West Coaster wins record payout against police

A West Coast man has received a record damages payment after a High Court jury found force used by police to arrest him was not in justifiable self-defence.

Johnny Menzies, of Dunollie, near Greymouth, was awarded $35,000 in aggravated damages in the High Court in Christchurch yesterday.

A jury found Constable Terrence Hunt had struck Mr Menzies with a baton and a police torch and had kicked him - force it did not regard as justifiable self-defence.

It found Mr Hunt had subsequently fabricated evidence in order to prosecute Mr Menzies.

The jury also found Mr Menzies was imprisoned wrongfully and without reasonable cause and that he had not started the incident by reaching into a police car and grabbing Mr Hunt, as Mr Hunt had claimed.

Three other police officers named in the lawsuit, Phillip Little, Jeffrey Andrew and Simon Merry, were found not to have inflicted any deliberate injuries during the incident.

The previous highest damages award to a person in police custody is believed to be $30,000, paid to Masterton man Lee Harris in 1999 after a 1996 incident.

Mr Menzies had claimed he was threatened with arrest for no reason as he walked home from the Dunollie Hotel early on July 8, 2000. He said he was brutally assaulted by the group of police, who maliciously prosecuted him to cover their tracks.

Police had claimed Mr Menzies was the aggressor and that all his injuries were justifiable.

Mr Menzies said yesterday that he had mixed feelings about the verdicts. He was pleased by the findings against Mr Hunt but wanted all the issues raised in the trial to be taken further.

"I can't be entirely happy about the verdict or unhappy about it either," he said.

"It's been four long years. I just hope that these people's evidence gets scrutinised by a proper independent investigation.

"The police have got to start waking up. They shouldn't be investigating themselves. The job should be done properly."

Mr Menzies praised the West Coasters who had supported him from the public gallery during the trial.

"We'd never have got as far down the road against the powerful police organisation without the support of the West Coast people."

Mr Menzies' counsel, Doug Taffs, said the matter should never have got to the point of a criminal trial in the first place, and he thought it had been handled poorly.

"The verdict exonerates Johnny," he said.

Nicholas Till, for the police, declined to comment.

The head of the West Coast police last night vowed to stand by his officers, saying they had been finally vindicated after four years of damning allegations.

Tasman District Police Commander Superintendent Grant O'Fee said claims that police instigated an organised beating of Mr Menzies had been shown to be false and could now be laid to rest.

"As far as I am concerned, the false allegations against four of my officers, accused of carrying out an organised beating, have been resolved," he said.

"I'm very pleased that the names of these officers, who were said to have handcuffed a man and smashed his head off of a lamp-post, have been cleared.

"I stand by all of the officers, including Constable Hunt, as I have done throughout this case.

"Obviously I would have been delighted if the whole thing had gone for us, but at least now we can put it behind us."

Mr O'Fee said police officials had sought legal guidance on what action they would now take.

"This is an extremely complex verdict and something we will be thoroughly looking into," he said.

"The court found that the injuries to Menzies were unjustified and we are taking legal advice in relation to that arm of the case."

Rob Nicholl, a former top detective on the West Coast, had carried out a private investigation of the incident and passed on his misgivings to Mr O'Fee.

Mr Nicholl said he had been downhearted to find the forensic evidence contradicted Mr Hunt's account and that the police examination of the scene was seriously deficient.

"I was more disappointed than surprised," he said. "I gave 26 bloody years of my life to the police. A full and fair investigation was required and they never had one."

Mr Nicholl called for a fully independent inquiry into the incident and how the police handled it.

- NZPA

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