A story of redemption and forgiveness - From cop killer to top scholar

By Neil Reid

Daniel Luff killed a policeman when he was 17. He is working to be a better man while in prison. Neil Reid reports.
Daniel Luff at his sentencing in the High Court at Palmerston North in 2002.
Daniel Luff at his sentencing in the High Court at Palmerston North in 2002.

A teenaged cop killer has become a high-achieving student behind bars.

In September 2002, Daniel Luff was sentenced to a 17-year minimum non-parole period for the murder of 39-year-old detective constable Duncan Taylor - the father of an 11-month-old boy - and the attempted murder of detective Jeanette Park.

Luff was just 17 when he shot the officers at a rural Awahuri property, 12km from Palmerston North.

Now 30, Luff has become a high-achieving student, winning a Massey University "Outstanding Achiever's Award" and has written a research paper with Canterbury University academic Greg Newbold.

Luff is expected to complete a psychology BA with honours this year.

He wants to do a doctorate and then seek an academic career upon his eventual release from prison.

Taylor's widow Melanie Taylor praised the efforts of the man whose actions resulted in the death "of the man I loved and my son's father" for trying to turn his life around.

"To hear that he has made those choices [to study] and is putting that effort in is a good thing," she told the Herald on Sunday.

"It creates the chance when he gets to leave prison to create a better life for himself.

'How important is it for people in prison to better themselves through education?

"It is absolutely important.

"And let's be fair to Daniel, even with him doing this and putting all of this amount of effort, it will be really hard for him [when he comes out]."

Tuesday marks the 14th anniversary of Taylor's death.

Duncan Taylor
Duncan Taylor

Police were called to the rural Manawatu property owned by the parents of Luff's ex-girlfriend in July 2002.

Taylor was shot in the head and chest at close range shortly after arriving.

Luff was taken into custody after a four-hour stand-off and was charged with Taylor's murder and a raft of other offences.

The teen pleaded guilty and, on September 18, 2002, was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum 17-year non-parole period. He is eligible for parole in 2019.

As Melanie Taylor remembers her first husband, she revealed she felt no resentment towards Luff.

She said he was a "troubled boy" at the time of his offending who had made a "really bad choice".

"He probably didn't have time to think things through thoroughly, and a lot of that is about teenage irrational behaviour and a lack of thinking," she said.

Melanie Taylor has since remarried. Her and Duncan's son, Campbell, is now 14.

After losing her first husband in tragic circumstances, she said her focus had been on being the best possible mother for Campbell, meaning she couldn't afford to carry resentment towards Luff.

Melanie Taylor and her son Campbell in 2012.
Melanie Taylor and her son Campbell in 2012.

"What kind of life would that have created for Campbell and I if I had of had that resentment, uptightness and carried that emotional baggage forever more?" she said.

"What purpose would that have served? There is no purpose in that.

"In reality the events happened and while it caused major upheaval and it changed our life forever more and it shaped who we are today it was what it was. It has never buried me, it has never consumed me."

The Herald on Sunday can reveal Luff's support team includes Newbold, a professor of sociology at the University of Canterbury, who served prison time for drug dealing before embarking on an academic career.

Newbold described himself as Luff's "academic mentor".

Dr Paul Wood - a convicted killer, turned life coach - has also offered informal mentoring.

Wood served an 11-year sentence for the New Year's Eve 1995 murder of a drug dealer.

He was just 18 when he offended.

He has since completed a PhD in psychology, an MA (Hons) in psychology and is a respected life coach.

Wood said Luff's progress was a success story of someone trying to "recompense" from their previous actions.

He said everyone had the "capacity for change and growth", including prison inmates.

And it was imperative the justice system ensured education and training were available for prisoners who wanted to change.

"As a society we need to provide that opportunity, we need to look at what is going on for people who really want to succeed and turn their lives around.

"And we need to support and foster that," Wood said.

"We can hate the crime, and we should hate the crime, but that doesn't mean that we hate the person or negate the humanity of that person."

Luff was also being helped by Massey University and Auckland Prison's education tutor Jayne Waugh.

Newbold said Luff's efforts to turn his life around should be congratulated.

"It is his firm commitment to do a PhD, get out of prison and make a positive contribution to society," Newbold said.

"He is an A student. He works his guts out. It is his whole identity now. His whole dream is to get out and be a scholar."

Newbold said Luff was "striving after excellence" and was so committed to his university studies that he had rejected offers from Corrections to be transferred out of New Zealand's toughest prison, Newbold said.

"He wants to stay at Paremoremo," Newbold said.

"He doesn't want to go, he is terrified of shifting, because [he worries] without that support he won't be able to [continue his studies]."

Luff first contacted Newbold in 2012. "He was a bit reluctant, fearing I might knock him back because of the nature of his crime," Newbold said.

The academic said although Luff's offending was "terrible" he didn't hesitate to help.

In 2014 a paper the pair wrote - Risk Assessment in New Zealand Prisons: Questioning Experiential Outcomes - was published in Canadian journal, Prisoners on Prison.

Newbold said there was no escaping Luff's offending had been a "huge tragedy" for the families it affected, but his commitment to rehabilitate himself was impressive.

"Everybody deserves to have the opportunity to make amends for what they have done," he said.

Corrections officials would not comment on Luff's educational achievements.

But Simon Daly, acting director programmes and interventions, said the department was committed to "delivering high quality education programmes and training, based on individual needs".

Paul Wood spent 12 years in jail after being convicted of murder as an 18-year-old. Photo / Natalie Slade
Paul Wood spent 12 years in jail after being convicted of murder as an 18-year-old. Photo / Natalie Slade

Paying it forward

Convicted murderer-turned-life-coach and psychologist Paul Wood knows first-hand the power of having a second chance.

Like Daniel Luff, Wood was handed a life sentence after being convicted of murder as a teen.

Wood served 11 years for killing his 42-year-old former drug supplier on New Year's Eve 1995. The offending happened when he was 18, and three days after Wood's mother died of cancer.

Behind bars, Wood turned his life around, completing bachelor and masters degrees.

At 35, he graduated with a PhD in psychology. Wood now runs Switch Consulting, offering a range of life coaching services and said education was behind his transformation.

And he believed education would also prove a life-changer for Luff. "Both of us were teenaged males who made incredibly bad decisions that have had unbelievably damaging consequences for people," Wood told the Herald on Sunday.

"And both of us ... decided to take proactive steps to ensure we are positive contributing members of society. Make no mistake, he is doing a hell of a lot more than going through programmes and saying the right things."

Luff first contacted Wood two years ago.

The pair have never met in person. "Daniel is someone who clearly comes across as sincere about being a better person and taking responsibility for their previous actions."

- Herald on Sunday

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