Steve Braunias examines the peculiar case of the pamper party killing in Te Atatu South. Anna Browne was found guilty of a vicious, brutal murder - but claimed she had no memory that it ever happened, that she was in an "altered state" of automatism.

Something very mysterious and quite amazing made a rare visit to the criminal courts these past three weeks at the murder trial of Anna Browne.

One of the central arguments of her plea of not guilty at the High Court of Auckland was the obscure defence of automatism.

To hear it in action was like catching a glimpse of a rare bird, or to receive fresh reports of something as outlandish as the Loch Ness monster; seldom raised as a defence, automatism describes a trance-like state, strays into dark corners of the human brain. It doesn't make any sense and that's the point of automatism - it's a senseless act, something performed by the body without any control of the mind.

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But almost as soon as it was held up for inspection at the trial, it disappeared, and it made no difference to the verdict.

Browne was found guilty on Wednesday evening of the murder of Carly Stewart, who she stabbed in the head and killed on October 15 last year at an afternoon party in Te Atatu South, that crowded, riverbank suburb in west Auckland.

The paperwork of Operation Puma as laid out in the courtroom might be described as slim. The weapon, a German chopping knife, was found in the kitchen sink; there were a number of witnesses to the attack, including traumatised children; the killing had no forensic controversy about it and the case was absolutely no whodunnit.

Browne was handcuffed and put in the back of a police car in the very same minutes that Carly Stewart lay dying from a massive loss of blood. Caught bang to rights, case closed.

But the jury deliberated for close to six hours. The possibility of reasonable doubt had surely made an impression as they considered the defence of murderous intent, that Browne was so wasted she didn't know what she was doing.

Automatism had formed part of that argument in the opening fortnight of the trial. It was introduced by Browne's lawyer, Marie Dyhrberg QC. It required ingenuity and daring, because it's so seldom used, so striking and unusual; and it presented an opportunity for a learned conversation about free will, the unconscious mind, and other intellectual abstractions.

There was this beautiful description of automatism from a court in Ireland: "a temporary eclipse of consciousness".

It's on speaking terms with temporary insanity and diminished responsibility, although neither are recognised in New Zealand law. Automatism doesn't actually exist as a psychiatric condition, only as a legal term, and the definitions of it are many and varied, all chasing shadows.

But the central problem with automatism in a jury trial is its close association with bullshit. It's the ultimate yeah-right defence. It sounds made up, a total nonsense. You did it, but you did not know that you did it, and cannot be held accountable for it. Your unconscious mind made you its slave, or not even that, because you couldn't rebel; you were a robot, a puppet, a dim and blameless automaton.

On Tuesday morning, Justice Wylie instructed the jury to disregard it. "I have ruled," he said, "that there is no proper basis for the defence of automatism. You will not be required to consider it."

The ruling stripped the trial of its inquiry into the mysterious workings of the mind.

It had been fascinating while it lasted, and it still left open the question of intent. The jury was sent out at midday on Wednesday. There was a tap on the jury door not long after 3pm; Dyhrberg was waiting for the verdict in the courtroom, and said, "Oh, God." A verdict after only three hours would surely mean the jury weren't about to waste any more time with the niceties of intent and had already found Browne guilty of murder.

The call went out for Crown prosecutors Nick Webby and Scott McColgan. They finally burst into the courtroom a good 20 minutes later, looking harried and flustered; a lock of hair had fallen over McColgan's scarily suntanned face.

Matthew Mortimer, a thin, pale 27-year-old who could pass for 17 and had an insatiable appetite for chocolate, was assisting on his first murder trial, and was first to arrive.

With everyone assembled, the judge took his seat. But it transpired that the jury actually wished to spend more time examining the niceties of intent, and had a question to ask to establish whether intent must be present at the exact time of the killing. "An intent," answered the judge, "can be impulsive."

It was a simple remark, and it touched precisely on the sudden, awful nature of the killing.

Anna Browne had come to the party with two of her sisters. Photo / Peter Meecham
Anna Browne had come to the party with two of her sisters. Photo / Peter Meecham

The knife concealed behind Browne's back, then the plunge into the side of Stewart's face, penetrating into her neck, cutting the jugular vein - the whole thing was out the gate, no one saw it coming.

Browne, 36, a proud, striking woman with a lovely smile, arrived at the afternoon party last October at 47 School Rd in Te Atatu South with two bottles of 42 Below vodka, a bottle of Jim Beam, and a bottle of Malibu white rum. She duly got trashed. She spilled her drinks, she seemed well on the way towards being off her face when she was filmed laughing and getting generally jiggy with it on a Facebook livestream.

There were nine women at the pamper party - a beautician had set up a table to do nails and lashes, for $20 per guest - and Browne only knew Emmanuelle Sinclair, the host, and Carly Stewart. They'd all met recently at a baby shower for Browne's daughter.

Most of the other guests were lifelong friends, Maori women in their 30s, mums with young kids. They all gave evidence in court. They took over the underground courtroom with its snack machine selling cans of Coke for $1 and a choice of biscuits ranging from AFGHAN FRENZY to MEGA CHUNKY CHOC FRENZY.

The women stayed close together, were deeply respectful of Carly's parents Reg and Charlene, were open and bright and lovely and shattered.

There was shy Helen Wahitapu and athletic Joann Daniela, and the Stewart sisters, Patricia and Corrine, and Corrin Phillip, known as Little Corrin to distinguish her from Corrine Stewart, known as Big Corrine, big only on account of the fact she wasn't tiny like Little Corrin.

They were all set for a good day together at Emmanuelle Sinclair's house. They were also looking forward to a four-day P&O cruise to White Island.

Sinclair's two-level home was large and tastefully decorated, with a trampoline out the back. There was guacamole, chips, fruit.

Browne got the most drunk. She didn't bother getting her nails done. But she was happy. Everyone was happy. "I was so excited to go," said Little Corrin. "I was really, really excited...We're family. We love each other. We're there to get our nails done and to have a little drink on the side was just like the cherry on top sort of thing."

And then Justine Evans showed up - the only white woman in the village of the party, and Browne's response to her seemed to be the catalyst for the tragedy that followed. She rounded on Justine, called her "a gang ho", "a white teke". Emmanuelle said in court, "I think it was because she was white, and she had a Rarotongan boyfriend."

Her insults continued. Guests said to each other: "What's she on?" Emmanuelle took Browne into a bedroom. She got angry with her, yelled at her; Browne sat on the floor, and took it.

Justine popped her head in the door, and Browne got angry again. She scuffled with Emmanuelle. Carly Stewart arrived to break it up, and hugged Browne. "Don't shed a tear," she said, as Browne wiped away her tears. They called each other cuz.

And then they scuffled, too, in the hallway; they held each other by the scruff of the neck, and Carly yelled at Browne that she was being disrespectful, that her behaviour was totally out of line.

Guests broke it up. "She's fucking nothing," they said to Carly. "F**k her, she's nothing." Carly let go of her. "I'll be the bigger person," she said, "and walk away."

Browne had come to the party with two of her sisters. They were her sober drivers, she said. But the sisters left after the scuffle with Justine Evans.

Alone, a mess, yelled at, grabbed at, by Carly's definition "the smaller person" and further shamed as "nothing", bad news, aggressive, provocative, a shambles, weepy, an outsider, no longer welcome, no longer remotely jiggy but just totally trashed, she followed Carly down the hallway, then turned into the kitchen.

The victim: Carly Stewart.
The victim: Carly Stewart.

She held the knife behind her back and walked into the lounge, straight towards her "cuz", and in a low, quiet voice, described by Joann Daniella as "a whimper", by Marie Dyhrberg as "a sob", she called out her name: "Carly."

Death came appallingly fast. The cops got there quick - seven minutes from the Henderson police station - and leaned Carly forward in an attempt to drain the blood from her mouth.

It was called in as status one, life-threatening.

A stretcher and a defibrillator were rushed upstairs but Carly had dropped to the floor and lost consciousness. A heart monitor showed no electrical activity. "And at that point," St John's ambulance officer Antony Gabriel said in court, "we've stopped, and stepped back".

Anna Browne had kept moving. After she plunged the knife into Carly's head and pulled it out, she walked backwards into the kitchen, then left through the front door and down the steps.

She headed right onto School Rd, downhill towards slow, brown Henderson Creek. It was a warm spring afternoon just after four. She had Carly's blood on her jacket and her jeans and both her shoes.

What thoughts ran through her head, what took hold? She wasn't yet a murderer. Carly was still alive, upstairs at the house where kids were screaming and three of the guests called triple one.

Browne wasn't familiar with Te Atatu South, wouldn't have known about the 049 Go West bus or the house around the corner on Royal View Rd with a letterbox in the shape of an enormous hammer, might barely have registered the gum trees above the creek and the busy weekend traffic on Central Park Drive. Where could she go, where could she hide?

She was off her face. Was she totally unaware of what she'd done, or was everything that followed the performance of an outstanding liar?

There was a phantom in the courtroom at her trial, the old, shabby ghost of one of New Zealand's greatest wretches - Tony Dixon. Dixon, who smoked epic amounts of P and took a Samurai sword to two women, then shot and killed a bystander in a service station; Dixon, who pleaded insanity, and rolled his eyes in his head to make himself look like a crazy person, and cut his hair into a shape to make himself look like a complete moron.

There were so many parallels with Browne, right down to the use of a blade.

She turned around on School Rd that afternoon and went back to the house, where she immediately started saying she didn't know what had happened.

The cops came and took her away. She became hysterical on the ride to Henderson police station, "thrashing about and moaning incoherently", said constable Grant Moreland.

The scene of the crime: 47 School Rd, Te Atatu South, Auckland. Photo / Greg Bowker
The scene of the crime: 47 School Rd, Te Atatu South, Auckland. Photo / Greg Bowker

The hysteria escalated at the station. It took seven cops to hold her down. She grabbed at her hair, and pulled it violently. Moreland: "She was trying to climb the walls and what-not." What-not! Seriously deranged what-not. Like Dixon, she made a great show of rolling her eyes in the back of her head; like Dixon, who engaged in imaginary conversations with someone called Sid, Browne spoke to someone who wasn't there: "Oh, stop doing that!", she scolded the hair-puller who didn't exist.

Like Dixon, she was diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder; like Dixon, she was accused of "malingering", that strange, rather Victorian term which means to feign symptoms.

Dixon had the relatively straightforward task of presenting himself as a lunatic. Browne, though, had to meet the subtle requirements of non-insane automaton.

There are two species of automatism. Insane automatism is classified as having internal causes, which essentially means diseases of the mind. Non-insane or sane automatism is due to external influences, or events which befall a person, such as a blow to the head, emotional shock, or excessive alcohol and drug use.

Sleepwalking also comes under that classification, and so one of the earliest cases of a automaton is Lady Macbeth. The scene where she washes her hands while sleepwalking fulfills the definition of an unconscious or involuntary act.

The only known New Zealand case where sleepwalking inspired the automatism defence was in 2013, when a man was charged with indecent assault.

He'd woken up in the night at a friend's house, and climbed into bed with the man's daughter. When he was dragged off the girl, he said groggily: "What? This is my wife!"

He had a long history of sleepwalking, when he would often have sex with his wife without being consciously aware of it. Curiously, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty "by reason of insanity". Sleepwalking is not a disease of the mind.

It can play havoc with the furniture, though. Dr David Street, a Pennsylvanian forensic psychiatrist called to give evidence at Browne's trial for the prosecution, made mention of a sleepwalking automaton who entered a lounge, picked up a cushion from the sofa, and proceeded to urinate.

Street did not add whether the man left the cushion up or down.

There have been scattered instances of automatism as a defence in murder trials. A test case, still cited in literature on the subject, was a 1963 strangling in Northern Ireland.

George Bratty had given a ride to a woman called Josephine Fitzsimons. His recollection of what happened is like a man peering through fog and trying to make out a few vague outlines: "I had some terrible feeling, and then a sort of blackness...Just with that, I took one look at her, and caught her and threw her over the back seat. I caught her with my two hands." Bratty was found guilty.

Browne maintained she had zero recollection of the killing of Carly Stewart. Nothing, just thick fog.

Dr Street accepted she had likely experienced an alcoholic blackout at some stage that afternoon. Automatism, though, was out of the question. "The more complex the behaviour, the more remote the possibility....It doesn't stick."

Someone in the twilight zone of automatism exists as a dream-like creature, capable of anything, unchecked, a free spirit; they're too exotic, too fabulous, to perform the ordinary chores of the conscious and wide-awake drudge.

Street removed Browne from her very interesting role as a visitor from another planet of altered consciousness and placed her at 47 School Rd as a nasty and calculating drunk.

The characteristics of automatism weren't met, he said. "Most of the time when there's violence involved with automatism, it's kicking, it's scratching. People aren't planning things. Any planning just precludes it."

He pointed to Browne's progress down the hallway to the kitchen to choose a knife, to her ability to identify Carly and call her name, to the fatal blow itself: "It sounds like the blow she delivered was fairly co-ordinated."

And yet Robert Schopp writes in his study Automatism: A philosophical inquiry, "The defence applies to those who perform complex actions in a co-ordinated, directed fashion, but with substantially reduced awareness."

There was support for the automatism argument from Dr Krishna Pillai, a forensic psychiatrist called by the defence. These shrinks get around: he met with Tony Dixon on the day he took his life.

Like Dr Street, he thought Browne's behaviour at Henderson police station was evidence of a blackout, or delirium. But Pillai went further, and said it was consistent with automatism.

In his assessment of Browne, Dr Pillai wrote, "It is worthwhile considering whether she may have been acting under the influence of an external cause, that being alcohol intoxication, and was without conscious intent at the time of the offending, and that it may constitute evidence of sane automatism."

There it was, plainly stated, in open court - automatism, the power of the unconscious to make things happen independent of the empty vessel who performs the terrible deed.

A trial judge in the US made this breathtaking proposition: "An act committed while one is unconscious is in reality no act at all. It is merely a physical event or occurrence."

The ethical and legal prospect, then, was that the horrible slaying of Carly Stewart was no more than that: "merely a physical event or occurrence".

This bleakest of possibilities was cut short by Crown prosecutor Scott McColgan.

A tall, handsome man who had arrived at the trial after a family holiday in Toronto, his cross-examination of Dr Pillai led to a powerful moment when he called on the registrar to produce exhibit 10 - the murder weapon. It was placed in front of the witness. "That was the knife," he said, "she used on Ms Stewart."

He swept through the remainder of his cross-exam with the knife in plain sight.

Yes, Dr Pillai conceded, there was an element of choice in Browne selecting the knife. Yes, he admitted, the fact that she held it behind her back was evidence of deceit.

There was more, and then, devastatingly, right at the close, he asked: "Given the evidence about pre-stabbing, and during the stabbing, and immediately after the stabbing, how likely is it that Ms Browne was acting as an automaton?"

Dr Pillai said, "I think the evidence suggests there was some conscious activity."

McColgan asked, "And it's consistent, isn't it, with somebody who has the capacity to form an intent?"

Dr Pillai said, "Yes."

It was over. Automatism had flown, had returned to its strange, vague twilight. Intent, too, was a lost cause. Browne's defence had gone as far as it could.

Her team were superb in the courtroom. Barbara Hunt, a small, vivacious woman who wore the collars of her white shirt up, clawed back valuable ground in cross-exam. She was absent on the day of the verdict, to be in Wellington where her husband, Gerard van Bohemen, New Zealand's United Nations permanent representative, was appointed a judge of the High Court.

Kirsten Martelli, assisting, had to start work on another trial. Dyhrberg waited alone. Her closing address was a masterclass, right from the start: "What happened that afternoon was so inexplicable, so unforeseen, that something extraordinary must have occurred for the day to turn deadly. And that extraordinary intervention was something which was in Anna Browne's mind..."

But it wasn't extraordinary. It was the banality of killing, a stupid act of violence. Anna Browne ended Carly Stewart's life and the verdict declared that she meant to do it.

She was reckless, impulsive, homicidal. The idea formed as she deviated from the hallway to the kitchen. "She wasn't there for the chips and dip," Nick Webby told the jury. She knew what she was doing. She was wide awake.