Phil Taylor

Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

Susan Burdett: Did the police bungle this murder case?

Despite mounting evidence that police got the wrong man, Teina Pora remains behind bars for the 1992 rape and murder of Susan Burdett. Phil Taylor outlines why several experts believe the conviction is fundamentally flawed

Teina Pora. Photo / 3 News
Teina Pora. Photo / 3 News

Had the police known the semen in Susan Burdett's body belonged to an infamous solo stalker rapist when Teina Pora began to tell his stilted, vague, contradictory stories about a gang home invasion, he would likely have been charged with wasting police time rather than rape and murder.

There is no doubt Pora was a fool who played a dangerous game by implying he knew who was responsible for one of the most shocking murders of its time. Susan Burdett was a 39-year-old accounts clerk and an avid ten pin bowler who lived alone. She returned late from club night at the Manukau Superstrike on Monday, March 23, 1992, and after showering, was raped and battered to death. Her killer posed her body, crossing her legs, which were positioned off the bed. Lying on the bed beside her was the softball bat she kept for protection.

Pora was convicted of her rape and murder in 1994 and was again found guilty at a retrial in 2000, ordered after the semen in Burdett's body was found to belong to Malcolm Rewa, the country's second-most prolific rapist and someone who otherwise always attacked alone.

Rewa was eventually convicted of Burdett's rape, but two juries couldn't decide about murder.

Many people have had trouble with the case, including chief justice Dame Sian Elias, who sent the case back to court commenting that the Crown had been "selective" in saying Pora told a pack of lies about almost everything except his involvement.

Pora's motives for lying lay in the situation he found himself in, says Tim McKinnel, the former policeman who, as a private investigator, has taken up Pora's cause.

Pora was a prolific car thief and had been arrested on a bench warrant for failing to attend court. Though relatively minor, jail was possible because of his long rap sheet for such crimes. He was a kid without a mother, father or job and, already a parent himself; his habit was to try to ingratiate himself to police when in trouble.

Since being charged with the rape and murder of Burdett, Pora has maintained he had no part in it, even though that stance has made it difficult for him to be granted parole. Senior detectives who worked on the case are among those who share that view, and new evidence collected during the past year supports it. The central plank of the case against Pora was his own varying admissions, which the world's leading authority on false confessions has recently described as "fundamentally flawed and unsafe".

In a second piece of new evidence collected by McKinnel and barrister Jonathan Krebs, who are working to have the case reviewed, a British criminal profiling expert has concluded Rewa was "highly unlikely" to have worked with any co-offenders, let alone Pora, a juvenile associate of an enemy gang.

It began for Pora on March 18, 1993 when he was arrested on the court warrants. He was 17, the son of a teenage mother who died when he was 4 and a father who was never around; he had a baby daughter to look after, was in a bitter dispute with senior Mongrel Mob members, having pinched back a car they had taken from him. Mobsters had turned up looking for him with a gun. He knew the gang was after him and he was in trouble with the police too.

It has never been explained how Pora went from being processed on the warrants at the Gordon Rd police station to be being quizzed about the Burdett rape and murder. He had provided his DNA and been excluded as a suspect the year before. In the normal course of events he would have been escorted to court on the warrant matters that day. Instead, Pora was held in custody for four days, during which he was questioned about the Burdett case for 14 hours, without a lawyer.

What is known about that morning is that Pora was brought in at 7.45am. According to a police job sheet, the head of the Burdett homicide inquiry, Detective Inspector Steve Rutherford, received an anonymous phone call 40 minutes later from a female who named a prominent Mongrel Mobster as responsible for the killing. The woman cautioned that her information was hearsay, refused to give her name or number and hung up.

Serendipitous? Sitting in an interview room having been dealt with on the warrants was Pora, a young Mongrel Mob associate.

Whether or not at the instigation of the anonymous call, within 30 minutes Detective Sergeant Mark Williams went to speak to Pora and the Burdett case was raised. Williams recorded in a job sheet that Pora asked whether police had anyone for it yet.

"No, but if you know something about it, tell me."

"I know who did it."

"Tell me about it."

"They'll get me."

"Who?"

"Mobsters."

"Did you do it?"

"Nah, nah but I know who did. I'm just shit-scared of them. They'll get my missus and my baby."

"Did you know there's a reward?"

Pora was told the reward was $20,000 and there was an indemnity against prosecution for non-principal offenders. Williams fetched the indemnity form and when Pora told him he couldn't read, explained it and read Pora his rights.

Over the next four days, Pora's story evolved from claiming he'd driven two Mongrel Mobsters to Burdett's house, to having kept lookout, to having witnessed the attack, to having helped hold her down on her bed with one mobster while another raped her. Pora didn't volunteer names but when police put names to him - including the one nominated by the anonymous caller - Pora went along with it.


It was a significant development for a police inquiry that was going nowhere. A year had passed and despite an enormous effort, they were struggling. Several hundred people had volunteered DNA and been eliminated as having deposited the semen found in Burdett's body, including Pora. The homicide inquiry team had been halved.

On the fourth day, exactly a year after her death, Pora was charged with the sexual violation and murder of Susan Burdett and burglary of her house. "Will my baby get the (reward) money?" were the first words a weeping Pora said to a lawyer after he was charged.

The charges were laid despite Pora's story being shot through with holes. He couldn't find the street Burdett lived in, couldn't point out her house when police stood him in front of it, described her as fair and fat when she was dark and slim, didn't know the bed he claimed three assailants and the victim were on was a waterbed. He couldn't describe the house layout, claimed to have taken a ten pin bowling trophy when none was missing, didn't know the position her body was left in, said she screamed and yelled when her closest neighbour heard only a series of dull thuds. And those he claimed had raped her were all cleared by DNA.

There was no physical evidence to show Pora was ever there. Critics say police sought to build a case on his words rather than test whether he knew anything about the crime at all. Otherwise, says McKinnel, a neighbouring house could have been pointed out and Pora asked whether that was the one. The scene of a brutal murder is not easily forgotten. Had police done that, says the investigator, it would have been obvious Pora didn't know what he was talking about.

Instead Rutherford, a celebrated detective whose successes include solving a cold case botched by the original murder inquiry team, stood Pora in front of Burdett's house and asked, "would it help if I showed you the house?" In explanation for not recognising it, Pora said that the hedge had grown. In fact it had been trimmed to about half the 3.5m it was at the time of the murder.


McKinnel was a junior detective working in Manukau at the time of Pora's retrial. He recalls being an observer during many "vigorous debates" in the police bar about whether Pora was innocent. "If you wanted to start a verbal altercation, that was the case to mention." After Pora was again convicted, a cop expressed his disbelief to McKinnel, calling it an outrage. "I was a young cop and I thought that was an absurd thing to say. It stuck with me over the years."

McKinnel completed a degree in criminology, travelled overseas and on his return set up a private investigation business. An Innocence Project conference looking at possible cases of wrongful convictions prompted him to act on the unease he felt. He visited Pora in prison and got his permission to make some inquiries.

He read the transcript of the confessions.

"The question I had then was what parts of the confessions are they accepting and how have they selected those? He has no reason to lie because he is trying to convince them that he was there." An eye-opener was seeing the video interviews, the body language, the prompting.

McKinnel sought the opinion of Gisli Gudjonsson, professor of forensic psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College, London, who pioneered the study of false confessions. Gudjonsson assessed Pora, reviewed the video interviews and in an 80-page report concluded Pora had caught himself up in a web of lies due to low intellect, psychological vulnerabilities and the incentive of the reward. Gudjonsson's impression was Pora didn't know the crime scene and was trying to pretend he did.

He was repeatedly caught lying but could not tell the truth if he was to maintain the story he hoped would gain him the reward, the professor says. "The longer he lied, the harder it became to own up to having no useful knowledge about the crime whatsoever and to having completely wasted the time of the officers who had been kind to him." The flaws in Pora's story should, Gudjonsson says, have "alerted the police, prosecution, defence and trial judges to their apparent inherent unreliability".

It wasn't just Pora who was unreliable. Statements in the weeks after the murder by some of his family were so flawed the police dismissed them as a conspiracy. An aunt, Terry McLoughlin, told police a few days after the murder that Pora had talked about a softball bat in a drain and said she believed he was involved. From then on she promoted that view and began meddling. "I did a dirty," she says in a police statement. "I told [her daughter] to phone [one of Pora's sisters] and tell her I knew it was Teina. I didn't really know. I was trying to get her to talk about it. I had a funny feeling she knew something."

The sister implicated Pora when interviewed by police later the same day but in a subsequent statement admitted lying because she didn't like her brother and her aunts thought it was best he was in jail. Pora denied involvement and provided a blood sample. On 10 June, 1992, 10 weeks after the murder, Pora was dismissed as a suspect. In his file note, detective sergeant Karl Wright-St Clair (now Inspector) cited "false evidence and conspiracy". "The motive for this was that neither aunt approves of Teina's criminal behaviour and they all wanted him placed in prison and out of the way. I suggest that no further action be taken in relation to Teina Pora as a suspect ... There has already been enough police resources wasted in relation to this matter."

Wright-St Clair's advice was followed until nine months later when Pora was arrested on the warrants. Eventually Aunty Terry testified and claimed Pora had admitted it. The police have declined the Herald's Official Information Act request for information about payments made to witnesses in the Burdett court cases but court documents show the aunt was paid $5000 after giving evidence at Pora's first trial. She is one of three witnesses in trials associated with the murder known to have been paid.

This week she told the Herald: "He may not have done the rape or the murder but, as far as I am concerned, he was there. He knew too much." She said she was "embarrassed" that Pora named people who were not there. But she seemed unaware that Burdett's softball bat found by her body and not the bat in the drain was regarded as the murder weapon (at least until Pora was charged). Asked whether Pora might have invented a story to try to avoid jail and gain a financial reward, she said she hadn't thought of that.

The matching in May 1996 of Rewa's DNA to the semen from Burdett's body two years after Pora was convicted presented a dilemma for two reasons. As such a prolific rapist, Rewa's modus operandi was well established. Rewa attacked 26 women from 1975 to 1996. Twenty-five survived to tell that Rewa was alone. Nothing was found at Susan Burdett's house to show Rewa had accomplices.

The second reason was the care Rewa took to avoid detection. After he was caught by a palm print he left at his first known sex attack, an attempted rape in 1975, Rewa never again left a print, and it was four years and 15 known victims after Burdett before his DNA showed up again a tiny semen spot on a dressing gown. To take along anyone, let alone a juvenile associate of an enemy gang, would have been quite a departure.

The identification of Rewa's semen left police with a choice. They could raise at an official level the kind of alarm that was being expressed privately in police bars about the safety of Pora's conviction. Or, they could try to link the 39-year-old Highway 61 enforcer with the 16-year-old Mongrel Mob bum boy (or "associate" in police speak). They chose the second option.

In a to-do list jotted in his notebook, Williams, the detective who first interviewed Pora about the Burdett homicide, wrote: "Who should we see to show an association between Hama (Rewa's nickname) and Teina?" The phrasing, McKinnel says, suggests a mindset.

Aunty Terry was brought back into the frame. Shown three photos of Rewa (when normal police practice requires a photoboard of at least six different people) the aunt claimed she recognised him.

A witness paid $3,000, another paid $7000 and a jailhouse informant testified in court cases to the effect that Pora and Rewa knew each other. All were granted name suppression.

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Whether or not Pora is a sympathetic character is irrelevant to the question of whether a miscarriage of justice occurred, but his is a mean story. After his mother died he lived with grandparents and other family members, interspersed with stints in boys' homes, from which he would periodically abscond. He once went to Aunty Terry's to ask why no one had visited him. After another breakout he was found at hospital with his pregnant girlfriend. That was the baby for whom Pora tried to get the reward money. Her name is Chanelle and she is 22, a mother to Benson - Pora's 3-year-old grandson.

Last month Pora clocked up 20 years in prison and last week made his 11th appearance before the Parole Board. Its decision is pending.

***

A documentary on the case - The Confessions of Prisoner T - is to screen on Maori Television on Sunday May 5 at 8.30pm.

- NZ Herald

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