Incoming High Court judge has seen share of horrible crimes

By Andrew Koubaridis

Simon Moore QC has led the prosecution in some of the biggest murder trials of the past few decades. Now he is to become a High Court judge. He talks to Andrew Koubaridis
Simon Moore is taking up the role of High Court judge. Photo / Dean Purcell
Simon Moore is taking up the role of High Court judge. Photo / Dean Purcell

Throughout his 34-year legal career, Simon Moore, QC has had a front row seat to the recounting of some of the most horrible crimes in this country's history.

But after hundreds of trials, evidence and argument, one moment still stands out as the most dramatic.

It was Susan Couch - the sole survivor of the RSA triple murders - sitting in the witness box giving evidence against psychopath William Bell.

"That was horrific. I will never forget Susan Couch coming into the courtroom. What an extraordinarily courageous woman, who, almost from the grave, described what happened to her and her colleagues inside the RSA in circumstances where her attacker never believed that she would be a witness against him. Because he was certain he left her for dead."

Moore, who this year would have marked 20 years as Auckland's Crown Solicitor, was this week appointed to be a High Court judge, sitting in Auckland.

It was not something he ever envisaged happening when he began at Meredith Connell in November 1980 and was hired on the spot as a law clerk.

"The day I walked through the door into this office for the first time, I was terrified and bewildered and if I had any aspiration at all, it was to be as good as the lawyers more senior to me.

"I never aspired to be a High Court judge. For a young lawyer it was such a remote aspiration as to be completely unrealistic."

Since the late 1980s, Moore's face has become familiar in newspaper articles and news bulletins for his role in high-profile cases.

Framed pictures of the trial and investigation teams from some of the most memorable hang across a wall in his office on the 15th floor of Meredith Connell's Shortland St offices.

I never aspired to be a High Court judge. For a young lawyer it was such a remote aspiration as to be completely unrealistic.

- Simon Moore, QC

"The first murder trial I prosecuted, in October 1994, was Warwick Bennett. A cold case, a flight sergeant who murdered his wife Yvonne and buried her out in Woodhill Forest. He was arrested 10 years afterwards and ended up taking police out to scene where he had hidden the body."

The murder of cricket umpire Peter Plumley-Walker in 1989 captivated the nation with its details of bondage gone wrong. "But it was also a technically difficult case and I juniored in that one to Bruce Squire, QC."

Another case was that of Peter Mwai, convicted of spreading HIV intentionally. "It was the first time anyone in the Commonwealth or even the world prosecuted (someone for) infecting with HIV, so that was significant as well."

Moore singles out the corruption and bribery trial of former Labour MP Taito Phillip Field and the double murder trial of Chris Kahui as the most "testing and challenging".

Peter Mwai was convicted of deliberately infecting women with the HIV virus.
Peter Mwai was convicted of deliberately infecting women with the HIV virus.

"They were technically difficult and challenging cases. Others, perhaps, were bigger or longer but those for me were the most challenging."

The Kahui case, in particular, became a media sensation, fuelled by the jury taking only minutes to acquit Chris Kahui of killing his baby sons. It was a rare loss for Moore, which he acknowledges as one of those times the prosecution just doesn't succeed.

Despite immersing himself in cases involving some of the worst people this country has produced, Moore has not altered his view of society.

"I think the trick to it is to have a balanced view on life and a balanced life. I mean, I have a wonderfully supportive family who have always kept me grounded."

Dealing with sociopaths who had done terrible things to other people is inevitable for anyone tied up in the criminal justice system, he says.

"And it's critically important to remind oneself that what we are daily dealing with during our professional lives is not representative of this extraordinary country we live in. It doesn't matter where you go or how long you have been away for, when you come back you always realise what a privilege it is to live in New Zealand."

Part of the way he deals with the stresses of the job is to exercise daily. Even during a lengthy and consuming trial, he dedicates a time each day for exercise.

Just as dramatic as the trials he has participated in have been the changes in the criminal justice system.

"There have been massive changes. The biggest is the way in which the whole of the criminal legal process has become more complicated. That's been translated into trials which are becoming progressively longer and more complex."

He gave an example of an average High Court trial that 12 years ago would have taken three to three-and-a-half days but is now more likely to take 10 days.

"That has a lot to do with all sorts of procedural legal aspects, which have complicated the process."

Chief among those were forensic evidence and also greater sophistication of police investigative techniques, such as phone tapping.

There have also been significant changes to the way juries are directed with fact-based question trails. These are written handouts summarising the main questions the jury must decide, prepared by the judge with the agreement of both prosecution and defence.

"A summing up might take three hours: is it reasonable to expect a jury to understand and remember? But if you have fact-based question trails I think that its a positive step forward with an even greater confidence in the way the (system) works."

There wouldn't be a trial you'd be involved in - even the saddest cases - where there would not be moments of levity, because the courtroom really is a theatre and anything can happen there.

- Simon Moore, QC

The part of the process he has enjoyed most has been working with victims of crimes and their families. "Even though we don't technically represent victims we do have both moral and legal responsibilities to victims of crime. That's certainly been one of the most satisfying aspects of the job to me ... Helping victims of crime understand the process and ensuring events in the process don't occur without warning and without understanding they will occur - that has been a rewarding aspect."

Amid the life and death drama there have been lighter moments. "There wouldn't be a trial you'd be involved in - even the saddest cases - where there would not be moments of levity, because the courtroom really is a theatre and anything can happen there, possibly because of the seriousness and formality.

"When they do happen they might seem funnier than they actually are."

Moore didn't need to wait long in his career for such a moment.

Peter Plumley-Walker
Peter Plumley-Walker

"Some are not funny when they happen to you. In my first criminal jury trial, my eyewitness, when asked to identify the accused as part of his evidence, actually identified the foreman of the jury. It was an unsettling moment and has never happened since. Needless to say, I lost."

Looking ahead, Moore can make no predictions about what it will be like on the High Court bench.

"I'm not going to be so pompous as to suggest what kind of judge I might be or what kind of judicial philosophy I might take to the job because I just simply don't know, sitting where I am.

"But one aspect which I believe will be interesting and something much more experienced judges have said to me is, instead of managing and presenting and advocating a particular case in a legal proceeding I will have the privilege and novel task of listening to both sides without having to worry whether the next witness is going to turn up or come up to brief ... That isn't to suggest for a moment that judging isn't challenging, just a different kind of challenge."

What he is more certain of is the future of the colleagues he is leaving behind.

"I will miss working with an extraordinarily talented group of men and women in the wonderful firm. I continue to be amazed and impressed with the younger generation of lawyers who I see come into this firm and who I know represent the young lawyers of the future. It's made me feel very privileged to have led this firm over the last 20 years as Crown Solicitor. It fills me with optimism for the future for this wonderful country we live in."

Career highlights

William Bell. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey
William Bell. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey

1989 - Was junior counsel in the Crown case against teenage dominatrix Renee Chignell and her then-boyfriend Neville Walker, who hurled cricket umpire Peter Plumley-Walker off the Huka Falls, north of Taupo, after a bondage and discipline session went bad.

1994 - Warwick Keith Bennett was convicted in November 1994 of murdering his 24-year-old wife, Yvonne, who went missing from their home at the Hobsonville Air Base in April 1982. It was Simon Moore's first murder trial as Crown Solicitor.

1994 - Kenyan musician Peter Mwai was sentenced to seven years jail for having unprotected sex with five women and infecting two with HIV.

2002 - Murder trial of William Bell, who killed Wayne Johnson, Mary Hobson and Bill Absolum at the Mt Wellington-Panmure RSA.

2008 - Double murder trial of Chris Kahui, who was acquitted.

2009 - Bribery and corruption trial of former Labour MP Taito Phillip Field.

- NZ Herald

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