Matthew Backhouse

Matthew Backhouse is an APNZ news reporter based in Wellington.

Greg King suffered 'massive breakdown' - coroner

High-profile lawyer Greg King. Photo / Richard Robinson
High-profile lawyer Greg King. Photo / Richard Robinson

Top defence lawyer Greg King had a "massive breakdown'' at the end of the Ewen Macdonald murder trial, four months before taking his own life, a coroner's report has revealed.

The report of Coroner Garry Evans paints a picture of Mr King's depressed state before he was found dead in a Wellington suburb on November 3 last year.

It includes excerpts from a suicide note in which Mr King described himself as "exhausted, unwell, disillusioned, depressed and haunted''.

It also contains comments from his widow, Catherine Milnes-King, who said Mr King was depressed but was too stubborn to discuss it with anyone, and that he had a breakdown after giving his closing address in the Macdonald trial.

The report also addresses speculation that Mr King had taken his life within days of an investigative journalist approaching him with allegations about irregularities in his legal aid billing.

It said the Ministry of Justice investigated, but found the amount of legal aid claimed was reasonable and further investigation could not proceed. There was also no mention of the journalist's contact in Mr King's suicide note.

Ms Milnes-King told the inquest she believed her husband had been depressed but was too proud to discuss it with anyone.

She said he was always on a "rollercoaster of emotions'' and that she was the one who kept him grounded.

Macdonald trial's toll

Ms Milnes-King said her husband had a "massive breakdown'' after he gave his closing address in the hugely publicised Macdonald murder trial.

Macdonald was accused of murdering brother-in-law Scott Guy at his Feilding home, but was acquitted by a High Court jury in July last year after a successful defence led by Mr King.

Coroner Evans said Ms Milnes-King said the trial had "taken a substantial toll on him''.

"She says she had not seen such an intense breakdown before. She says it felt as though her husband's breakdown went on for hours, whereas usually he would be able to pick himself up.''

Ms Milnes-King said her husband was "publicly slated everywhere following the conclusion of the Macdonald trial''.

She said Mr King's health, the details of which were suppressed by the coroner, and his workload had really impacted on him.

Investigation into legal aid billing

The police officer who investigated Mr King's death, Detective Inspector Paul Basham, said he had investigated matters involving Dominion Post investigative reporter Phil Kitchin, who was looking into allegations made against Mr King by a former client.

The disgruntled client had alleged irregularities in legal aid billing.

But he said Ms Milnes-King believed her husband was unlikely to have been unduly bothered by the allegations, and there was no mention in the suicide note.

Kitchin gave evidence he had contacted Mr King on November 1, two days before Mr King was found dead, but described their conversation as "cordial, courteous, professional and polite''.

He told Mr King it was possible he would not publish a story.

The coroner suppressed some of the contents of the note and the manner in which Mr King died.

But he said the lawyer was "incredibly disillusioned and depressed''.

"He says his heart and soul were always to be a defence lawyer, but that after nearly 20 years he is 'now completely over it. Totally burnt out'.''

Mr King was found by a member of the public in a cul-de-sac in the suburb of Newlands on November 3 after being reported missing by his family the previous evening.

Mr Evans said Mr King's experiences with victims of serious crime had affected him profoundly and he was "haunted'' by the dead from the numerous homicide cases he was involved in.

"He says he has been genuinely torn between doing his job and his conscience, which keeps asking him 'is this really what you want to be doing'?''

Impact on family

Coroner Evans said Mr King's death was an irreparable loss to his wife, parents and children. It was also a considerable loss to the community and the New Zealand legal profession.

"There can be no doubt that the relentless pressures of his criminal practice, together with the other influences, pressures and concerns recorded in these findings, crowded out the time needed by him to look after his own health and ultimately weighed so heavily upon his mind that he suffered a major collapse under pressure and, in his very depressed state, saw the only way out as being to end his life.''

Coroner Evans said it was sad that Mr King was unable to bring himself to report his depression, and that he would have been able to seek help from his GP or the Law Society.

In a statement, released along with the coroner's report today, Ms Milnes-King said the family was unlikely to ever come to terms with Mr King's death.

"Sadly, like many people, we see it as a by-product of his recognised genius.

"The texture of the man we remember is a caring and loving husband, father, brother and son; someone who never said no to requests for his expert help, and someone who stood for fairness, equality and justice for everyone.

"Over the past year, we have received many messages and letters from people nationwide who share in our loss and we want to thank them from the depths of our hearts for their compassion.

"Greg has left a positive legacy to New Zealand's legal sector with his input at practice and policy levels, and we are very proud of that.''

Ms Milnes-King said her husband had helped a lot of individuals and organisations on a pro bono basis, and had a charitable spirit which saw him engaged with numerous groups.

"He represented clients for free and made many unpaid trips to the West Coast acting for the Pike River contractors who were left out of pocket after the tragedy.

"This is an extremely difficult time for our family. With the first anniversary of Greg's death in a few weeks, we trust people fully understand and respect our need for private time.''

Sensible Sentencing Trust's Garth McVicar said New Zealand had lost one of the greatest men he had the good fortune to meet.

"Greg gave his time willingly and freely to assist many of the families and victims within the wider Sensible Sentencing Trust family,'' Mr McVicar said.

"Greg's knowledge of the law, his passion for people from all walks of life and his drive to leave society better than he found it was unique and irreplaceable.''

- Statement from Catherine Milnes-King -


"Our family will unlikely ever come to terms with Greg's death. Sadly, like many people, we see it as a by-product of his recognised genius.

The texture of the man we remember is a caring and loving husband, father, brother and son; someone who never said no to requests for his expert help, and someone who stood for fairness, equality and justice for everyone.

Over the past year, we have received many messages and letters from people nationwide who share in our loss and we want to thank them from the depths of our hearts for their compassion.

Greg has left a positive legacy to New Zealand's legal sector with his input at practice and policy levels, and we are very proud of that.

He helped a lot of individuals and organisations on a pro bono basis. His charitable spirit had him engaged with numerous groups across every aspect of society including the Wellington Free Ambulance, Wainuiomata Rugby League and the Sensible Sentencing Trust. He represented clients for free and made many unpaid trips to the West Coast acting for the Pike River contractors who were left out of pocket after the tragedy.

This is an extremely difficult time for our family. With the first anniversary of Greg's death in a few weeks, we trust people fully understand and respect our need for private time.''


Where to get help

Youth services: (06) 3555 906

Youthline: 0800 376 633

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Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (noon to midnight)

The Word

Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (24-hour service)

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

CASPER Suicide Prevention

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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