Family members of aspiring Maori leader Hawea Vercoe are in disbelief at the "light" jail term imposed on his killer.

Emotions boiled over in the High Court at Rotorua yesterday as Isaiah Tai, a 21-year-old orchard worker from Opotiki, was sentenced to two years and 10 months in prison for Mr Vercoe's killing. Tai had pleaded guilty to manslaughter in April.

Outside court yesterday Mr Vercoe's aunt, Penny Ryan, said the sentence given to Tai was unjust.

"We've all lost out here. [The sentence] makes a mockery of a young man's life. It's an absolute joke."


Mr Vercoe's mother Rosalind said Tai had not yet grasped the seriousness of his offending.

"I don't know how sincere he is. When I met him [at a restorative justice meeting] it seemed he was just trying to save his own skin."

Mr Vercoe, 36, an Environment Bay of Plenty regional councillor and principal of Te Kura Kaupapa Maori o Te Rotoiti, died after Tai punched and kicked him outside Whakatane's Quart House bar on November 22.

Crown prosecutor Greg Hollister-Jones had called for Tai to be given a sentence of six years in order to send a signal about alcohol-fuelled street violence.

Tai's assault was "unprovoked and gratuitous" and had robbed six children of a father.

Defence counsel Paul Mabey said Tai did not have a serious criminal past and was simply "a young man who made a serious mistake".

He said Tai had "faced the music" by giving an early guilty plea and meeting the family for a restorative justice conference.

When Mr Mabey said Tai's killing of Mr Vercoe did not make him a bad man, angry yells came from the packed gallery.


Tears flowed in the gallery as victim impact statements from family members were read.

Mr Vercoe's mother, Rosalind, said that losing her eldest son to cancer 15 years ago was a "picnic in the park" compared to her grief at Mr Vercoe's killing.

She looked Tai in the eyes as she finished her statement, saying she would struggle to forgive him.

"You killed my son with your stupid, drunken behaviour."

Mr Vercoe's estranged wife Carrie-Ann read statements from the couple's children, who spoke of their struggle with their father's absence, and his unwavering support for them.

Justice Judith Potter repeated a comment by Mr Vercoe's 8-year-old son, who said his father "was fun, laughed a lot and made yummy porridge".

Tai briefly met the eyes of the family, and bowed his head when they became tearful.

Sentencing, Justice Potter recognised Tai's early guilty plea, and his participation in a restorative justice meeting with the Vercoe family.

She also noted reports that said Tai had a propensity for violence after alcohol abuse.

When the sentence was handed down, black-clad Vercoe supporters traded insults with supporters of Tai, who yelled "I love you" as he was locked away. The arguments continued outside court, as Tai's supporters expressed delight at the judge's decision.

Father, Mac Tai, said it was a good outcome for his son, but he felt for the Vercoe family. He said his family "were suffering too".