Lynley Bilby is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Conviction brings justice for baby Popo

Killer to be sentenced on child victim's third birthday

Terepo Taura-Griffiths, or 'Popo', died from brain injuries in 2011.
Terepo Taura-Griffiths, or 'Popo', died from brain injuries in 2011.

The trusted godmother convicted of murdering a baby lovingly nicknamed Popo will receive her sentence on what should have been the boy's third birthday.

Yesterday, a jury found Mariam Filihia, 33, guilty of the murder of her godson Terepo Taura-Griffiths, known as Popo.

As family members filed out of the packed High Court in Auckland, Filihia broke down, sobbing quietly into a tissue.

Next month, on October 29, Filihia will be sentenced to a minimum of 10 years in prison - on the day Popo should have been celebrating his birthday.

If the judge considers child murder an exceptional circumstance, Filihia could face 17 years or more behind bars.

Popo's parents said they were looking forward to putting the "nightmare" behind them with a ceremony at their son's grave. But angry scenes erupted outside court after the verdict: upset families on both sides traded insults before security guards and lawyers defused the situation.

The story of the two closely linked families has been tragic. Filihia's brother, Auckland policeman Kali Fungavaka, died in a Tongan police cell last year, allegedly beaten to death. This year Popo's grandmother Anna Benioni, who was to give evidence against Filihia, also died.

In an exclusive interview with the Herald on Sunday after the verdict, Popo's mother Terepai Benioni said she had mixed emotions. "I am happy that justice has been done but sad my mother wasn't here to see it," she said through tears. "With the verdict, my mother and my son can now rest in peace together. I just wish they were both still here."

Popo was just one year old when he died after visiting at his godparents' home. Police said Filihia deliberately struck Popo's head against a hard, flat surface in the bathroom because he would not stop crying.

The Herald on Sunday broke the news of Popo's death, and has reported his family's struggles since - the police investigation and the charges laid against the woman who should have kept him safe.

On November 4, 2011 Filihia carried Popo into the White Cross medical centre about 9.30pm. Crown prosecutor Christine Gordon said Terepo's "arms were limp, he was pale, unresponsive and unconscious. His condition was alarming."

He was taken to Starship Children's Hospital, where an MRI found a skull fracture in the back of his head. He had bleeds on the surface of his brain and extensive brain damage. Two days later, Popo's mother made the agonising decision to turn off his life support.

Outside court, Filihia's distraught mother Rosemary said she was in complete shock at the verdict. "We did not expect this at all. My daughter loved that boy, why would she do something like that to him?" She said Terepo was "passed around" by a family who didn't deserve him, and police never looked for other suspects.

Filihia's brother, Bishop, said the system was wrong. "Write this down: 10 years for assumptions, there was no evidence. The system is f***ed," he said. "I want to sue this country."

Filihia was acquitted of a separate charge of causing grievous bodily harm to Popo on another occasion.

Filihia's defence argued the fatal injuries on November 4 were accidental, and could have happened when Popo was dragged off a deck while playing with a dog or when he flipped himself out of the bath.

But Detective Senior Sergeant Darrell Harpur said it was another tragic case of child abuse ending in death. "There are no winners. Both families have lost in the end."

- Herald on Sunday

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