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The Dominion
October 18 2001

Girls' claim for compo may be sped up
by Glen Scanlon

Three teenage girls who spent seven months in Mt Eden Women's Prison for a crime they did not commit will seek hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation.

Justice Minister Phil Goff said yesterday he was concerned with what appeared to be the girls' wrongful imprisonment and the trauma it caused. Their claim might be sped up if the Cabinet agreed to change the rules governing 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 by the Court of Appeal at Auckland on Tuesday.

The Crown's main witness, a 13-year-old girl, retracted her evidence by affidavit after their conviction. She first backtracked while being questioned by Brian Rowe, a private investigator and former police superintendent, hired by the girls' lawyer Gary Gotlieb.

The 13-year-old had claimed she and the three older girls committed a 1999 attack on a 16-year-old schoolgirl at Three Kings Plaza in Mt Roskill, Auckland. The victim was thumped, kicked and her head was banged against a tree stump before she was cut with scissors and robbed of $10.

The police officer in charge of the case, Detective Constable Trevor Franklin, a former New Zealand test cricketer, did not accept the older girls' denials.

They were convicted after a jury trial in August last year. Ms Fuataha, who was said to have wielded the weapon, was sentenced to two years' jail. The others were sentenced to 18 months.

Police Commissioner Rob Robinson offered a public apology yesterday to the three "victims of a miscarriage of justice".

"We agree with their lawyer that matters need to be put as right as they can, and on behalf of New Zealand police I publicly offer them our apologies," he said.

Mr Gotlieb said the girls' case was unprecedented. They had no previous convictions, they had lost seven months of the most formative period of their lives and their schooling had been ruined. He would seek hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation.

Leading civil rights lawyer Tony Ellis said there was little case law on compensation for wrongful imprisonment but the girls could probably lodge an initial claim for up to $250,000 each.

Auckland man Aka Manga, who was kept in jail eight months after he should have been freed, received $60,000, Mr Ellis said. In that case the court had ruled the starting point for compensation was $90,000 for a person without convictions.

This year David Dougherty had received $868,000 for spending about 3<<1/2>> years in jail for a rape he did not commit, and last year a man wrongly convicted of sexual abuse received $570,000 for spending 14 months in prison.

Mr Goff said he expected to receive a claim from Mr Gotlieb. It could be dealt with more quickly than previous claims if the Cabinet approved changes to compensation rules.

At present Mr Goff assesses any claims to see if they warrant evaluation by a Queen's counsel. He has proposed that applicants should not have to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, but to the balance of probabilities. Queen's counsel could then be used to recommend appropriate compensation.

It is hoped the changes will streamline the process and make it less expensive.

Police Complaints Authority Judge Ian Borrin said he expected a full report of the police inquiry into the girls' case.