A homeless Auckland man who violently preyed on two strangers — driving on the footpath to try running over a woman who was jogging, then just 24 hours later sexually violating and fatally strangling a woman with Down syndrome — has been ordered to spend the next 19 and a half years in prison.
Shamal Sharma, 33, stared forward with no discernable emotion in the High Court at Auckland this morning as Justice Edwin Wylie set the minimum term of imprisonment for the mandatory life sentence.
The family and friends of murder victim Lena Zhang Harrap filled the courtroom to capacity, spilling into a second courtroom that was equipped with a live feed of the hearing.
Outside the courthouse after the sentencing, family members joined in an emotional waiata in Harrap’s honour.
“No sentence is long enough, and no justice can replace the life and love that was lost,” her mother said.
Sharma was arrested in September 2021, two days after a volunteer searcher discovered Harrap’s partially concealed body along a bush-lined walkway about a kilometre from her Mt Albert home. She had been the subject that day of a large-scale, hours-long search involving police and members of the public after she vanished on her daily morning walk.
Harrap, 27, was remembered today as “a little warrior from the moment she was born” who was adopted as an infant and overcame heart surgery as a child. She had numerous disabilities that made her especially vulnerable, but she managed to thrive despite that and grew up to be loving, kind, thoughtful and religious, family members said. She prided herself on the independence that came with her daily walks.
“She was caring. She was funny. She was clever,” her father Martin Harrap said during an emotional victim impact statement. “She was a beautiful dancer. She was a wonderful daughter.
“She was a good person. She had purpose in life. Lena wanted to do so much. Now all that is gone.”
Su Harrap described her daughter as someone who had a childlike innocence but embraced womanhood.
“Your sense of humour filled my life with smiles and laughter,” she said, recalling her daughter’s wonderful quirky attributes and her many nicknames: Piglet, Beans and Pie. “She was everything society said she couldn’t be. She did everything society said she couldn’t do.
“I love you, Beans, forever.”
Many details of Harrap’s horrific final hours were made public for the first time today, although some aspects of the seemingly random attack remain too graphic to report. Family members filed out of the courtroom before the most violent details were discussed.
Harrap had left the Mt Albert home where she lived with her family around 6.30 on the morning of her death for her daily solo walk through the neighbourhood, an effort that was often slow going due to significant visual impairment. On that day, it appeared, she had decided on one of her usual routes: the Mt Albert summit.
Police believe she encountered Sharma walking past her on the opposite side of Grande Ave as she made her way to a bush-lined concrete pathway that would take her to Summit Rd.
“As Mr Sharma walked up the road he looked back towards Ms Zhang on several occasions,” court documents state, explaining that he then loitered in the area until she began walking up the more remote, wooded pathway.
Authorities don’t know exactly when the violent attack began, but they believe he tortured her over a period of about two hours, inflicting multiple blows to her face before strangling her - the act that resulted in her death. A pathologist would later count 13 bruises and abrasions to her head, as well as blunt force trauma that caused brain injuries but were not fatal.
Other serious injuries were related to Sharma’s sexual offending, some so brutal that they could have independently caused her death, Crown prosecutor Matthew Nathan noted today.
“This has a degree of sadism through the infliction of pain,” he told the judge.
Sharma left the area after abandoning her body in the bushes and shrubbery about five metres from the pathway, authorities said.
When he was apprehended by police two days later, he denied any knowledge of Harrap. But he had been caught on CCTV in the area directly before and after the attack, and he left blood-soaked items of his own clothing near her body.
Police would later test the blood stains found on his pants and shoes at the time of his arrest, linking it back to Harrap.
Harrap’s parents and siblings described the nightmare of coping with how she died.
“I wonder when she realised she was in mortal danger,” her father said during his victim impact statement. “How long was she conscious knowing she would die?
“He treated my daughter as if she was nothing and he disposed her as if she was rubbish. In her last hour she as faced with brutality and terror.”
As police continued to investigate the case, they would later charge him with another attack on a stranger just one day before Harrap’s murder. The media was initially barred from reporting that dangerous driving charge as Sharma awaited trial for murder.
The 26-year-old victim in that case had been jogging in Henderson, West Auckland, about 6.40am when Sharma drove past her in his white Hyundai, slowing down to stare at her. He then turned around and pulled up beside her on the side of the road.
“Do you know where Tudor Rd is?” he is alleged to have asked the woman out of his window.
She said no, to which he asked again, “So you don’t?”
“At this stage, [the jogger] began to feel uneasy,” court documents state. “She cut Mr Sharma off and said no, continuing to walk along the footpath.”
But Sharma continued to linger, finding a nearby car park where he could watch her without being seen then twice driving ahead of the woman and parking near the footpath so he could watch her pass, documents state. He made frequent u-turns to circle back to the woman and at one point was inching along Triangle Rd in the bicycle lane so he could follow her.
After about 20 minutes of bizarre behaviour, he turned around so his car was facing the woman, then began to accelerate as he approached her.
“He swerved abruptly to the left, over the kerb and onto the footpath approximately five metres ahead of her,” authorities noted. “Mr Sharma’s entire car was on the footpath as he drove his car directly at [the woman] in an attempt to run her over.
“[She] ran to her right, onto the grass beside the footpath, to avoid being hit by Mr Sharma’s car.”
The woman went to the nearest house to called police as Sharma drove away, authorities said.
The incident continues to haunt the woman, she said today during a victim impact statement.
“To live as a woman in this world is to live in a body that is constantly under attack,” the woman said, explaining that the stranger’s unsolicited and unwanted approach that morning was not unusual. “Every woman knows this story...”
But the minutes that followed were terrifying and made all the worse when she learned of Harrap’s death, she said, explaining that her immediate reaction was guilt that she was safe and the other woman wasn’t.
“I will never know how close he came to hitting me, but I know he missed because of me — not him,” she said. “What you did to me is violence.”
Sharma was found fit to stand trial in December 2021, after psychological reports were ordered to examine mental health issues. He eventually pleaded guilty to murder, sexual violation and dangerous driving last October, one month before he was set to stand trial.
Prosecutors said at the time of the guilty pleas that the Crown would be seeking preventive detention for Sharma’s sexual violation charge. The indeterminate sentence would mean that Sharma wouldn’t be released from custody unless the Parole Board was convinced the community wouldn’t be at risk.
Preventive detention is reserved for repeat offenders deemed to be a significant and ongoing risk to the community of violent or sexual crimes.
Nathan pointed today to two psychiatric reports that described Sharma as a “well above average risk of reoffending in a sexual manner”. The attack on the first woman, experts said, appeared to be “a build-up and rehearsal of the rape and killing of Ms Zhang”. One of the reports noted his “hyper-sexuality and preoccupation with sexual conquest”.
Sharma had been living out of his car for two weeks before the attacks and frequently smoking methamphetamine, which triggered his unhealthy sexual thoughts, Nathan said.
The Crown acknowledged today that Sharma has also long suffered from schizophrenia, which would have been a contributing factor to his offending. But he was not found to be legally insane at the time of the offending, which was motivated instead by his desire for sexual violence, Nathan said.
Defence lawyer Jonathan Hudson began his submissions by relaying a message from his client, who continued to stare ahead without visible emotion.
“Mr Sharma has asked me to convey his sincere apology for his offending,” he said. “He has sincere and genuine remorse for what he has done.”
Hudson acknowledged that Harrap was particularly vulnerable and his client’s offending demonstrated a high level of brutality. But he disagreed that the two attacks were calculated and planned, describing both attacks as “opportunistic” and carried out by someone who was “seriously disordered” by mental health issues.
Just months before the incidents, Sharma had been the subject of a compulsory mental health assessment after behaving unusually in a car park.
“Unfortunately, there was no compulsory treatment order and he was returned to the community at that point,” Hudson said, adding that two weeks before the killing he had been evicted from emergency accommodation at the YMCA. “It was completely inappropriate that an untreated schizophrenia patient was being held in a boarding house like that.”
He noted that his client had been abused during his younger years in Fiji, before moving to New Zealand at age 10.
Because murder requires a mandatory life sentence unless deemed manifestly unjust, preventative detention for the sexual offending would be redundant and unnecessary, Hudson argued. The Parole Board won’t release him until they are satisfied he is no longer a danger, and even after release he will be subject to recall for the rest of his life.
Justice Wylie ultimately agreed.
“A sentence of life imprisonment helps protect the public from the risk you pose,” he said.
But the judge didn’t agree that Sharma should be given credit for remorse or his background.
“In my view, your remorse is too late and I’m suspicious of its sincerity,” Justice Wylie said.
In addition to the murder sentence, he ordered Sharma to serve a concurrent sentence of 11 years and 3 months for the sexual violation, with a minimum period of imprisonment for that charge of seven years and four months. Sharma was ordered to serve a concurrent sentence of two months’ imprisonment for the dangerous driving charge.
Stepping out into the rain after the sentencing, Detective Senior Sergeant Geoff Baber described Harrap as “a fiercely independent and determined young woman” whose life was cut tragically short.
Baber said Lena was a vulnerable person, “but she didn’t see herself in that light”.
“On behalf of Auckland City Police, I would like to acknowledge her family for their courage and strength given the horrific ordeal they have been through,” he said. “We know news of Lena’s death upset many in the Mt Albert community and today I also want to recognise them and the support they gave our investigation at the time.”