Greg Bruce talks to director Michael Bennett about the drama bringing the story of one of New Zealand’s most devastating criminal misadventures to our television screens.

The most harrowing scene in the 2013 documentary The Confessions of Prisoner T shows a 17-year-old sitting at a nondescript table in a tiny bare-walled interrogation room in Otahuhu, haplessly confessing to a murder he didn't commit, with no apparent idea that the confession was about to put him in prison for more than 20 years.

If the crime weren't so horrific, the stakes not so life-ruiningly high, the scene would have been pure comedy. The teenager's guesses about what had happened at the scene he wasn't at were repeatedly fundamentally wrong and contradictory, his pauses between questions and answers and his desperate glances at the detectives were implausibly ridiculous. He had no idea how or even where the crime had happened.

He had been brought in to the police station after failing to turn up to court on a charge relating to the car thefts he'd made a quasi-career from. The order in which things develop from there is murky because there are no recordings and only very limited notes of the initial discussions.

All we know is that at some point, for some reason, he started to talk about the murder; that at some point, a detective showed him a notice offering a $20,000 reward and explained the concept of immunity. His story grew. Detectives got him Chinese food, Coke, Pall Malls, KFC.

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"What did she look like?" they asked.

"Sort of fair," he said.

She was dark-haired.

"Fat-looking," he said.

She was slim.

"What kind of bed was it?" they asked.

"Didn't even notice of anything," he said.

It was a waterbed and, according to his account, he was one of four people on it.
He said there were two gang members with him. Both of them were later proven to have had nothing to do with the attack. He didn't know where the crime had happened, even when he was taken to the street it happened in, even when he was standing across the road from the house.

He had grown up poor, remained poor, was struggling to support his 2-year-old daughter and was therefore already vulnerable to inducements like $20,000.

Although nobody then knew it, he also had the developmental age of an 8-10-year-old — the result of exposure to alcohol while still in the womb. His condition, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), would be missed by an estimated 20 psychologists during his years in prison and would be diagnosed only after a neuropsychologist noticed the signs while watching The Confessions of Prisoner T in 2013.

That neuropsychologist, Dr Valerie McGinn, would later write that the 17-year-old was confused by and uncomprehending of much of what was said during his interrogation. Young people with FASD, she wrote, are gullible, easily led and likely to acquiesce to authority figures.

It was, she wrote, "inevitable that a young person with FASD would not know what was happening or be able to extract himself from such a situation of gradual and benevolent manipulation".

Not long after he had spent five days in custody and hours being questioned without a lawyer and had made his ludicrously false confessions and got not a cent of the $20,000 reward, 17-year-old Teina Pora walked into Mt Eden Prison a convicted rapist and murderer; a nark, despised and targeted by other prisoners. He would remain in prison for more than 20 years.

Tomorrow night, TVNZ 1 will show a new film based on his life called In Dark Places, written and directed by the same man who made The Confessions of Prisoner T, Michael Bennett. It's Bennett's third telling of the Pora story after he also wrote the award-winning 2016 book about the case, also called In Dark Places.

Seven years ago, Bennett became part of a small group of people whose work would help bring Pora into the public eye. The New Zealand Herald's Phil Taylor and fellow journalists Eugene Bingham and Paula Penfold would spend years producing important work about the flaws in the case, in the face of extreme institutional antipathy.

Director and writer of In Dark Places, Michael Bennett. Photo / NZ Herald
Director and writer of In Dark Places, Michael Bennett. Photo / NZ Herald

The man who really kept Pora's quest for justice alive though — who rammed it repeatedly through a system determined to resist until it could resist no more — was an ex-cop who had been recently diagnosed with blood cancer, Tim McKinnel.

"I think all of us who did work in different ways did important work," Bennett says, "but Tim is the reason Teina is a free man and is exonerated, no question. No one gave a shit until Tim turned up. Tim brought us in and that is just a fact."

McKinnel, 44, is smooth-faced and pretty in spite of the rugged, all-consuming fight for justice for Pora that began in 2009 and ran until Pora's compensation claim was finally settled late last year. He did it almost entirely unpaid, in the face of extreme police resistance and with a cancer which, while not terminal, was nevertheless cancer.

Contributing factors to his success included mental and physical toughness, investigative nous, the ability to build and work with a team and an understanding of the importance to that team of a good storyteller.

Bennett had never heard of McKinnel when he got an email out of the blue in February 2011, asking to meet.

"Tim came into my office and opened up his laptop and started playing the police interview tapes. He showed me about an hour's worth of extracts from those nine hours of interview tapes and that was just a gut-wrenching, awful experience. I do not believe that anyone with an objective mind can look at those tapes and think anything other than, 'This kid knows nothing about this crime.'"

McKinnel says, "I think our collective fate was sealed from that moment."

The news can be a cold place. It deals mostly in facts and facts can only tell you so much.

"Teina, on first glance, isn't what you would typically call a sympathetic character," McKinnel says.

"He's had a troubled background, he's had a reasonably long list of relatively minor crimes to his name and the photographs of him in the paper in the 90s with his bandana on gave the impression of something that he absolutely isn't. So I was looking for someone who could look beyond the headlines and the photographs and the rap sheet of criminal history and look at the character rather than the cliche."

A poor brown teenager from South Auckland with eight previous court appearances and dozens of convictions goes down for a horrific crime to which he's confessed. Twenty-one years later, he is released, having served his time and then some, having been denied parole 12 times, in large part because he refused to admit his guilt.

His team fights on. The following year, his final appeal against his conviction reaches the Privy Council in London.

The Privy Council announce their ruling on the night of Tuesday, March 3, 2015, New Zealand time. They quash his convictions. Late last year, compensation of $3.5m is announced for wrongful imprisonment.

Those are the basic facts of the Pora story.

The first day of shooting for In Dark Places took place in an eerily accurate reconstruction of the tiny Otahuhu interrogation room where Pora had given the false confessions that would eventually land him in prison.

The role of Pora was being played by a young actor called Richard Te Are who, at the time of filming, was still a drama student at Toi Whakaari and who had never before been on a film set.

The scene recreates the moment Pora, sensing the police didn't believe his story, added an important detail. He said he had held Burdett down.

Director and writer of In Dark Places, Michael Bennett. Photo / NZ Herald
Director and writer of In Dark Places, Michael Bennett. Photo / NZ Herald

Although he didn't realise it, at that moment, the charge he was facing was no longer accessory to murder — it was murder. The scene is crucial: a recreation of a pivotal moment in the devastation of a young man's life.

There is a long tracking shot on Te Are as he pauses, considers and finally says the words that would destroy two decades of his character's life.

Of that moment, Bennett says: "Being in those yellow walls covered in old smoke that I'd seen on the police tape so many times, being in there was just such a claustrophobic, confronting moment. And we shot that scene and [legendary New Zealand cinematographer] Alun Bollinger called, 'Cut' and took his eyes away from the lens, and he was just weeping.

"You just knew that something special was happening."

In that moment, the viewer is right there, not with Pora the South Auckland career crim of the mid-90s headlines, but with Pora the vulnerable, confused teenager with the developmental age of an 8-10-year-old. That's what a good film can do.

"There's no shortage of stuff about Teina," Bennett says. "You do a Google search and there's pages and pages and pages, but what you don't get is the human face and the emotion of the person he really is, and that's what film does better than anything on Earth. It gets you there sitting with that person, walking with that person, inside that person's head in a way that the best-written book can't do, in a way that a news story can't do."

This is what McKinnel understood when he sent Bennett that email out of the blue, seven years ago.

Following his conviction at his first trial in 1993, Pora entered what Bennett calls "The Dickensian nightmare" of the old Mt Eden Prison — "The Rock", as it was known to staff and inmates.

The Rock has since been replaced by a more modern facility next door and now stands empty, save for a large population of pigeons, many of them dead. It's exceptionally rare for a film crew to be allowed to film there. In Dark Places was an exception.

"Being in those walls," Bennett says, "you can't be in there and not feel the weight of 150 years, at the 53 or 54 executions that all happened against the wall and the number of people that have been through that place and died at their own hands.

"And being in that place and really thinking about the 17-year-old kid coming in here and he has literally lost everything, and not only that but he's got a mark on his back because he's gotten very much on the wrong side of the gangs, and it's hell. He was given potentially a true life sentence. He nearly died in there at his own hands because he was so lost."

When Pora learned on the night of March 3, 2015 that his convictions had been quashed by the Privy Council, he was asked if there was anything he wanted to know. There was: he wanted to know if the children of the detectives who had wrongly helped put him away were going to be okay.

"So he not only survives," Michael Bennett says, "but he survives with his humanity and dignity fully intact."

Bennett and his partner, In Dark Places co-writer Jane Holland, have become close to Pora since his release from prison. They have lots of stories like this. At the wrap party for the cast and crew of In Dark Places, for instance, Te Are came up to Bennett with a set of car keys and said to him, "Bro, please take these. Teina is trying to give me his car. Please just take them and give them back to him. I love him but I can't take his car off him."

Holland says, "Whenever he comes to anything, he'll go away with food that's left over. Like we had a collective dinner at a Chinese restaurant in town and he went away with all of the doggie bags, these big bags full of food —and he gives it away. He walks along the street and gives it to people who need the food. He has a real kind of identification with people who are in need. He has an incredible sort of generosity.

"But he's also kind of vulnerable as well," she says. "I think we need to be a little bit careful about that part of him, because his life isn't a fairy tale."

Stories must have a conclusion in a way reality never can. The FASD that meant Pora was unable to comprehend the consequences of his false confessions in 1993 will always be with him. His brain will always have gaps. He has a team of supporters around him, as he didn't in 1993. He will need them.

Films don't generally have the time or space to depict complicated real world events in the depth and complexity with which they actually happen. McKinnel's engagement with the Mongrel Mob leadership, for instance, happens on screen in In Dark Places in one intense blast rather than as the drawn-out affair it was in real life; but he really did go into Mob headquarters and he really did have to make a case for the gang president to sign an affidavit on behalf of Pora — who had falsely accused the gang president of killing Burdett and who the gang president described as "that little f***in' nark c***" — and he really did succeed in getting it.

"It was a surreal and probably never-to-be-repeated experience," McKinnel says, "but it was incredibly enlightening to be in that environment. And to be so heavily challenged on some really important questions in a type of place that we all have an irrational fear about was an extraordinary experience.

"Going in there and dealing with the people I dealt with," McKinnel says, "I was without exception treated professionally and with respect, sometimes with some fairly choice language and some difficult questions, but I was listened to and treated respectfully. And I compare that to some of the dismissive behaviour that I had from senior police officers during that time. It doesn't compare, which is an extraordinary thing for somebody like me to experience — where you are treated with more respect and more consideration by the Mongrel Mob than you are the police."

It's the sort of personal encounter that could shake up your view of the world.

"It does," he says. "It makes you think about a whole lot of things."

Compared to, say, David Bain, who is perhaps the most relevant modern comparison, or even to Arthur Allan Thomas, whose wrongful conviction is now nearly 50 years old, Pora's story is not well-known.

McKinnel says, "He was a poor brown kid from South Auckland who hung out with gangs and I can tell you, from my work over the last few years, that it's been made reasonably clear to me that senior editors in various media organisations were initially reluctant to tell his story because of that."

But in Bennett, he says, he found someone who didn't hesitate.

When McKinnel first showed him the tapes of Pora making his false confessions aged 17, Bennett's own son was about the same age. Bennett is Maori and he wondered if the relative void in the press about Pora's story was to do with race.

Michael Bennett and partner Jane Holland with their children and Teina Pora, centre.
Michael Bennett and partner Jane Holland with their children and Teina Pora, centre.

"It did make me extremely driven to talk about the case," he says. "Race and justice is a universal story. Giving a voice to Teina and his story is specific. It's about us, it's about here. Telling his story is what I can do, what I have to do, and if you're a storyteller, if you're Maori, these are always going to be the stories that count most."

McKinnel says: "I don't think there's any doubt that we have substantial institutional racism in our criminal justice system. And it's really uncomfortable for people when you say that but it's made out by the statistics. I think it's really difficult to attribute consciousness or the deliberateness of that to individual cases and individual people. Unless somebody admits to that, you can't prove it and so you have to look at it systemically, and when you do that it's clear. But in individual cases it's difficult.

"But in terms of Teina's case, I've thought about it for years and when you look at the evidence, you look at the result in the end and you look at the approach of the Crown over decades to him, I can't think of any rational explanation for what has happened to him and how it's happened to him other than a bias. Whether that was conscious, deliberate or not I can't say and only the people that made the various decisions can answer that. But I'm suspicious."

Bennett doesn't believe that the detectives who helped put Pora behind bars are bad cops or bad people. He compares what happened to "tunnel vision" or "like a pilot in whiteout". What he doubts is the ability of the justice system to correct its problems.

"This has really made me feel that at a certain point it becomes about protecting your arse and protecting the arse of others, your comrades."

Like McKinnel, Bennett has supported the idea of a criminal cases review commission, an independent body that can assess problematic convictions and refer them back to the courts. A similar body set up in Britain in 1997 has referred 650 cases back for appeal, 430 of which have been successful.

The previous National Government ignored calls for such a body to be established here.

In 2016, following the announcement that Pora would receive $2.5 million in compensation for his wrongful imprisonment, then-Opposition Justice spokesperson Jacinda Ardern said: "Minister Amy Adams claims the end result proves the system worked. That is incorrect. Justice must be timely."

The new Labour Government has indicated a criminal cases review commission is now likely to be established here next year, about 26 years too late for Teina Pora.

In Dark Places screens on TVNZ 1, tomorrow, 8.30pm