Matthew Backhouse

Matthew Backhouse is an APNZ news reporter based in Wellington.

Greg King death highlights risks for defence lawyers

Greg King said he was 'exhausted, unwell, disillusioned, depressed and haunted'. Photo / Richard Robinson
Greg King said he was 'exhausted, unwell, disillusioned, depressed and haunted'. Photo / Richard Robinson

Defence lawyers are at a higher risk of suffering depression than people in other professions, partly because it is inevitable details of their clients' crimes will impact on their psyche, a legal psychotherapist says.

The comments follow an inquest into the death of top lawyer Greg King who suffered a "massive breakdown" after a high profile murder trial.

Coroner Garry Evans' report painted a picture of Mr King's depressed state before he was found dead in a Wellington suburb on November 3 last year.

It included excerpts from a suicide note in which Mr King described himself as "exhausted, unwell, disillusioned, depressed and haunted".

Legal psychotherapist Steven Colligan said there was a relatively high percentage of people in the legal profession who suffered from depression.

"The legal profession, during their training are taught to look at the critical aspects - what they're looking for is to present arguments and be more critical thinkers so in essence be more pessimistic than optimistic."

The emotional aspect of dealing with grisly cases, as well as the heavy workload and possibly poor diet and exercise routine would compound psychological problems, Mr Colligan said.

Mr King was involved in high profile murder cases including John Barlow, Scott Watson, Clayton Weatherston and Ewen Macdonald.

Lawyers needed to be aware of the effect their work would have on them "emotionally and psychologically", and speak with a professional before it overwhelmed them, Mr Colligan said.

"Inevitably some of the cases like Greg King and other lawyers see, it will have an impact on you as a human."

Defence lawyers in particular would also be carrying societal and cultural judgements about defending offenders who have committed horrific crimes.

"It's a tough role ... there are psychological and emotional pressures - it's not just intellectual."

Defence lawyer Greg King at the 2012 trial of Ewen Macdonald for the murder of Feilding farmer Scott Guy.  File photo / Mark Mitchell
Defence lawyer Greg King at the 2012 trial of Ewen Macdonald for the murder of Feilding farmer Scott Guy. File photo / Mark Mitchell

Mr King's wife, Catherine Milnes-King told the inquest her husband was depressed but was too stubborn to discuss it with anyone, and that he had a breakdown after giving his closing address in the Macdonald trial.

Macdonald was accused of murdering brother-in-law Scott Guy at his Feilding farm, but was acquitted by a High Court jury in July last year after Mr King led a successful defence.

Coroner Evans said Ms Milnes-King said the trial had "taken a substantial toll on him".

Ms Milnes-King said her husband was "publicly slated everywhere following the conclusion of the Macdonald trial".

The coroner suppressed some of the contents of the note and the manner in which Mr King died, but said the lawyer was "incredibly disillusioned and depressed".

"He says his heart and soul were always to be a defence lawyer, but that after nearly 20 years he is 'now completely over it. Totally burnt out'."

Mr King was found by a member of the public in a cul-de-sac in the suburb of Newlands on November 3 after being reported missing by his family the previous evening.

Mr Evans said Mr King's experiences with victims of serious crime had affected him profoundly and he was "haunted" by the dead from the numerous homicide cases he was involved in.

"He says he has been genuinely torn between doing his job and his conscience, which keeps asking him 'is this really what you want to be doing'?"

- APNZ

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