Prime Minister John Key yesterday backed a judge's decision not to jail five people for their roles in a curse-lifting ceremony in which a 22-year-old mother of two died.

Janet Moses drowned as water was forced into her eyes to try to flush out demons.

In the High Court at Wellington, Justice Simon France imposed community sentences on the five, who had been charged with manslaughter.

Labour MP Trevor Mallard said the group were spared jail because they are Maori. "I think in this case the judge got it wrong," he said.

"I think there is a lot of sympathy for the individuals involved. They did get caught up in some sort of hysteria. They were sleep-deprived.

"But there's just not an acceptance either from the vast majority of Maori or Pakeha people that you can effectively torture someone for well over a day ... causing death, and there not be a jail sentence."

Mr Key said while he did not condone the actions of Ms Moses' killers, he believed they were "truly misguided but not malicious".

"If the judge really believed that they didn't go in there with the intent to kill, if they went in there because they truly in their hearts believed the person was possessed, then I'm not sure locking them up would achieve a lot.

"I'm all in favour of putting people in prison ... but that's if they're a danger to society," he said.

- NZPA