Joe Karam: Trust police reviews? No way

By Joe Karam

For 13 years, Joe Karam fought to free David Bain. Today, the justice campaigner writes exclusively for the Herald on Sunday on this week's review of the Crewe murders, and on law changes he believes are needed

Bain spent 13 years in jail for the murders of his family, before a campaign led by Joe Karam won him a retrial at which he was acquitted. Photo / HOS
Bain spent 13 years in jail for the murders of his family, before a campaign led by Joe Karam won him a retrial at which he was acquitted. Photo / HOS

As winter approached in 1970, I was an 18-year-old student, hoping to play in the All Black trials and be selected to tour South Africa. But I broke my knee cap, and so on that bleak day in June, when the disappearance of Harvey and Jeannette Crewe was reported, I was at home recovering, my leg in plaster.

I became enthralled in the case. Murders were few and far between then, and this was a real whodunit. Ordinary country folk gunned down in their farmhouse — this just did not happen.

The media coverage was prolific. With time on my hands, I read everything and followed the ensuing trials and appeals, the free Arthur Thomas campaign and the royal commission with great interest. The case dominated the news for a decade and, international events aside, was matched only by the other great disaster of the time on Mt Erebus.

What began as the Crewe murders evolved into the Arthur Allan Thomas case and wound up as the greatest single disaster to confront our police. Their botched investigation saw Thomas wrongly convicted — twice.

For the past 44 years, successive police commissioners have publicly refused to acknowledge the force's failings, and even worse, fuelled the proposition that they did in fact "get their man". They even went so far as to provide a formal show of arms at the funeral of Detective Inspector Bruce Hutton, the officer accused of planting the cartridge case that implicated Thomas, with a eulogy from Mike Bush, now the commissioner.

As is well known, I have spent the past two decades confronting similar problems to those faced by Thomas four decades ago: police refusal to admit they are wrong; police cover-ups when they do get it wrong; instances of corruption in the criminal justice process. It is presumably due to my success in confronting these issues that the Herald on Sunday asked me to comment on the Crewe murders review.

First, let me get a couple of things straight. I am not anti-police. I am sure the overwhelming majority of officers are not crooks. I believe that a strong democracy needs a well-resourced and trusted police force. My comments, therefore, are not an attack on the 9,000 or so men and woman out there doing a tough, dangerous and often thankless task.

Having said that, this review is not worthy of serious consideration. It has been a complete waste of public funds and the four years of detectives' time it took to produce.

In similar vein to Independent Police Conduct Authority reports, it is no more than a public relations exercise. It claims to be exhaustive and comprehensive, but so long as the police remain the reviewers of the police, we have only their word for that.

The detectives who conducted the review are extolled for their dedication by the same commissioner who hailed Hutton as an officer of great integrity. What weight can be put on his utterances?

I was particularly interested to see how it would deal with the two major problems it confronted — the planting accusation against Hutton and the integrity of the decision to charge Thomas. It seems to me it goes like this: "We may have been corrupt, but, wink wink, nod nod, at least we targeted the correct family."

At the same time, no attempt was made during the four-year review, as far as I can see, to match the 15 or 20 unidentified fingerprints located at the murder scene. Thomas, by the way, was eliminated in 1970 as having made these prints.


Police reviews of police actions
cannot be trusted or believed.
Similarly, police reviews of
criminal cases that go off
the rails are a waste of time.

As far as police reviews go, I was involved in one of the other most highly publicised of all time; the one done as a result of the publication of my first book, David and Goliath, the Bain Family Murders, in 1997. That report found that the police investigation into the deaths of the Bain family was a copybook inquiry, conducted with integrity.

For nearly two decades senior police, including commissioners, reiterated that finding, and claimed they had a mountain of evidence against David. That mountain disintegrated into a small pile of rubble at the 2009 retrial.

Put simply, police reviews of police actions cannot be trusted or believed. Similarly, police reviews of criminal cases that go off the rails are a waste of time. Invariably, they diminish police shortcomings, find no new evidence and seek to close down discussion. Just as predictably, they are a source of derision and amazement from the public, and bring the reputation of the organisation into even greater disrepute.

Prominent proponents of the status quo are police national headquarters themselves, and others with close connections such as former police minister Judith Collins and former High Court judge Robert Fisher, who acted for the police at the 1981 royal commission.

The Independent Police Complaints Authority is the ultimate toothless tiger. If New Zealand wishes to rid itself of the plague of miscarriages of justice that go on for decades — such as Thomas, Bain, Doherty, Ellis, Pora and many others — we must change the way we deal with them. There are two elementary and prescient requirements.

Step one is to immediately introduce a Criminal Cases Review Commission to investigate such cases. I note with satisfaction this is Labour Party policy. Predictably, Collins sees no such need. Of course not; her response to the Privy Council declaring Mark Lundy's convictions unsafe after 12 years was that it was an example of the system working well.

Step two — we need an Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), as they have in New South Wales. This way, the repeated political claim that our public service, which includes the police and judiciary as well as politicians themselves, is corruption free can be put to the test.

It is notable that a former police minister, John Banks, and a former justice minister, Doug Graham — both in office in 1995 when Bain was wrongly convicted — now have convictions. How many more such cases would there be if we had an ICAC?

- Herald on Sunday

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