A former healthcare worker whose husband died fused to a recliner chair with sores all over his body has been sentenced to five years and seven months in prison.
Malia Li, 53, has been incarcerated since early July, when a jury found her guilty of manslaughter. She returned to the High Court at Auckland on Wednesday - after her sentencing hearing was twice before delayed by Covid-19 lockdown restrictions.
"Ms Li, this is a sad case," Justice Edwin Wylie told the mother-of-two as he announced his decision.
"There was a gross breach of trust involved in your offending.
"Your neglect of your husband started well prior to his death."
Lanitola Epenisa died in October 2016 from the blood infection sepsis, after two strokes slowly took away his ability to walk and speak coherently and he developed pressure sores from immobility.
He was found dead by emergency staff in a squalid Māngere home, drenched in urine in a room with a maggot-ridden bag of soiled clothes and a nest of mice.
Li was convicted of failing to provide her husband - deemed a vulnerable adult - with the appropriate medical care, hygiene, food and water between January and October 2016. The Crown said her lack of care was "grossly negligent" and not a mild lapse or temporary moment of forgetfulness.
During a five-week trial that started in May, the jury heard from more than 30 witnesses - a slow process as each word was translated into Tongan. Friends and family spoke of how Epenisa was often found alone without food or water, and the room where he spent his final days had a stench so strong visitors could not breathe.
His pressure sores were deep enough to see his muscle and bone and were infected with faecal matter, a pathologist said.
Li, however, claimed her husband did not want healthcare workers to care for him, and he would yell and scream at her when she tried to help. Her lawyers argued her husband's sores developed quickly, and there was nothing Li could do for the "very, very sick" man.
During Wednesday's hearing, lawyer Mark Ryan asked the judge for a 50 per cent discount off the starting point for his client's sentence due to her remorse.
"She's going to have to live with the death of her husband and the father of their two daughters for the rest of her life," Ryan said, referring to the Crown's suggestion of a 5-10 per cent discount for remorse as "miserly".
But prosecutor Jasper Rhodes said that Li continues to insist, according to one pre-sentencing interview, that she didn't do anything criminally wrong and it is unfair she was in prison.
Another report, however, described Li as "clearly ashamed" and regretful. Epenisa's insistence on not having outside help required his teen daughters to step in and help, causing shame for the family due to cultural taboos and further entrenching Li's refusal of help, the report stated.
The judge agreed she was remorseful and that cultural issues - including an assertion that husbands tend to have more authority in Tongan marriages - contributed to the situation.
With a starting point of eight years' prison, he allowed a 10 per cent discount for her remorse, as well as two other 10 per cent discounts to account for her poor health and her previous good standing in the community.
"Poverty and over-crowding were undoubtedly contributing factors," Justice Wylie added, pointing out that the family of four slept in a single bedroom. "The family at the time were impoverished."
Li's own poor health at the time also reduces her culpability, he said.
"I accept this must have significantly compromised your ability to care for your husband," he said. "They would have added to your feeling of desperation and helplessness."
But the extent of Li's neglect also had to be considered, he said.
"He was frequently left home alone, unable...to move," Justice Wylie recalled. "He was left with plastic bottles to urinate in. On occasion, he defecated himself. He was washed and bathed infrequently. You failed to obtain sufficient medication for him. You did not take him to medical appointments.
"You actively discouraged people from visiting him. As a result, your husband became increasingly isolated.
"You cannot have been unaware of your husband's deteriorating state."
The couple's twin daughters sat in the courtroom as the sentencing took place. They declined to provide victim impact statements but did write letters in support of their mother, describing her as "the backbone" of the family.
A cousin of Epenisa's who testified during the trial did write a victim impact statement on behalf of his extended family in New Zealand, Australia and Tonga. Manusiu Luani said Epenisa had been like a brother to her as they were growing up and that the family is still struggling to comprehend the way in which he died.
The former stonemason is dearly missed, she said.
In her own letter to the court, Li also said she misses her husband. She said she accepts the jury's verdict, and she asks for forgiveness.