Thomas Thorp has again voiced concerns about the Peter Ellis case, as well as regret that it seems there is no prospect of the Government setting up the independent tribunal he called for to look into miscarriages of justice.

In the NZ Herald today, Sir Thomas says the material in two Law Journal articles by independent researcher Ross Francis, canvassed in this blog on December 10, “must add to concerns expressed previously that that case may have gone awry.”

Francis’s articles highlighted the pivotal role of Justice Ministry official Val Sim (now a law commissioner) behind the scenes in the Ellis case in preventing a pardon and stopping a full commission of inquiry.

Sir Thomas today identifies the “turf conscious” Justice Ministry as the reason for lack of action over his report two years ago urging the creation of an independent tribunal to investigate miscarriages of justice, similar to England’s Criminal Cases Review Commission. In that report, which followed a review of cases of alleged wrongful convictions, Sir Thomas estimated there could be 20 innocent New Zealanders in jail.

A parliamentary select committee called for such a tribunal to be established and the Government said it would look at the proposal as part of its “overall strategy of reducing the incidence of crime.”

But Sir Thomas says he has heard nothing to indicate progress.

“I think myself now that my proposals will not be adopted or progressed by the present Government.”

While he understood Peter Ellis could theoretically appeal to the Privy Council, “an investigation by an independent specialist authority would in my view be the best means of obtaining an effective reconsideration of those verdicts.”

Last month, Victoria and Otago university academics staged the Innocence Project conference in Wellington to bring attention to the dangers of wrongful convictions and to press for action to set up the tribunal sought by Sir Thomas. At that conference, Otago psychology professor Harlene Hayne presented dramatic new evidence that showed the interviews of the Christchurch Civic Creche children, used as evidence in the 1993 prosecution of Peter Ellis, were worse than those of the closely similar 1980s case of US daycare worker Kelly Michaels, who was jailed for abusing children but released after five years, with the New Jersey Supreme Court declaring that “the interviews of the children were highly improper and utilised coercive and unduly suggestive methods.”

In a 2001 ministerial inquiry which found Ellis had “failed to prove his innocence” of abusing children at the Civic, former chief justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum accepted that the Kelly Michaels interviews were badly flawed but said the Civic ones were of a high quality.

Today’s Herald also has an extended article about the research by Harlene Hayne and Ross Francis mentioned above, which I hope you read first last month on this blog. It also quotes the amazing Maryanne Garry of Victoria University, the main instigator of the Innocence Project.