Moko: Never let go the rage
The case of Moko Rangitoheriri has rightly led to street protests and harsh argument about the treatment of his killers. The torture and death of the threeyear-old is another unspeakable addition to our shameful record of child abuse. If we didn’t express rage and anguish about this we would be morally lost.
Protesters were angry that Tania Shailer and David Haerewa did not face murder charges, and on the face of it the lesser charge of manslaughter seems grossly inadequate. The treatment of poor Moko is indescribable and indefensible: how could the charge be anything less than the most serious one in the book?
In fact, there is a pragmatic case for the Crown’s decision to go with manslaughter, as Attorney-General Chris Finlayson explains ‘‘in words of one syllable’’. The actual sentences, after all, were very serious, despite the noise by the hard-liner brigade. The pair got 17 years’ jail, with a minimum nonparole period of nine.
Prosecutors feared that a murder charge wouldn’t stick, and that one or the other might then walk free. Again, this is not an irrational fear.
Critics of the Crown’s decision should think about how outraged they would be if the murder charges had led to acquittals.
Some experienced lawyers, such as Massey University’s Chris Gallavin, argue that such a mishap was unlikely and the charge should have been murder. But the risk remains; Labour’s David Parker stops short of saying there was ‘‘no chance’’ the two could have been found not guilty.
The deeper debate is whether the law should be changed to stop such an injustice recurring. At present the law seems too blunt an instrument, forcing prosecutors to choose between ‘‘murder’’ and ‘‘manslaughter’’ when the case won’t easily fit into either.
Gallavin argues for a system like the American one, where there is a sliding scale of culpable homicide charges ranging from first degree murder to third degree manslaughter. Although Auckland legal academic Bill Hodge, an American, says the US courts are swamped by appeals from people trying to downgrade their convictions. That is an argument that we need to have, and it must be long and serious.
In the meantime, there are other lessons to draw. The real value of the protest is to underline once again that child abuse is never acceptable and that the people will not tolerate it. The more widely that is felt, the less chance of a repeat.