Wrongly jailed pair want Government apology

By Derek Cheng

Two men who were wrongly convicted of arson and spent almost a year in prison could be eligible for $100,000 in compensation, a legal expert says.

Phillip Johnston and Jaden Knight, both from Lower Hutt and in their early 30s, are seeking an apology from the Government after they were jailed for setting fire to the Manawatu Hotel in Foxton in 2003. They each spent 9 months in Manawatu Prison before their convictions were quashed in 2005.

Retrials were ordered and Mr Johnston was last year found not guilty of the arson. Mr Knight was discharged this month after the Crown failed to offer evidence against him, ending more than three years' worry that began when police first laid charges.

Legal expert John Miller said the amount of compensation depended on several factors, including the case against them and reasons for quashing the verdict, their individual characters and how traumatic the experience was.

"We calculated a sum of about $10,000 a month, roughly, in these situations."

Mr Knight's lawyer, Christopher Stevenson, reportedly said the pair had been "left cold by what's happened, numb. It's just been a completely shocking experience for them."

He said they would be meeting to decide the next step.

Both families have described the experience as traumatic.

Mr Johnston's mother, Darrel Arcus, said her son had moved from Lower Hutt because of death threats since being found not guilty.

Seeing her son behind bars was almost unbearable. "I hated it, hated it. I cried every time I came out because I knew he did not belong there. I knew he was innocent," she told the Manawatu Standard.

The two were driving from Palmerston North to Lower Hutt in the early hours of November 12, 2003. When they got to Levin, they saw a police car with flashing lights and followed it to the hotel blaze. They were later questioned by police and charged with arson.

The fire caused $300,000 of damage to the hotel and there had been a risk to human life, Judge Les Atkins said during sentencing.

Mr Knight's mother, Neroli Edwards, has said her son was now looking for security work but was finding it hard to get on with his life.

The detective in charge of the investigation, Peter Govers, has stood by the decision to press charges.

"As far as I am concerned, it was a professional and thorough investigation and back then there was sufficient evidence to charge both of them," he told the Manawatu Standard.

The investigation into the arson has been reopened.

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