Focus on Police Competence
It is a horror story except in the last chapter. Three teenage girls fingered for a crime they did not commit are confronted with police and a court that do not believe them. They are convicted. They spend seven months in Mount Eden. Only then does a tenacious lawyer manage to get a new court to quash their convictions and set them free.
On Tuesday the horror ended for the three Auckland girls, Teangarua Akatere, Tania Vini, and Krishla Fuataha, but the business is far from over. Their freedom is not enough. New Zealanders need to know why the miscarriage of justice occurred, and only a high-powered investigation will find the facts.
At present the true story is hidden in police notebooks and interview scripts, and in the extensive report that the police made when the convictions began to unravel. Some of the true story came out in the successful Court of Appeal hearing, of course, but not the reasons for the police getting the case so wrong.
The superficial explanation is that the 13-year-old whose evidence put the girls in prison was shown to be a liar -- and that was enough to overturn the convictions. What is unclear is why the police accepted her as an honest witness, and used her evidence as the main prop of their prosecution.
The Court of Appeal wants to know why, and so will New Zealanders. It is bad enough that the Auckland Three were subjected to so degrading an experience. It is even worse that we have no assurance that the police failure will not be repeated and that the errant officers will not face the music.
Police Commissioner Rob Robinson has apologised to the victims; Justice Minister Phil Goff wants to fast-track the compensation process for people wrongfully jailed; the police are inquiring into their original inquiry. All well and good, but insufficient. An independent inquiry is needed.
The suggestion that the police were negligent is too strong, and the issue too important, for the force to be its own interrogator. The public's disquiet will not be ended until an outside agent takes an inside look.
What needs establishing is why the police did not check alibis and disregarded the evidence of the girl who was assaulted. Her account of her attackers did not fit the descriptions of the girls who were charged.
If suppression of so vital a contradiction was due to negligence the responsible officers should be punished. If it was due to conspiracy to withhold evidence, they should be dismissed.
A wider issue needs tackling. Gary Gotlieb, the lawyer who eventually stepped in and got the Auckland Three released, accuses the police of chronic tunnel vision. They are far too prone to go for a conviction rather than uncover the detail of cases. He more and more has to engage private investigators to check police work. In other words, the police cannot be relied upon to investigate cases fully and fairly.
This can be no more than partly true. If police tunnel vision were pervasive it would show more often in the courts -- we would have more cases like that involving the three Auckland girls. But that it exists at all is worrying because it strikes at the heart of justice. It means not all accused people are guaranteed a fair trial, in the sense that all relevant evidence might not be presented.
A wide inquiry into the Auckland case would help clarify the issue. It could identify the faults in police procedures that allowed such incomplete and inaccurate evidence to be presented in court, and recommend remedies.
This business should not be overstated, in terms of blaming the police. It probably involves only a handful of officers and they might have been negligent as the result of a slack system rather than by participation in a conspiracy. Also, it was a second police investigation that confirmed the faultiness of the first. It is plainly wrong to think that police methods of investigation, which have largely withstood generations of judicial and public scrutiny, are fundamentally flawed.
But what the case of the Auckland Three shows is that police procedures can lead to a serious miscarriage of justice. The chances of this recurring should be minimised -- and citizens reassured that they have been.