View interactive

Champions: conviction in innocence of the convicted

By Deborah Coddington

What's the attraction in championing the cause of convicted criminals? Deborah Coddington investigates why advocates try to prove the innocence of those already found guilty in court.

Journalist Pat Booth proved police planted evidence that, wrongly, implicated Arthur Allan Thomas (pictured). Photo / NZ Herald
Journalist Pat Booth proved police planted evidence that, wrongly, implicated Arthur Allan Thomas (pictured). Photo / NZ Herald

David Bain's compensation is a topic you probably won't raise during Christmas dinner unless you wish peace and goodwill to turn into a family at war, because half the country thinks Bain is guilty of murder, despite Joe Karam's successful campaign to clear his friend's name.

But it's a brave soul these days who will declare, in these controversial cases, the prosecution got it right. Try calling Peter Ellis a paedophile and see how long you last.

It's much easier taking up cudgels on behalf of the convicted - or even someone alleged to have committed a crime. For example Kim Dotcom, convicted of computer fraud, embezzlement and insider trading in Germany, is now fighting extradition to the US to avoid criminal charges of copyright infringement. But here, media treat him like a rock star.

It hasn't always been thus. We once revered police, convinced they'd "got their man". But something changed when Auckland Star journalist Pat Booth concluded a 10-year crusade to free Arthur Allan Thomas when he was convicted in 1970 of murdering Jeanette and Harvey Crewe.

Booth proved police planted evidence - a cartridge case - and after that nothing stayed the same. We were shown the police can get it wrong.

"That is true," Booth says. "It was also a turning point as to how newspapers handled crime stories. Before that, there was no advocacy journalism on behalf of a prisoner. Now I can see everyone doing it."

Booth's team won its fight to have Thomas pardoned in 1980. He says the problem with Bain's compensation bid is "they don't have a cartridge case".

Increasingly, certain convicted criminals are, with media help, transformed into causes celebres.

Mirroring the Thomas case was David Dougherty's 1993 rape case. He was jailed for three years before new DNA evidence cleared him of the crime. Auckland journalist Donna Chisholm crusaded for Dougherty, the Government gave him $869,000 compensation, and a docu-drama was made about the campaign to clear his name.

The Christchurch Civic Creche case still divides opinion. In 1993, Peter Ellis was convicted on 16 counts of sexual offences involving children in his care and spent 10 years in jail. The Court of Appeal quashed three convictions, but in 1999 upheld all the others, as did Chief Justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum's report. Governor-General Michael Hardie-Boys rejected Ellis' third bid for a pardon.

Dunedin journalist and author Lynley Hood had led the campaign for Ellis with her award-winning book, A City Possessed.

But, if the public thought the Ellis case was controversial, they'd seen nothing yet. In 1995, David Bain was convicted of killing all five members of his family and jailed for 13 years.

There were several appeals before success at the Privy Council, a retrial and acquittal. Former All Black Joe Karam, loudly assisted by Sir Robert Jones in his Herald column, still campaigns for taxpayer compensation.

No former prisoner could ask for better publicity than Bain enjoys, who now says but for the inconvenience of his family being wiped out, he could have been a renowned opera singer.

Overshadowed by Bain that year was fisherman Rex Haig's conviction for murdering Mark Roderique. Journalist and defence lawyer Rennie Gould followed his case and wrote his book, Rough Justice, but Haig's case was relatively low profile. Although his conviction was quashed in 2006, his application for compensation was turned down.

A cynic may say Haig's case would be more prominent if the personalities were pretty, or middle class. Like the Sounds murders in 1999 when Olivia Hope and Ben Smart disappeared for ever.

Scott Watson was convicted of their murders and even though experienced journalists such as television's Keith Hunter and North & South's Mike White have made films and written books and features about Watson's innocence, he remains behind bars.

Paul Davison QC, who led the Crown case against Watson, last year criticised Hunter's crusade, saying his book "excites attention without really having covered the detail and undertaken any sort of analysis at all".

Then there's David Tamihere, jailed in 1990 for the murders of Swedes Heidi Paakkonen and Urban Hoglin. The convictions were always controversial but because Tamihere was already seen as unsavoury (he had a rape conviction), there wasn't exactly a conga line of journalists or ex-All Blacks to fight for his freedom. Only TVNZ's Janet McIntyre, who also followed Haig's case, was there filming when finally he was freed.

Now Mark Lundy's case is back. Mike White - again - in this month's North & South details the case as the legal team applies to be heard by the Privy Council. For 10 years, Lundy's Palmerston North supporters have beavered on his behalf. White knows the case well and accepts Lundy's image: a fat slob who visited a prostitute the night he killed his wife and daughter - makes him an unlikely hero. Who'd want to crusade for him?

"I'm not a campaigner," White admonishes, "But I have looked at the evidence and it's impossible not to feel very strongly about what happened and feel there's been a huge injustice. I'm a journalist, I think journalists have a role in exposing and highlighting injustice where they see it."

Whether readers change their minds is questionable. We seem hardwired to believe people are innocent.

Ian Lambie, Associate Professor in Clinical Psychology at Auckland University, believes we are obsessed with crime because it's "more glorified, far more accessible since we've had programmes dedicated to it like CSI. Today, violence is on our dinner plate. For instance, the latest shooting in America has been our nightly dinner menu, and the internet feeds it".

Lambie says it's not "clear cut" why we champion the underdog, those a jury has found guilty beyond reasonable doubt. "The press rally around. That works in [a prisoner's] favour because trials take weeks and weeks and Joe Public relies on summaries through radio, television and the newspaper - what they see or read must be true. I think the facts are difficult, and aren't presented in bullet point, one-line form, so people make short, quick decisions."

Mike White argues he's not trying to change minds, just present "a whole lot of facts people haven't heard so at least they can make up their minds from an educated position".

Janet McIntyre says she is not "obsessed with trying to find guilty people innocent. We're drawn to certain cases where we sense a potential miscarriage of justice. There is legitimate and high public interest in those cases being investigated."

But there is another side that senior journalist Rosemary McLeod, who has written countless crime stories, would hate the public to lose sight of - the victims.

"I find it remarkable that all this pity is focused in the direction of the accused, and the seriousness of what happened is no longer the core issue.

"You could examine any trial in detail and you'll find all sorts of discrepancies. Someone can say a thousand times they didn't do it, but that doesn't mean they're not lying."

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n1 at 21 Sep 2014 08:48:14 Processing Time: 525ms