Verdict of an angry public on bad law
It was unprecedented – but justified.
For the first time in more than 60 years as a journalist I broke what had in that time been an unbreakable rule. I wrote angry comment on a case which still awaited a verdict.
This from someone who was once restricted to an extreme by written laws and unwritten professional rules about silence until the period allowed for appeal had lapsed.
The character assassination of Sophie Elliot by her killer, Clayton Weatherston – protected as he was by court processes and the tactics of his counsel – prompted me to talk of widespread public anger, of hatred and “brutal and scarifying attempt to defend the indefensible”. I was far from alone. In a letter which reached me after that column had gone to press – and also before the verdict –
wrote: “How can the New Zealand court system be so callous and stupid?
“A man, who killed his girlfriend in a truly vicious manner, tries to trash her good name by revealing intimate details of her/and her former partner’s sexual activities. This is shameful. Once again, she is unable to defend herself, and
there is no one who can challenge this cruel man’s opinion.
‘Having hacked her to death, he obviously tried to blacken her character and hoped to convince the jury of his own ‘pure’ intentions.
“The ferocity with which he butchered her reveals his premeditated intention to do so when the opportunity arose.
“This poor woman, who during their time together, was subjected to his assaults but didn’t lay charges, had the intimacy of other relationships laid bare.
“There was no need for this section of the trial to be made public, and definitely no press coverage. It should have been held in a closed courtroom with only the judge, jurors and other necessary legal people present.
“She was the victim, but her hideous treatment is far worse than a heartless murderer will ever endure.
“I am disgusted, and hope that most New Zealanders share my feelings.
“Of the more than 200 cruel, slashing, stab wounds inflicted on the body of this poor woman, the opportunity for her killer to speak in this way, is surely the cruelest cut of all.”
Among other typical reader reactions “Even on the day when Weatherston was found guilty of murder, the noon news coverage of the verdict in the brutal murder of Sophie Elliot again repeated his comments about how he stabbed her.
“We also totally agree with your comments on Chief Justice Sian Elias’ suggestions of early parole to overcome prison overcrowding.”
The Weatherston verdict brought immediate response of likely and muchneeded law change from the Justice Minister Simon Power and the prime minister.
With a Labour private member’s bill already seeking the ousting of the current possible defence of provocation which Clayton Weatherston and his senior counsel exploited to the enth degree, the change the public wants seems certain. How weird then to hear critical opinions from big names in the legal defence industry.
One said outright that the suggested change “endangered long-established rules of fair trial”.
These are the same rules which cost Sophie a fair trial, that gave scope for that bizarre and marathon Clayton’s defence in which he slashed the victim’s reputation to posthumous shreds on the sole basis of a killer’s fantasies and fiction.
The other high profile career defender suggested law changes should be made in an atmosphere of calm consideration and not sparked by the present unprecedented wave of public emotion and anger. The public doesn’t agree. Court rules and practices which allowed Weatherston’s counsel to base a case on an unacceptable and unproven premise, to make the victim an accused and to endlessly punish her grieving family, must be changed.
That is the verdict of the jury which is the community.
The law profession, which has wide experience of the status quo – and could risk perhaps another public reaction of having a vested interest in retaining it – should hear that judgement.
How many suspect defences do we need?
How many more memories of the innocent dead need to be trampled on, how many questionable not guilty verdicts, before those in the legal profession accept the very public judgement of the community in this case that bad law gave this murderer his own public stage and a starring role he seemed to enjoy – without any trace of remorse.
Risking this column sounding like a poor illegal relation of the New Zealand Law Journal, a letter supporting my criticism of the dangers of bugging and tracking provisions of the Search and Surveillance Bill now before Parliament:
“I took the trouble to skim through the bill and want to draw attention to the last section.
“Regulations: The governormay, by order in council, make regulations for any or all of the following purposes:
“(a) Prescribing the form of an examination order, a surveillance device warrant, residual warrant, production order, search warrant, warrant authorising entry to a dwelling house or marae, or similar kinds of warrants:
“(b) Prescribing procedures to be followed for the purposes of making and resolving claims of privilege under subpart 4 of part 4:
“(c) Authorising a chief executive to omit from any annual; report information about search or surveillance generally, or of a particular kind, or in a particular area, or in an area of a particular kind.
“The rhetoric which the Right always propounds is for less government and fewer restrictions. Paradoxically, this has most appeal to those who promote control and enslavement as the best means.”