Focus on Police Competence
There were holes in the police evidence big enough to drive a truck through, yet three Pacific Island teenagers were still charged, convicted and imprisoned for a crime they did not commit.
It would never have happened if they had been from Remuera - but being poor and powerless, the odds were stacked against Tania Vini, 14 at the time, Lucy Akatere, 15, and McCushla Fuataha, 14.
Betrayed by an inept police investigation and indifferent legal representation, they spent seven months in Mt Eden women's prison at a time when they should have been worrying about nothing more serious than homework and boyfriends.
When the Court of Appeal finally quashed their convictions for aggravated robbery last October, Justice Gault admitted the investigation and trial system had failed in this case.
The wrongful conviction also raised "questions of conduct by the police which is a serious matter and must be properly investigated".
These questions are so far unanswered. Nearly a year later the girls are still in a holding pattern while decisions are being made about whether they deserve to get compensation.
It's disturbing to think that we would never have got to this stage if it hadn't been for the stubborn persistence of Tania Vini's parents - the heroes of this piece.
Vini Kavi, a 61-year-old welder, and his partner, Kaiei "Cathy" Timi, a cleaner, always believed their daughter when she said she was not involved in the aggravated robbery of a 16-year-old girl.
It wasn't just that they had always been able to tell when she was lying to them. It was that they had proof from the start that should have ruled her and her friends out. They told the two policemen that on the Sunday they came to their modest Mt Roskill home with a search warrant.
One of them was former test cricketer Trevor Franklin, whose bullying tone made 14-year-old Tania cry and so incensed Cathy that she told him she wished she could slap his face.
He didn't listen when Tania and her parents protested that there was no way she could have been at Three Kings at the time a group of girls were attacking the girl, slashing her with a pair of scissors and robbing her of $10.
Though neither parent was home on the morning of the assault (Cathy was at her cleaning job and Vini was at work in Glen Innes), Vini always called the kids from work to make sure they were getting ready to go to school. He called three times that Friday, the last time at 7.57am (which Telecom confirmed).
That would have made it physically impossible for Tania and her best friend Lucy to be at Three Kings at the time of the assault. But for reasons known only to themselves the police never checked the phone records.
Cathy and Vini were confident the truth would emerge, but over the next year their sense of helplessness grew as they turned up for one court appearance after another. Ashamed and worried that she would not be trusted to clean in a supermarket, Cathy lied to her boss to get time off.
The day Tania and her friends were found guilty was the worst of their lives. Tania ended up spending her 16th birthday in Mt Eden. She and Lucy were sentenced to 18 months, McCushla to two years.
Vini was so distraught that he could not work for three months. He hired a private investigator, who cost him $4000 and came up with nothing. When he finally lost patience and demanded action, the bogus investigator took him to criminal lawyer Gary Gotlieb, who brought in a former cop, Bryan Rowe.
It did not take Rowe long to spot the glaring discrepancies in the police case. Such as the fact that none of the girls matched the victim's description of her attackers as ranging in height from 5ft 6in to 6ft tall. All three girls are below average height, Tania barely over 5ft.
The victim had also never been asked to identify the girls before she saw them at the High Court, so she didn't realise that she knew one of them from church. She stated later that she didn't think the three were her attackers, but she didn't say so at trial because she wasn't asked.
Rowe also talked to the 13-year-old key witness who said police had pressured her into lying about her involvement and that of the other three girls.
Since being freed, Tania has tried to pick up the pieces and move on. She went back to Mt Roskill Grammar and lasted a week in the sixth form.
She had fallen too far behind, she said, and felt unwelcome. She is hoping to study social work at university.
Her mum cleans at nights now so she can be home in the mornings. Vini takes her to her first cleaning job at 6 and when she finishes at 10 he picks her up and takes her to her next cleaning job. He is there to pick her up again at 3am.
Last week, the Minister of Justice, Phil Goff, announced that he had appointed a QC to look into the question of compensation.
It seems like a no-brainer to me.
These are girls who could least afford the disruption to their lives and schooling. Yet they have had no counselling since being freed, one of them has had a baby, and all are, to varying degrees, wounded and fragile.
The system failed them once. It should not fail them again.