Father-of-five Michael Huata would not have been murdered if young East Coast men did not have such ready access to unlawful firearms, the Crown solicitor for the region said yesterday.
Ben Arundel Lambert, 22, fatally wounded his long-time associate Huata, 29, by shooting him in the face at close range on June 18, last year, at Mohaka.
Lambert was sentenced yesterday to life imprisonment with a minimum non-parole period of 10 years by Justice Robert Dobson in the High Court at Gisborne.
In submissions, Steve Manning said the murder and a preceding incident in which someone fired a shot dangerously close to Lambert's foot, would not have occurred but for the ready, unlawful, access to firearms.
"On this coast, too many times we are in this courtroom as a result of young men having ready access to unlawful firearms ordinarily cut down — either a shotgun or .22 rifle.
"Sadly, this offender had access to such a firearm and chose to use it," Manning said.
The sentence imposed also covered a charge of common assault and one of intentional damage (to a car) arising out of an incident, which sparked trouble two days before the murder.
Lambert and a relative of Huata's, Hirini Rocky Taurima, 38, got into a brawl after Lambert accused Taurima of stealing a tyre. Lambert assaulted Taurima by punching him in the face and extensively damaged his car by taking an axe to its windows and jumping on it.
There was another incident between the pair the afternoon of the murder in which Taurima fired a shot dangerously close to Lambert's foot and kicked Lambert in the face. (Taurima was later charged for that offending.)
That evening, as it was getting dark, Taurima's household received a threat involving a firearm.
Concerned for three children there, Huata drove from Wairoa to the house.
But soon after arriving he went across a paddock to ask neighbours for cigarettes and happened across Lambert who was hiding behind a vehicle no one recognised, holding a sawn-off gun, and watching Taurima's house.
Lambert later told police he confronted Huata and told him to get Taurima.
Huata ignored his threats to use the gun, and continued silently walking towards him.
Given the earlier incident with Taurima, he was worried Huata might be armed, Lambert said.
After shooting Huata, Lambert fled in his car, abandoning it about 10km away. He walked home for several hours across farmland, changed into fresh clothes he had taken, and threw the gun in a stream.
Huata died in Wairoa Hospital a short time later.
Lambert handed himself in to police 11 days later but did not plead guilty until a scheduled jury trial in September last year.
The murder has caused tension between Huata's whānau and Lambert's whānau, which was evident from an increased police and security guard presence in court and from comments made by Huata's relatives in some of the 14 victim impact statements, read to the court.
Lambert was once considered a member of their whānau, but now meant nothing to them, they said. He had not shown any remorse. They could not forgive him, they said.
Many mentioned the added pain of seeing Lambert, who was on bail all the months he delayed entering a plea, able to get on with his life — even getting married and "plastering it all over" social media, they said, while they were mourning the huge loss of their loved one — the central figure in their whānau — who was "decomposing under a pile of dirt".
Lambert's family could still visit him, touch, and converse with him. Huata was in a grave. They had been given a life sentence with no parole, or second chances.
Huata was a caring, protective, and handsome man. He made friends easily and did not care what affiliations others had, relatives said. (He and Lambert were both members of Black Power.)
He had a natural ability with children and spent quality time with them.
Relatives said the horrendous image of the gunshot wound was etched in their minds. They were worried about children who saw it when they went with Taurima to Huata's aid.
Manning said Huata was a genuinely innocent victim who had nothing to do with events before the shooting. Lambert had options that did not involve pulling a trigger. Huata made no threat to him, was not armed, and had not said anything to aggravate the situation. He could not be criticised for continuing to advance on a man who was standing on his (Huata's) whānau's property holding a loaded, cut-down, shotgun.
Counsel Susan Hughes QC said Lambert acknowledged his getting married would have rubbed salt into the wounds for the Huata whānau. He pleaded guilty as soon as she was assigned as a more senior counsel.
Lambert was remorseful but his offers to attend restorative justice and to read his letter of apology in court were rejected by Huata's family.
Lambert shot Huata out of panic. He fled without getting Huata help because he knew others nearby would promptly go to his aid, Hughes said.
Justice Dobson noted Huata had no previous convictions for violence. Letters of support described him as a good young man diverted from that course by gang association and poor choices.
Huata's whānau expressed anger at the 10-year minimum period of imprisonment (MPI) yelling it was "pathetic" and "he's gonna be out while he's still youthful".
Ten years is the shortest MPI for murder. In those considered particularly serious, the term must be no less than 17 years.
Counsels agreed on the term for Lambert.