Focus on Police Competence

The Trevor Franklin Police Botchup - Index

2001 News Reports - Index

The Southland Times
October 25 2001

Trial and error

A 13-year-old girl, Auckland police, prosecution and defence lawyers have collectively played a part in a deplorable miscarriage of justice for three teenage girls who spent seven bitter months in Mount Eden Women's Prison.

But exactly what everybody's role in the fiasco was remains to be sorted out, as do what lessons must be learned to minimise, if not prevent, such disgraceful masquerades from intruding into the New Zealand justice system.

Ultimately, the wider justice system has at least corrected its own error, albeit belatedly, and due only to the doggedness of a defence lawyer, a private investigator, and the faith shown by at least one of the girls' parents.

The case has rightly been overturned and the Court of Appeal, in its finding, has stated plainly enough that both the investigation and the trial system failed.

There must now be an accounting for that.

Otherwise there can be no correction and certainly no guarantees about the integrity of future cases.

The girl lied to the initial hearing that she and the three others were involved in an aggravated robbery but now says she was pressured into doing this by the police. She says she was not involved at all, and that she therefore did not know whether the other three were.

On the face of it, then, prosecuting police were guilty of the worst sort of tunnel vision. But this sorry story has more than one face. So much went wrong in this prosecution that scrutiny should be equally close regarding the part played by the girl herself, before, during and after the trial, and for that matter the calibre of the defence.

Aspects of this case are almost incomprehensible.

The victim herself did not believe any of the girls in the dock were the attackers who robbed her and cut her with scissors. How could it be that the court did not hear that? The girls in the dock were all conspicuously shorter than the attackers the victim described, and she was even more sure one of them was not involved because she knew her through church and had not seen her during the attack.

Not only did police disregard such statements but alibis went unchecked. This raises questions not only about the conduct of the police but also of the diligence of the defence.

For their part, the police are now inquiring into their initial inquiry. That will scarcely satisfy public concerns. No matter how diligent police may be in examining their own performance, the need for public confidence in the outcome of the inquiry demands that it be independently conducted. The years of blind public acceptance of stentorian police assertions -- and there were such years -- have long since passed. The deceptions notoriously committed during the Arthur Allan Thomas case were probably the turning point.

One of the lessons supposedly learned from the Thomas case was that the New Zealand justice system is not meant to be so blindly adversarial that facts inconvenient to a prosecution are able to be kept unavailable to the defence.

Overriding all the particular puzzles of this latest case, the most towering question is why the police pursued it to court when, surely, so many alarm bells must have been ringing.

The convicted teenagers, Lucy Akatere, Tania Vini and Krishla Fuataha, will inevitably receive compensation. While likely to be substantial it cannot, by its very nature, truly right the wrong that has been done them.