Anna Leask is senior police reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Judging the judges: Killer took a second life on bail

Michael Curran's killing of Tauranga 2-year-old Aaliyah Morrissey while he was awaiting trial for strangling 27-year-old Natasha Hayden became a hallmark case for bail reform in New Zealand.

Hoana and Brad Morrissey say Aaliyah would still be alive if Michael Curran had been refused bail. Photo / Alan Gibson
Hoana and Brad Morrissey say Aaliyah would still be alive if Michael Curran had been refused bail. Photo / Alan Gibson

It became the hallmark case for bail reform - the killer who murdered a toddler while on bail for strangling a woman and leaving her body in her car.

Michael Curran was sentenced to life for the murder he committed while on bail. His victims' parents say they can never forgive the bail decision by a High Court judge, even though data shows Curran's crime appears to be a statistical anomaly.

In January 2005, Curran was charged with murdering Tauranga woman Natasha Bridget Hayden, 24, by strangling her. He was remanded in custody, but after four applications, he was granted bail by Justice Mark Cooper.

Curran was bailed to a house just two doors down from Brad and Hoana Morrissey. Forty-eight days later, he assaulted their 2-year-old daughter, Aaliyah, inflicting non-survivable injuries.

Aaliyah's life support was turned off two days after the brutal attack.

"It added insult to injury when we learned that he was bailed after being charged with murdering someone. He should have been kept in," Mr Morrissey told the Herald. "I was horrified. If he wasn't given bail my daughter would still be alive; Aaliyah would be 10 years old now."

Natasha's parents, Brian and Lynette Brown, had attended all of Curran's court hearings except the one where he was granted bail. So, when they heard he had killed Aaliyah, they blamed themselves.

"In a lot of ways we felt it was our fault that Aaliyah was killed. I felt for sure Curran would kill again if he was bailed ... and we weren't there to stop it," Mr Brown said.

Added Mrs Brown: "If you knew the guilt that I felt ... I had tears galore.

"When he got bail I went to see Natasha at the cemetery and I said, 'I'm sorry, he's got bail'. Then a few weeks later, I'm back there telling her, 'He's done it again'."

Both Natasha and Aaliyah were the youngest children in their families and both were referred to by their parents as "the baby".

Natasha's parents say the judge's decision to release Curran - accused of a violent murder - was wrong.

"He's made a decision that's caused the death of a little girl. It was soul destroying. Why would they let anyone out on bail for murder?"

Curran appeared in court charged with Natasha's murder on January 26, 2005, and was denied bail. He later applied again, was declined and appealed in his quest to be released.

There was a concern he would interfere with witnesses. It was also stated that "circumstantial evidence already available indicated that the police had a strong case and hence that there was a real probability of conviction". In the end, police accepted a guilty plea of manslaughter - but that was yet to come.

A further bail application in July 2005 was heard by Justice Cooper. He said the police case was "a strong one" but he was not satisfied there was "just cause" for Curran to remain in custody. He was released on bail, breached conditions when found with a cellphone and appeared before the court again in October. On that occasion, police made no opposition to bail and Curran was released again.

Mr Morrissey was "horrified" when he learned Aaliyah's killer was on bail - and that he was already facing a murder charge.

"When he killed my daughter, that was the worst bail breach ever. Common sense isn't prevailing. It's common sense not to give bail to someone on serious violent charges," he said.

A Ministry of Justice study for bail reform found Curran was one of 156 people charged with murder between 2004 and 2009 who was given bail; a further 253 remained in prison awaiting their trial.

The study found one incident in that time - this was almost certainly Curran's case - which involved somebody accused of murder committing a murder while on bail.

Both Mr Brown and Mr Morrissey believe victims and their families should be able to make submissions in court and stand at the centre of the justice system - a position maintained by the Sensible Sentencing Trust, a victims' advocacy group to which both families are now aligned.

Difficulties accessing information about the case caused more anguish.

Mr Brown was given permission to read one of the bail decisions early on - but under strict conditions.

He didn't agree, and never received details about bail decisions involving Curran until last year.

He said victims and their families should automatically get access to the information instead of going through the application process stipulated in court rules.

Both families believe that a person charged with murder or other serious violent or sexual offending should be held in custody until the end of their trial. If they are acquitted, they are free to go. But until then, their freedom should be taken away to prevent them offending against others in the community.

The total number of people facing such charges runs into the thousands - which would require a sharp increase in the number of jails in New Zealand.

For those facing murder charges, the prospect of jailing all accused was considered during bail reforms but found to be "unreasonable" given the "high percentage of bailed defendants who are not found guilty" of such charges. Last year, only 65 per cent of people charged with murder were convicted of the crime.

Like other families whose lives have been touched by crime, the Browns turned to Garth McVicar at the Sensible Sentencing Trust and lent their voices to its campaign over "bail fail".

"I didn't know where to turn, I didn't know anything at that stage. Garth helped us," Mr Brown said.

The series

Yesterday: Law changes herald new age of transparency
Today: The truth about bail and the impact of the changes
Wednesday: Sentencing with a purpose
Thursday: A day in the life of a judge
Friday: The push for tougher sentences
Saturday: What next for the justice system

Read more:

Special report: Shake-up for judges
You be the judge: What sentence would you give?
Judges: We feel tragedies too

- NZ Herald

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