Twelve Questions with Teina Pora

By Jennifer Dann

Teina Pora spent 22 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit. His story is told in a new book In Dark Places by Michael Bennett, who also made an award-winning doco about the case.

1. Have you been recognised often in public since your convictions were quashed by the Privy Council in May last year?

Most definitely. People come up to me wherever I go. It's pretty hard sometimes but now I'm used to it. I've just got to accept it. It's all been positive. They say, "Congratulations" or "Hey bro, good job. Good to see you out."

2. You've been in prison all your adult life. What have been the hardest things to get used to outside prison?

There're so many. Everything is full on. It's way different from being isolated inside. I just haven't got to that phase of how to deal with things properly yet. I make a mess and I don't know how to fix that mess. That's why it's great having support people around. When I came out on parole last year I lived with Billy and Winnie Retimana. They asked Fete Taito to guide me. He's done time so he knows what it's like readjusting to life. There're quite a few people in my support network but the main core is Fete, his wife Viv and Tim McKinnel.

They take care of everything so it's managed in a stable way and I don't have to worry.

3. Are you still living with your daughter Channelle and grandson Benson in South Auckland?

No, I'm staying with my sister in Taranaki. I went down there a couple of weeks ago, just a time-out break because of things at home. I still get on okay with Channelle - it's just being able to live together. I was born down in Taranaki and grew up there until I was 4 or 5. I've been for a run with the local rugby league team. I love taking pictures of places on my phone but I'm taking a while to learn it.

4. Do you have any memories of your mum?

No. All I know is that she was a good mum. I've had a lot of stories of what she did in her life and I've got a photo now. She died when I was 4 or 5. Mum's parents picked up me and my brother and sister and took us to Otara. They were loving and caring. There's a photo of us all in the sitting room that would be one of my happiest memories - being together as a family when all of us were young.

5. What went wrong?

As we got older my grandparents couldn't handle us. We were too active. They also had to manage an aunty that had seizures. That's when we got separated and moved to different aunties and uncles around South Auckland. The ones you see on the piss every weekend. When you're not settled like a normal family a lot of things will be affected - your self-esteem, your learning. Everything starts to annoy you. I started hanging round with some new friends and getting up to no good. I got suspended from Tangaroa College when I was in third form and never went back. I saw another path and decided, "I'm just going to go down that path".

6. How old were you when you were first imprisoned?

When I was 15 I was sent to Waikeria, in 1989. Back in those days they had youth on one side and adults on the other side. Being in the boys' home woke me up. You're entering into a world where you have to know where you stand and how you're going to hold yourself. You're not a boy, you're a man. To be exposed to that can be frightening. My daughter Channelle was born while I was in Waikeria.

7. At 17 you graduated to Paremoremo after being convicted of Susan Burdett's murder. Was that different?

Pare has some really hard-out inmates. Those dudes can be like a time-bomb - a click of a finger and they just go off. It's possible to avoid some situations but you just don't know the temperature of every inmate. Some things you've got to fight your way out of or just take it on the chin. I pretty much just stuck with the lifers. A lot of the older, wiser guys that had been there for a long time sort of look after any young one that comes in. I crossed paths with a few lifers fighting for their innocence - Dave Tamihere and Scotty Watson. We used to have our little thing where we'd all check out what's happening with our cases. Scotty said to me, "I'm going to be out before you," but that didn't faze me. It was just that inmate kind of crap talk you have in there.

8. How did you cope emotionally?

The first 11 years were a bit of a struggle. The biggest part was being inside for something you didn't do. To learn how to live with that was tough. I was just, "No one cares, f*** the system, f*** yous all." All hope died for me back then. When I look back on it, there's something inside of you that kicks in and keeps you going. You've got to put on a cover to not let people know that you're hurting inside. It's a nightmare.

9.H ow did you discover Christianity?

I tried lots of religions in prison - Muslim, Jehovah. But my heart wasn't in it. I was just in it for food or whatever. Sometimes it just takes one person to cross your path and for me it was this 6-foot tall American Indian. He came to New Zealand to open a church but got convicted of fraud. He helped me come out of a place where I was boxed into darkness. He took me right back to being an innocent child again. He taught me how to read and write and talk to people. Hope came back.

10.Why did you decide to trust Tim McKinnel when he came to meet you in prison?

After I got convicted at the second trial I didn't trust anybody, especially an ex-cop. As time went on, I started letting down the layers of bricks that I had up. It took a few years.

11. How did you feel when the Privy Council quashed your convictions in March last year?

I felt air going through my lungs - I could breathe again. Sitting there looking at the harbour bridge, getting told the news before anyone else knows - just you and the people that fought for you. That was a special moment. The tears were coming. Then we came back to Michael [Bennett's] house where everyone was waiting. I had to put on a guilty look until the verdict came on the TV and the party began. I never saw a man pull out a tissue so much as Tim.

12. What do you think of Michael's new book?

I think he's done an awesome job. It'll give people an understanding about the truth and he's put it in a way that emotionally affects people.

- NZ Herald

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