This is a different sort of blog post from me. This is the thousand words that a picture might struggle to equal. This is a story about a crime in Christchurch in the 1980s. It gave me a view of how the justice system works and sometimes doesn’t work.The memories came flooding back last night when watching the “Beyond the Darklands” TV programme. I didn’t like Nigel Latta’s TV shows on children – he seemed a bit keen on his own jokes. So I didn’t make much effort to watch his current series Beyond the Darklands where he examines some of the more sensational NZ crimes. However Wyn was watching some of them and I came to see that they were a very good exploration and explanation of how some of these bad people come to be bad. Without being overly judgmental By explaining some of their backgrounds and deficiencies he left it to us to judge them in our own terms but maybe also in a new light. He wasn’t excusing them and neither was he condemning them. Even-handed and insightful – how all television should be.
Last night he was dissecting Peter Holdem – a serial sex offender against young children who murdered a 5-year old girl in Christchurch in the 1980s. He was most emphatic that Holdem should not be released from prison next year – because he is sure he will re-offend. He repeated that a number of times in case we might be slow to get the message. It was a compelling plea from an expert.
Holdem was sentenced to life in prison back in the mid-1980s, when life meant 10 years or so. So he’s served well over 25 years which probably makes him one of the longer lifers. It seems he’s coming up for possible release next year. Although Nigel Latta’s pleas might have set that back.In New Zealand there is such a sentence as Preventative Detention. This is for sex offenders where the judge is convinced that they pose a continuing threat to the community. Preventative Detention means they lock you up until they are sure that you’re not a risk any more. Peter Holdem is a repeat sex offender who murdered a young girl who should have been given Preventative Detention but wasn’t. He couldn’t. In those days it was only an option for sentencing on sex crimes. Peter Holdem was charged with a sex offence and murder, but was only found guilty by the jury on the murder charge. The “justice system” knew he warranted Perventative Detention but was prevented from using it by the law. The system was so outraged by this that they got the law changed to give judges more discretion. If Holdem was sentenced today in the same circumstances, Preventative Detention would be a likely outcome.
Interestingly the system seems to have achieved almost the same result by keeping him imprisoned for a very long time. Maybe they keep losing the key or something. They weren’t able to throw the key away, so they just misplace it all the time?
I should explain my interest in this case. I was on the jury at his trial in Dunedin back in the 1980s. His trial was shifted there. Ironically it was felt he would get a fairer trial away from Christchurch. I’ll try to explain the irony before I’m through.
When you go along for jury service you hope you won’t get selected, and imagine that if you do it’ll be some minor crime by minor people. It was a surprise to end up sworn in for a high-profile nasty murder and sex-offence trial. We were an ordinary sort of jury and I guess did all the usual sorts of jury things that juries are told not to do. Like trying to play detective and trying to piece the evidence together and trying to work out what it meant. The trial took about a week and some of the evidence was not nice – photos of the young girl’s decomposed body. I did see them but have no recollection. The whole case was fairly circumstantial. It could have been the first NZ murder trial without a body – Holdem was charged before her body was found. This was the first time this happened in NZ. Because her body had been in the water for two weeks nothing could be learned or proved from it. And much of the rest of the evidence was a bit indirect.
As a jury, we were a bit concerned by the lack of conclusive evidence as the trial came towards its conclusion. When the prosecution had summed up, we were getting worried. We had a fair bit of doubt and it was looking like being a difficult job. Now here’s the remarkable part. By the time the defence case was summed up, our doubts were gone. Our job had just become easy. It’s hard to say how it happened. But some of us on the jury thought we could have done a much better job of exploiting the big holes in the case. But it wasn’t our job. The judge did nothing to make it any harder for us. There was no real evidence on the sex charge so that was Not Guilty. Easy. But it didn’t matter because he was guilty on the murder charge. Thanks to the defence summing up!
The TV programme last night said the jury deliberated for two hours. Well, we did…. sort of. It was late morning when we retired. We quickly agreed we all felt he was guilty on the murder charge. But we were aware that this was a high-profile case and wanted it to look like we’d considered every aspect of it. We wanted to do a proper job. Plus it was almost lunch time and juries only get fed while they are retired (considering their verdict). The Best Cafe across the road from the court was legendary and we thought we’d earned a meal there. So we informed the court that we’d need some time to consider our verdict. We got our free lunch and then went back to the jury room and reaffirmed our decision and went into the court. Not Guilty was read out on the sex charge, and Guilty on the murder charge and that was it. We were thanked and sent on our way. Funny day. We started out with it looking like a hard decision and in the end it was easy. And it seemed to be his own side that made the difference. We thought that was the end of it, not realising what we’d learn the next day.
The photo above shows the Wairarapa coastline north of Castlepoint in the winter of 2013.
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