The quashing of three teen murderers’ life sentences will allow other youth killers to appeal their sentences, a King’s Counsel says.
Georgia Rose Dickey, Christopher James Brown and Katrina Roma Epiha have all been re-sentenced to finite sentences with a minimum period of imprisonment after a ruling from the Court of Appeal yesterday.
Brown, who was found guilty of murder after a jury trial, and Dickey, who pleaded guilty to murder, both received life sentences with a non-parole period of 10 years for their part in the killing of Jack McAllister near Stadium Southland in Invercargill on June 7, 2017.
Dickey was aged 16 at the time. Brown was 19.
While neither stabbed McAllister, they were convicted as a party to the murder taking place.
Katrina Roma Epiha murdered Alicia Nathan when she stabbed her to death at Avonhead in Christchurch on August 5, 2017, over an argument about loud music.
Epiha, who plead guilty to the charge, was 18 at the time she murdered the mother of one.
A Court of Appeal hearing was held in Wellington before Justices Forrie Miller, David Collins and Simon France in July last year, to decide whether their sentences were manifestly unjust.
The ruling stated sentences could be deemed manifestly unjust not only because of an offender’s youth and lack of brain development, but also taking into account further mitigating circumstances in relation to the offending, personal factors, determinacy of their sentence and the impact of lifetime parole.
The judges ruled all three sentences met the manifestly unjust threshold.
Dickey received an amended sentence of 15 years’ imprisonment with a minimum of seven and a-half years, Brown a sentence of 12 years’ imprisonment (minimum six years) and Epiha 13 years’ imprisonment (minimum seven years).
The court acknowledged there was no undoing the harm caused, and surviving victims of these murders were likely to think a sentence short of life imprisonment was disproportionate to their loss.
The judges said the decision should not be taken as a guideline judgement, saying they did not attempt to prescribe when it may be appropriate to find life imprisonment unfair for young people.
Creating sweeping change to how youth murderers were dealt with could only done by Parliament, the court said.
Brown’s counsel Fiona Guy Kidd, KC, yesterday said the judgement was not only about recognising the age of the offenders but also acknowledging each defendant’s personal circumstances, which was an integral part of complying with the Sentencing Act.
It would give material and provide guidelines for other High Court judges when sentencing young people, Guy Kidd said.
It would also allow other young people who had been convicted of murder to appeal their sentences. However, other mitigating factors would need to be established for their appeal to be successful, she said.
“It won’t apply to all defendants in these cases.”
One of the benefits of the reduced sentences would mean the offenders would commence rehabilitation sooner, which would have otherwise been delayed until they had served at least eight and a half years of their sentence.
She confirmed she had spoken to Brown about the ruling but refrained from giving any further details about what they discussed.
Dr Paul Wood, who was convicted of murdering a drug dealer at 18 and had recently had his life parole period wiped by the parole board, said the quashing of the life sentences meant the offenders would now have certainty in their future.
“I think they will be hopeful for a future for themselves, that they’ll actually see that there is some light at the end of the tunnel.
“This will just be a chapter — while tragic for everyone involved, they will be able to move on as they create a new life for themselves.”
What he found encouraging was how the judicial system, including the Crown, appellant lawyers and the judges, had worked together in the pursuit of justice, he said.
“For me, this comes as a real victory, for judges to make a judgement made in circumstances of the case rather than an administrative process.”