Steve Braunias returns to court for the final chapter in the case of the pamper party murder in Te Atatu South.
I walked past the house on School Rd the other day. It looked like it had a fresh coat of pale grey paint. An insulation truck was parked in the driveway. There was the big dark wooden front door and there was the picture window that I recognised from police photographs taken on the day of the murder. Edmonton Primary School is up the hill; down the hill, Henderson Creek was at full tide, trickling through the low, fertile valley of West Auckland.
The story I heard is that Emmanuelle Sinclair never set foot back in the house in Te Atatu South after the murder on October 15 last year. She'd set out bowls of guacamole and corn chips that day for the Saturday afternoon party. The kitchen knife she'd used to chop up the avocado was dropped in the sink. Eight guests arrived, all women, most in their mid to late 30s, old friends from way back - actually two of the guests hardly knew anyone. Justine Evans, the only white woman at the party, knew Emmanuelle. Anna Browne knew Emmanuelle, and Carly Stewart.
"There was tension between you and Justine," Justice Ed Wylie said to Browne in the High Court at Auckland yesterday morning, "probably because she was Pakeha." Browne, 37, is of Cook Islands and Maori descent.
It was actually a brilliant party. There were kids on the trampoline, the house was immaculate, the friends hadn't seen each other in a while - and a beauty technician was on hand to do their nails, marking the day in criminal history as the pamper party murder.
All of the guests gave evidence at the murder trial and most of them came to yesterday's sentencing. They were a warm, lovely, shattered group of women. There was Corrin Phillip, and Corinne Stewart, known as Little Corrin and Big Corinne to sort out any confusion; Helen Wahitapu was there, and Joann Daniela was there, back on her feet - the last time I saw her, when the jury found Browne guilty of the murder of Carly Stewart, a sports injury had her temporarily confined to a wheelchair.
A sentencing is a kind of reunion. There was the prosecution, including Scott McColgan, who has lost the deepest tan ever seen in a New Zealand courtroom; he wore it during the trial, after returning from a summer holiday with his wife's family in Toronto.
There was Browne's defence team, led by Marie Dyhrberg, QC, who dabbed at her red hooter with a tissue. She didn't talk much through her cold at sentencing. There wasn't much to say, really; no mitigating factors of profound importance; the Crown asked for a non-parole minimum imprisonment of 12 years, and Dyhrberg said she wasn't going to dispute that.
Carly Stewart's family and friends sat together. After Justice Ed Wylie passed a life sentence on Browne ordering a minimum non-parole period of 12 years, the women left the courtroom and I watched them through the six little glass windows of the court door. Their bodies moved in and out of the rectangles, holding each other, crying.
Little Corrin was wearing a commemorative Carly Stewart T-shirt in court. She was standing right beside her when Browne plunged the kitchen knife 11cm into the side of Carly's head. It was a killing blow and Carly died on the floor in front of the couch within about 10 minutes of the attack. Browne picked up her handbag, said Justice Wylie, and walked out of the house, towards the creek. She was drunk. She had Carly's blood on her shoes and hoodie and tracksuit pants. She returned to the house after a couple of minutes: enough time to decide the best course of action was to just lie her head off and claim she had no idea what happened, that she was too out of it to remember.
On Friday, nearly a year after the killing, Browne finally expressed a measure of remorse. It followed the victim impact statements read out by Carly's parents, Charlene and Reg. Charlene's hands shook as she read from two pages of pink paper. Browne was seated towards the back of the court; Reg Stewart turned, and looked at her, and said, "It's hard to look at Anna in the dock." He didn't look at her very long. Victim impact statements are very often a document of hate but Carly's parents talked of their love for their daughter, their grief, the senseless waste of her life at the hands of a woman they had never met, a stranger who simply got drunk and so determined to hold on to her injured pride that she went out of her way to find a knife and use it.
The good times at the Saturday afternoon party in Te Atatu South started going downhill when Browne got trashed, and tried to pick a fight with Evans. Sinclair, as the host, dragged her into the kids' bedroom to try and quieten her down. Browne went out into the hallway, where Carly Stewart also tried to restore calm. There was, said Justice Wylie, "a minor fracas" - the two grabbed hold of each other, and "profanities" were used.
Carly ended it with basically what became her last words. "I'm going to be the bigger person," she said, "and walk away".
Her life ended as the bigger person.
Browne, said Justice Wylie, went off in "pursuit" of Carly, down the hallway, into the kitchen, grabbed the knife, and headed to the lounge with the weapon behind her back "murmuring" Carly's name out loud. The judge said, "Ms Stewart removed herself. Despite this, you sought her out. It was your decision to continue the confrontation."
The fact of her pursuit, he said, was an "aggravating factor" as he examined the possibilities of making discounts for the length of her prison sentence. The second factor was her decision to "seek out and use a weapon", which indicated a premeditated act. Thirdly, she attacked Carly's head, "the most vulnerable part of the body".
It was really quite a long list of aggravating factors. Justice Wylie also counted the fact that Browne concealed the weapon behind her back, committed the murder in front of children, and did not stop to offer assistance. The very notion that Browne might have considered doing that was just about the most far-fetched thing heard in the entire case. She didn't pause for a millionth of a second to do anything that resembled the right thing.
"You have yet to take full responsibility," said Justice Wylie. "You still seek to shift the blame." He meant her spiteful comments about the behaviour of other guests at the party that Saturday afternoon last spring. They had nothing to do with what happened. The killing - swift, stupid, vicious - was at Browne's hands.
Damage like that goes on and on and on. Carly's children sleep with weapons beside their bed. Browne is also a mother; her partner has said that he'll stand by her, and raise the kids. She hung her head and wept during the victim statements read out by Carly's parents. Dyhrberg said, "She is genuinely aware of what she has done, and acknowledges the harm she has caused ... Reading the victim impact statements have really brought that home."
Carly Stewart's friends and family gathered outside the High Court after sentencing and said their goodbyes. They'll see each other again in a few weeks at the unveiling of Carly's headstone. The last I saw of Anna Browne was just before she was led away. Tall, with her long hair tossed to the left of a striking, clever face, she was a picture of misery and shame.