COMMENT:

Imagine receiving the letter.

Imagine the terrifying envelope, its capital letters shouting MINISTRY OF JUSTICE. But who among the 300 Aucklanders summoned to report for jury duty in the High Court at Auckland could have imagined it meant they would suddenly find themselves in the same room as Malcolm Rewa?

Rewa, a serial rapist; Rewa, a haunting figure from twentieth century crime in New
Zealand.

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Rewa, now an old man, jabbing at the floor with his cane, creeping into courtroom number 7 with a bowed back. His trial for the 1992 murder of Susan Burdett began yesterday morning. The 300 called for jury duty filled the courtroom, spilling out the door, waiting for their name to be called from the wooden ballot box.

They received their letters before Christmas. They had enough time to forget all about it and to enjoy this golden summer — good old global warming, it means an awesome time at the beach. But the day in court finally loomed and a long, long line formed on Waterloo Quadrant.

They were young, old, Indian, Chinese, Pacific Island, Māori, and that obscure minority, European.

They got given a plastic yellow nametag to pin to their T-shirts and summer dresses. It read: 7. All the 7s were processed and finally herded into the courtroom for their unforeseen appointment with Rewa.

"I suspect a number of you will recognise the name," said Justice Geoffrey Venning. Yeah. Probably. In case it didn't ring a bell, he said, "Mr Rewa was convicted of a number of counts of rape and is currently a serving prisoner." The room fell silent.

Malcolm Rewa at the Auckland High Court where he is facing a retrial for the rape and murder of Susan Burdett. Photo / Michael Craig
Malcolm Rewa at the Auckland High Court where he is facing a retrial for the rape and murder of Susan Burdett. Photo / Michael Craig

Mr Rewa sat in the dock. His comb-over really didn't do a great job of covering his bald head, and he gripped his cane with his big, tattooed hands. One by one, the jurors' names were called out; and a curious thing happened.

Many made a beeline for the judge to lean in and explain in a whisper why it was they couldn't possibly accept the very kind invitation to serve on the trial of one of New Zealand's worst serial rapists.

It's not uncommon for one or two potential jurors to excuse themselves from trials. But yesterday 13 people had a frantic word with the judge. He released 11, including a woman who left the court in tears.

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Eventually the jury of 12 were selected. They took half an hour to elect the foreperson. It went to a man wearing a short-sleeved shirt with ships on it. He looked like a billboard for summer and the outdoor life, but by late afternoon his tan already seemed to fade in the wood-panelled chamber of courtroom 7.

The trial, warned Justice Venning, will take four weeks.

The jury were introduced to Crown prosecutor Gareth Kayes, and Rewa's defence counsel, Paul Chambers.

Rewa was served with an indictment charging him with murder. "Not guilty," he said.

"Guilty," said Kayes, in his opening address, when he spoke for exactly one hour, not a second more nor less.

"Innocent," said Chambers, who somehow managed to make his 12-minute opening address feel like he padded it out.

There was a lot of old news. The court heard Rewa had twice been found not guilty of Burdett's murder at two trials, but found guilty of her rape, at the second trial. There was also a surprise announcement. "Mr Rewa," Kayes told the jury, "does not accept he raped Susan Burdett. He denies being involved in the rape."

Kayes gave an outline of witnesses. The jury will hear forensic evidence about Burdett's murder: she was beaten to death, most likely with her own baseball bat. They will also hear statements from some of Rewa's rape victims: women who were attacked in their homes, subdued with violence, sexually assaulted.

Imagine sitting through that for four weeks.