Thanks to the careful, clear journalism of the Herald's Phil Taylor, it became well known some years ago that an intellectually deficient man was serving a life sentence in a New Zealand prison after confessing to a murder he almost certainly did not commit. Teina Pora was already some years into his sentence for the 1992 rape and murder of Susan Burdett when DNA evidence in 1998 proved she had been raped by serial offender Malcolm Rewa at the time of her death.
Yet rather than releasing Mr Pora, the Court of Appeal ordered a retrial and, in 2000, a second jury found him guilty. The conviction was upheld by the Court of Appeal later that year and he served another 13 years before his case was heard by the Privy Council. This week, the Law Lords quashed his convictions and invited submissions on whether they should order yet another trial.
The 22-year miscarriage of justice is not quite over. The question of a retrial will hinge on whether the Privy Council believes a a third group of jurors could find him guilty even after they took into account the reason that Rewa was unlikely to have had another male present when he raped Ms Burdett: he suffered from erectile dysfunction. That evidence was withheld from the second jury.
This may be the last criminal appeal to the Privy Council from New Zealand. This country's most senior judge, Dame Sian Elias, joined four London judges on the panel, which offers hope that New Zealand's Supreme Court would have come to a similar decision. But the case has not reflected well on our courts. Coming hard on the heels of the Bain case, and with the David Dougherty and Arthur Allan Thomas cases still in memory, the public is bound to wonder if something is seriously wrong in our prosecutions and conduct of trials.
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At the very least, the succession of wrongful convictions suggests a need for a more rapid reconsideration system on the lines of the Criminal Cases Review Commission set up in Britain in 1997. A permanent specialised panel might not only produce speedier decisions at less cost than the higher courts, advocates say it could also be less confined in the material it might consider.
"Miscarriages are typically of a nature that requires more in-depth and independent analysis than that which can be conducted by a court of appeal," said Canterbury University's dean of law, Associate Professor Chris Gallavin, in response to the Pora decision. The Privy Council heard neurological experts on the effects of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder on a person's ability to reason, plan, and realise consequences.
Former Justice Minister Judith Collins was implacably opposed to a criminal review panel and her successor, Amy Adams, sounds no more open to the suggestion. But something of the sort ought to be considered. Judges are the best rulers on law and juries can be good judges of character and fact. But two juries in the Pora case could not believe - despite the oddities and inconsistencies in his account - that someone would confess to a crime he did not commit. The case needed a more independent review long ago.