Focus on Police Competence
(L-R) Krishla Fuataha, Tania Vini and Lucy Akatere with their lawyer Gary Gotlieb. Picture : Martin Sykes
Three teenage girls convicted of a crime they did not commit spent seven months in Mt Eden Women's Prison.
Now the girls want police to apologise for a botched investigation and they plan to seek compensation.
The Court of Appeal in Auckland yesterday quashed the joint conviction for aggravated robbery of Teangarua (Lucy) Akatere and Tania Mayze Vini, both 17, and McCushla (Krishla) Priscilla Fuataha, 16.
The court heard that after their trial, the Crown's principal witness, a 13-year-old, retracted her evidence by affidavit. The 13-year-old had claimed she and the three older girls committed the 1999 attack on a 16-year-old schoolgirl at Three Kings Plaza in Mt Roskill.
The victim was thumped and kicked and her head banged against a tree stump before she was cut with scissors and robbed of $10.
The officer in charge of their case, former test cricketer Detective Constable Trevor Franklin, did not accept the girls' denials. They were convicted after a High Court jury trial in August last year.
At the time of the attack, Akatere was aged 15 and the other two 14.
Fuataha - who was said to have wielded the weapon - was sentenced to two years' jail, the others to 18 months.
Yesterday, Justices Bruce Robertson, Thomas Gault and Peter Salmon overturned the conviction and told the girls they had the court's sympathy. Justice Gault said the "investigation and trial system failed in this case".
The wrongful conviction "raises questions of conduct by the police which is a serious matter and must be properly investigated", he said.
"They have been subjected to the demeaning experience of a public trial and the constant rejection of their protestations of innocence."
The girls told the Herald their first week in jail was terrifying because they were separated, surrounded by older women and scared. "I just hid in my room," said Akatere.
They wore prison-issue track pants and shirts and had to work in the laundry, washing male prisoners' clothes.
At first, said Vini, other prisoners said: "Why don't you just admit you did it?" but soon accepted the girls' innocence and took them under their wing. "We had lots of prison mothers and aunties."
But seeing their children behind bars was heartbreaking for their families. None of the parents doubted their daughters' innocence.
"From my heart I know they never do it," said Vini's mother, Kaiei Timi.
Fuataha's mother, Sue Johansson, said: "I've had people making jokes about her being in jail. I've had to lift my head high and ignore it."
The girls said they were happy with the ruling but "we just want the police to say sorry". Their lawyer, Gary Gotlieb, said the system had failed the girls and their families all along the line.
The battle to clear the girls' name began when Vini's father, Vini Kavi, went to Mr Gotlieb this year because he could not bear his daughter being in jail. Mr Gotlieb engaged private investigator and former police superintendent Bryan Rowe.
Mr Rowe interviewed the 13-year-old girl, who formally admitted for the first time that she had lied. She told him the police pressured her into confessing.
He also uncovered a series of oversights and blunders by police that he said bordered on "criminal offences".
As a result of his inquiries, an appeal was lodged, district commander Superintendent Howard Broad agreed to a police reinvestigation and the girls were given bail in April.