Focus on Police Competence
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 plan to seek compensation.
Teangarua (Lucy) Akatere and Tania Mayze Vini, both aged 17, and McCushla (Krishla) Priscilla Fuataha, 16, had their joint conviction for aggravated robbery quashed yesterday by the Court of Appeal in Auckland.
The court heard that after their trial, the Crown's principal witness, a 13-year-old girl, 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, Mt Roskill.
The victim was thumped, kicked and had her head banged against a tree stump before being cut with scissors and robbed of $10.
The officer in charge of their case, former New Zealand test cricket opening batsman 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 were 14.
Fuataha, who was said to have wielded the weapon, was sentenced to two years jail. The others received 18 months.
Yesterday Justices Robertson, Gault and Salmon overturned the conviction and told the girls they had the court's sympathy for the injustice. Police did not oppose the ruling.
Justice Gault said that 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.
The girls had "been subjected to the demeaning experience of a public trial and the constant rejection of their protestations of innocence".
The girls said that their first week in jail was terrifying because they were separated, surrounded by older women and constantly scared. "I just hid in my room," Akatere said.
They wore prison-issue trackpants and shirts and were told to work in the laundry, washing prisoners' clothes from the nearby men's division.
At first, Vini said, 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 and the public humiliation was heartbreaking for their families.
None of the parents doubted their daughters' innocence: "From my heart I know, they never do it," Vini's mother, Kaiei Timi, said.
"I've had my family laughed at with people making jokes about her being in jail. I've had to lift my head up high and ignore it," Fuataha's mother, Sue Johansson, said.
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 the way along the line".
Police had tunnel vision and often believed they had the offender and then found the facts to fit the crime, he said.
The battle to clear the girls' name began when Vini's father, Vini Kavi, went to Mr Gotlieb earlier this year because he could not bear his daughter being in jail. "I knew my daughter never committed that crime."
Mr Gotlieb engaged private investigator and former police superintendent Bryan Rowe. Mr Rowe interviewed the Crown's principal witness who formally admitted for the first time that she had lied. She told him she was pressured by police into confessing.
He also uncovered a series of oversights and blunders by police which he described as bordering on "criminal offences". As a result of Mr Rowe's inquiries, an appeal was lodged.
Yesterday the police spokesman for the reinvestigation, Detective Senior Sergeant Stuart Allsop-Smith, said police accepted that they failed to identify a "compelling" witness who did not tell the truth.
Detective Constable Franklin said he could not comment.