'Bully' found guilty of murder

By Sam Hurley -
Johnny Wright
Johnny Wright

A 39-year-old man has been found guilty of kidnapping and murdering a Hawkes Bay sickness beneficiary.

Steven Tiwini Rakuraku faced 11 charges, including the murder of the 50-year-old Johnny Charles Wright, who disappeared on June 21, 2011.

Rakuraku was found guilty of 10 of the 11 charges at the High Court in Napier including injuring with intent to injure and perverting the course of justice. He was found not guilty of threatening to kill one of the complainants.

The jury reached their verdicts today after deliberating for a day and a half.

The verdicts also come just two days after the three year anniversary of the Hastings man's murder, after he was bashed and "pelted" by Rakuraku with a taiaha (Maori war weapon) and later buried in a shallow grave near Eskdale.

After Rakuraku's former partner "came clean" to police and led detectives to the grave, a pathologist discovered Mr Wright's body had 36 rib fractures.

After firing his defence counsel on day one of the trial, Rakuraku defended himself and delayed the trial on several occasions, causing considerable angst among the large group of Mr Wright's family and friends who attended the proceedings.

Rakuraku vehemently denied all the charges against him throughout the three week trial, held before Justice Joe Williams.

His former representation, Russell Fairbrother QC and Leo Lafferty, were appointed amicus curiae (friend of the court) by Justice Williams to preserve the integrity of the court.

Crown prosecutor Steve Manning said last week, during his closing submissions, that a current of fear had run through the case.

Rakuraku had been on the run from police in 2011 and used, intimidated and beat his victims to gain control of their "safe houses" and finances in a desperate bid to escape the law.

"The whole narrative begins because Mr Rakuraku was fearful of the police," Mr Manning said.

"He then sought to survive by using other people, and the tool he used was fear."

He said Rakuraku was a "bully" who dominated and controlled Mr Wright, whom he had selected carefully.

"He chose the weak. He chose people who were vulnerable, weaker than him, smaller than him," he said.

Rakuraku's former partner, who also testified for the Crown, had been "a witness to it all", he said.

"She was there at the finish when the last shovel full of soil was put over Johnny's body on Waipunga Rd.

"She could have done more - no one's going to dispute that ... she should not be judged for what she didn't do, but for what she did do."

He said Mr Wright was also the "perfect candidate" for Rakuraku to target and manipulate.

"He was the sort of person who would not fight back, he was the sort of person who would not resist, and finally he was the sort of person who would not go to the police."

Mr Manning said that Rakuraku also made efforts to expunge the evidence and hide clues from the police.

"By the time police got into the house, it had been cleaned up, bleached, stuff taken to the dump in a determined effort to clean the flat up."

He described a "poignant" moment when Mr Wright's father had the "last opportunity to see his son alive", as he visited the Caroline Rd flat during the search for his missing boy.

"That was Johnny's last chance and Mr Rakuraku took it away from him.

He said the expert medical witnesses had made it "crystal clear" that Mr Wright had died as a direct result of the 36 rib fractures, some caused by the taiaha beating, two days before his death.

Rakuraku burned the taiaha after the attack to prevent police finding the weapon.
The Crown's prosecution was led by Mr Manning and Jo Reilly.

During Rakuraku's last opportunity to convince the jury of his innocence, he said he "religiously" practiced tai chi and yoga.

"Do you see someone who does that turning into a monster?

"Don't forget justice is not revenge. It's about truth, not prejudice," he said in closing on Friday.

Mr Fairbrother said, during his closing submissions, the jury had listened to some disturbing evidence.

"You've heard some terrible things in this trial, some things you will probably never forget."

Justice Williams thanked Mr Wright's family, sitting in the public gallery, for reliving the tragic events of 2011.

"Your attendance has been a brave and stoic attendance."

He said the family had "underscored your anguish" during a difficult trail under "very difficult circumstances".

"It's been a trial that's had many delays, many more than usual," he said.

Justice Williams remanded Rakuraku in custody and said he will determine a sentencing date at a later time.

He also ordered a full pre-sentence report and a cultural background report on Rakuraku, who was issued a first strike warning under the three strikes legislation.

Mr Wright's youngest brother, Paul Wright, told media the family was "delighted" with the verdicts reached by the jury.

"It's been a struggle the last three years to get to this point," he said.

He also acknowledged the support of his family, friends, Crown prosecutors, detectives and victim support managers throughout the trial.

Friends and family members of Mr Wright shed tears and embraced each other as Rakuraku was escorted from the courtroom, after an emotional and anxious wait for the verdicts.

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