Why an innocent man would confess

By Tim McKinnel

Twenty years ago Teina Pora was sentenced to life imprisonment for the rape and murder of Susan Burdett. As doubts over the conviction grow, the private investigator fighting to clear his name explains why Pora's alleged confession should not be taken at face value

Teina Pora. Photo / Supplied
Teina Pora. Photo / Supplied

The murder of Susan Burdett and Teina Pora's subsequent convictions for her rape and murder drifted into public consciousness around the time of Phil Taylor's NZ Herald article on May 19, 2012 , which revealed that New Zealand's first and most experienced criminal profiler, Dave Henwood, held the view that Pora was innocent.

Pora had been convicted in both 1994 and at his 2000 re-trial for the brutal 1992 rape and murder of Susan Burdett. The central plank of the case against him was his video interviews with police where he implicated himself in the attack on Mrs Burdett. Despite the wildly contradictory nature of the confessions, the Crown successfully argued that no one would confess to being involved in such a brutal rape and murder if they were not actually involved. On the face of it, that is a reasonable argument. As it turns out, counter-intuitively, science and history have combined to show people do confess to crimes they are innocent of, at surprisingly high rates.

The emergence of DNA evidence in the criminal justice system over the past 25 years has not only helped catch criminals, it has also freed innocent men and women wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit. The United States-based Innocence Project has helped exonerate more than 300 innocent people over the past 25 years. Research shows that 25 per cent of the exonerated had falsely confessed to crimes. Analysis of those cases, and others, shows that there are a number of vulnerabilities that increase the risk that a person might make a false confession. Those vulnerabilities include being a young person, an extended period of time in police custody, having low intelligence, being held in a small space, police use of inducements, and various other interview techniques.

Recent research by psychologists demonstrates that false confessions, once made, also have a tendency to contaminate or taint other aspects of evidence too.

In recent weeks there has been some discussion around Pora's confessions, particularly after the public were able to see portions of the video interviews for themselves on TV3's 3rd Degree programme. It has been suggested Pora's confessions were a brazen attempt to hoodwink police out of reward money on offer. The reality is a little more complicated.

Ms Burdett was attacked in her home on the evening of March 23, 1992. A few days later Pora and some friends were walking through a park in Manukau and found an old worn softball bat down a drain. The group, apparently light-heartedly, speculated whether it was the one that might have been used in the attack on Mrs Burdett. That seemingly innocuous conversation changed several lives forever, most of all Pora's.

When Pora's aunty, who predominantly raised him as her own son, found out about the bat, she made several phone calls to police nominating Pora as a suspect for the murder. Police were initially uninterested. She persisted. Pora was first interviewed about his possible involvement on April 7, 1992. He was co-operative, denied any involvement in the attack and voluntarily provided hair and DNA samples to police, which helped exclude him. Over the following weeks the aunty continued to tell people that Pora was involved, and eventually, on May 28, 1992, he was interviewed by police for a second time. Once more, he was co-operative and denied any involvement in the attack on Ms Burdett. Interestingly, at that time, one of Pora's sisters told police in a statement that his aunty had sat down with a number of family members and suggested to them that they all tell a consistent story blaming Pora for the murder of Ms Burdett. She said they prepared a story based on information gleaned from newspaper articles. The sister later retracted the claim, and said her story about Pora's involvement in Ms Burdett's murder was her own concoction. Nevertheless, over the following months the aunty continued to put forward the view that Pora was involved in Ms Burdett's rape and murder. Police eventually concluded that she was unreliable.

Almost a year after Ms Burdett's murder, Pora was arrested on warrants for unrelated, relatively minor matters and taken into custody. At the time he was 17 years old, in a bitter dispute with senior members of the Mongrel Mob, had a baby girl to care for and was fearful that he would be sent to prison on the warrant-related charges. He was processed on the warrants and approached by a senior police officer. We have recently learned that, just 45 minutes prior to the senior officers approach to Pora, police had received a phone call from an anonymous female claiming that a named Mongrel Mob member had raped and murdered Ms Burdett. When the officer approached Pora for a "general conversation" Pora told him of his troubled life, told the officer he wanted to "go straight", that he felt unwanted by his family and that he knew he was being sought by the Mongrel Mob and police. It was in these circumstances that the discussion about Ms Burdett's murder emerged. When Pora raised the general topic, having already been interviewed about the murder a year earlier, he was quickly informed of a $20,000 reward and the offer of immunity from prosecution if he was able to assist in catching the killer.

Over the following four days the interviews developed from his initial suggestion that he might know something about the murder, to a claim that he took some "Mobsters" to do it, to a claim that he was holding Ms Burdett down during the attack.

As luck would have it for the police, when they suggested the name of the Mongrel Mob member earlier nominated by the anonymous female caller, Pora agreed that he was one of the offenders. That "Mobster" was later cleared by police, primarily because his DNA did not match the DNA from the crime scene. Five days after his arrest on warrants and his ongoing detention and interviews, Pora was charged with the rape and murder of Susan Burdett. The aunty became a key Crown witness in both of Pora's trials and was paid at least one reward.

The investigator

Tim McKinnel is a private investigator whose work has resulted in an application for the Royal Prerogative of Mercy under which the Governor-General can order a retrial or quash Teina Pora's conviction. McKinnel was in the Manukau CIB during three of the four trials relating to Susan Burdett's rape and murder. His misgivings about the safety of Pora's conviction prompted him to research the case while studying for his Masters degree in Criminology and, after leaving the police, he went on to conduct his own investigation which has produced new evidence and has exposed flaws in the Crown case which point to Pora's innocence. This week is the 20th anniversary of Pora's arrest. He makes his 11th appearance before the Parole Board next month.

The back story

• Teina Pora was convicted in 1993 of raping and murdering Susan Burdett (left) in her home. He has spent the past 20 years in jail for a crime that an increasing number of experts, including former police officers, believe he did not commit.

• The Weekend Herald was the first to raise doubts about Pora's conviction in May last year. This month, video evidence from the original police interviews and statements by former witnesses on TV3 show 3rd Degree reinforced those doubts about the Crown case.

• Today Tim McKinnel, the private investigator who has investigated the flaws in the case against Pora, writes exclusively for the Weekend Herald on the circumstances behind his arrest and alleged confession.

- NZ Herald

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