A six-week inquest will begin today into the Christchurch terror attack in a bid to provide answers to outstanding questions for grieving families about what happened to their loved ones - and to examine whether anything further can be done to prevent further tragedies.
On March 15, 2019, Brenton Harrison Tarrant killed 51 people and wounded 40 others when he stormed into two Christchurch mosques during Friday prayer and began shooting indiscriminately with high-powered firearms he had been stockpiling.
He filmed the entire massacre, streaming his deadly actions live via Facebook.
Aya Al-Umari, whose only brother, Hussain Al-Umari, died in the attack, hopes the lingering questions she has about the attack will be answered through the inquest.
“Could they have been saved? Were the right processes followed? Were the right protocols followed correctly? Was there enough time to save anyone?
“And whether there were any failures in those actions.”
For her personally, she hopes the coroner will determine the exact circumstances that led up to her brother’s death.
“To allow me to give his bravery the recognition it deserves.”
In March 2020, Tarrant pleaded guilty to 51 counts of murder, 40 counts of attempted murder and a terrorism charge.
After Tarrant was jailed a Royal Commission of Inquiry concluded that he was able to plot, amass an arsenal of weapons, and execute his deadly attack without drawing the attention of security agencies which had deployed “an inappropriate concentration of resources” probing Islamic extremism.
The Royal Commission also determined that nothing could have been done to stop the attack - and it was not the result of failures by public sector agencies involved in New Zealand’s counter-terrorism effort.
In December 2020 Chief Coroner Judge Deborah Marshall began the inquest process by working to identify the issues of concern to those most affected by the attack, and to establish what could and should be inquired into under the coronial jurisdiction.
Once it was decided an inquest was needed, Coroner Bridget Windley assumed responsibility for future proceedings.
She said the “atrocities” of the March 15 attack were unprecedented in New Zealand - as was the nature and scale of the coronial inquiry.
She said it was unique that an inquest followed both a criminal prosecution and a Royal Commission - both of which had a broad mandate to “investigate and make findings about the attack, together with recommendations directed at preventing future attacks”.
Al-Umari said that because there was no trial she believed there was no room for the facts to be relayed and the story and processes examined.
She told the Herald the inquest meant two things to her. Firstly, it was one step closer to peace and, secondly, it may in some way help stop such attacks occurring again. Al-Umari said having the inquiry now, four years on from the attack, was “better late than never”.
Her brother’s death left a big hole in society, she said, and she owed it to her brother to be part of the process.
“I’m hoping it will trigger a broader conversation on how we can be more accepting and tolerating for a better and more inclusive society. As my brother lived, he wouldn’t have harmed a fly.”
Manal Dokhan, who lost her husband, Mohsin Al-Harbi, in the Christchurch attacks, told the Herald she welcomed the inquest and “hoped it would be able to accomplish something”.
“I don’t like to talk [about the attacks] a lot, but I feel the same as I did on the first day of court [in the Tarrant trial],” she said.
Last night Al Noor Mosque imam and survivor Gamal Fouda told Newshub the inquest would be “retraumatising many people”.
More than 140 people and organisations have been given formal status as interested parties in the inquiry - including immediate family members of the deceased, people who were bullet-injured or otherwise witnessed the attack, and organisations recognised as representing the wider interests of the affected community.
Over the next six weeks, Coroner Windley will preside over the first phase of the inquest process, during which she will delve into nine specific issues:
- The events of March 15, 2019, covering from the start of the attack through to the completion of the emergency response and Tarrant’s formal interview by police
- The response times and entry processes of police and ambulance officers at each mosque
- The triage and medical response at each mosque
- The steps taken to apprehend the offender
- The role of, and processes undertaken by, Christchurch Hospital in responding to the attack
- Co-ordination between emergency services and first responders
- Whether Tarrant had assistance from any other person on March 15, 2019
- The final movements and time of death for each of the victims - if that information is wanted by their family
- The cause(s) of death for each victim
- Whether any death could have been averted had alternative medical triage and/or medical treatment been administered in the context of the attack
- Whether the Al Noor mosque’s emergency exit door in the southeast corner of the main prayer room failed to function to allow people to leave in the course of the attack, and if so, why.
The evidence before the Coroner Windley runs, so far, to nearly 3000 documents, nearly 4750 images, 2720 audio files and more than 80 hours of video.
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Coroner Windley said it was important for the public to understand why - after a number of other investigations - the inquest was crucial.
“Some have expressed particular concern with the fact that the Royal Commission’s investigation was largely undertaken in private and that together with orders that now apply to the evidence it received, they have not been able to see and consider the evidence behind the Royal Commission’s findings and feel that important questions remain unanswered,” she said.
“Some issues that sufficiently relate to the wider circumstances of the deaths but were not considered by the Royal Commission and only needed to be covered in a limited way in the criminal prosecution will be investigated as part of the coronial inquiry.”
Tarrant will not participate in the inquest.
He had successfully sought to be registered as an interested party but it has been confirmed he will no longer engage with the first phase of the inquest process.
The October inquest hearing will consider issues relating directly to the events of the day and the emergency response .
A decision is still to be made whether there will be an inquest hearing on a number of remaining issues, including how Tarrant obtained his firearms licence, his radicalisation and online media use.
There is no timeline set at this stage for further phases of the inquest process.
Once Coroner Windley has heard all of the evidence for phase one she will take some time to formulate her findings.
Those are not expected to be released until next year.
The facts: what do coroners do and why?
Coroners are like judges - each is a qualified lawyer appointed to a judicial office and tasked with looking into unexpected, violent or suspicious deaths to find out what happened.
Coroners can make comments or recommendations if something can be done to prevent similar deaths happening in future.
Coroners do not hold trials and they do not blame people or punish them in relation to a death.
Not every death is referred to the coroner.
Under the Coroner’s Act 2006 it is mandatory to hold an inquest into some deaths - for example, suspected suicides.
In other cases a family may ask for an inquest.
In cases where there has been a criminal prosecution - for example, a murder or fatal car crash or a workplace death - a Coroner may hold an inquest if they believe there are questions unanswered or matters unresolved.
Coroner’s inquests are not a process aiming to determine civil, criminal or disciplinary liability.
They are an inquisitorial process aiming to find out the facts of a death.
The presiding coroner gets to decide what information and issues to examine, and who to hear from.
During the inquest, a coroner will hear evidence from a number of witnesses.
The coroner and interested parties can cross-examine the witnesses.
To be appointed as a coroner, a person must have held a practising certificate as a barrister and solicitor for at least five years.
The terror attack inquest - what to expect
Today’s inquest begins at 10am at the Christchurch Justice Precinct.
Three courtrooms have been allocated to accommodate the proceedings - a main courtroom where Coroner Windley will hear the evidence and two overflow courtrooms where family and friends of the victims, survivors and their supporters and other interested parties can watch live on screens.
More than 600 people are registered to attend the hearing in person at some stage over the next six weeks.
A further 100 people have registered to watch the hearing online via a live stream.
The hearing will begin on October 24 and is set down until December 15 with a recess from November 20-24.
The court will try to avoid sitting on Friday afternoons to accommodate weekly prayer times - but it may become necessary because of the number of witnesses who will be giving evidence.
The court will not sit on November 17, which is Canterbury Anniversary Day.
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