The New Zealand Herald

Great day in court for co-accused’s lawyer

- Steve Braunias comment

Case closed, just about, on Operation Wheaton, the police investigat­ion into the killing of one of their own and what they allege was the attempted murder of another officer, during a shooting in Massey in June last year.

Prosecutio­n and defence gave their closing addresses yesterday in the High Court at Auckland. Justice Geoffrey Venning will sum up this morning. He has indicated he will address the jury for an hour or so. That sounds about right; it was a tragic and bizarre event, “off the grid” as defence lawyer Adam Couchman put it, but in many ways it wasn’t that complicate­d.

Eli Epiha has admitted killing Constable Matthew Hunt. He denies the attempted murder of Constable David Goldfinch, who he shot at 10 times with a semiautoma­tic rifle that has a passing resemblanc­e to an AK-47.

“It just happened,” Epiha told Crown prosecutor Brian Dickey. It wasn’t the strongest defence ever heard in a Kiwi courtroom.

“It didn’t just happen,” Dickey said. “You pulled the trigger, fired, reloaded the magazine, fired, and so on and so on.”

In any case Epiha is going down. He has always known this. He said it in front of Natalie Bracken, the driver of the getaway car. He phoned a family member as they left the scene of the crime and said, “I’m going away for 12, 14, 16 years.”

But the real mystery of the case is Bracken. As the co-accused, her role in the trial has been like a kind of sub-plot, or post-script, to the main event of Epiha running around with an assault rifle and shooting at cops. Why did she drive him away? She thought he looked familiar but she didn’t know him. He thought he’d seen her around but couldn’t place her. But when they came face to face on the street just after Epiha had opened fire on two policemen, she found the keys to her car, he jumped in the passenger seat, and off they went. Who does that?

Her lawyer, Adam Couchman, improvised with a lurid short story. “Imagine,” he said to the jury, “that I picked up a gun and blew the back of Brian Dickey’s head off.” And then, Couchman continued, he would ask the jury for someone to give him a ride. “Are you going to say no to me?” But he made his point. Epiha, waving his gun around after having shot at two cops; Epiha, demanding a ride . . . “She believed she was helping everybody,” he said. “Her purpose was not to enable him to escape but to prevent further carnage.”

Couchman liked the sound of that word. “There would be carnage! Why wouldn’t there be?”

It capped an awesome day in court for one of the best JamaicanCa­nadian defence lawyers in NZ — very well, the only one. When the trial began, Bracken was charged with accessory after the fact of murder. Yesterday, her lawyer succeeded in amending it to a lesser charge: Accessory after the fact of wounding with intent. He argued Hunt wasn’t actually dead when she drove Epiha away.

You might describe it as an ingenious technicali­ty. The result that counts the most, the verdict, might be delivered this afternoon.

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