COMMENT:

He has a bad hip and walks with a cane. When he wears a T-shirt there are strange, hard lumps showing in his lower arms, like tumours, or cysts. An old man, 65, but difficult to describe as frail. The arms are strong and his body is lean and firm. He smiled at the jury when they came in after lunch on Tuesday. He doesn't have a great smile and it isn't just because of his false teeth. His resting face is resolutely joyless.

Mostly he sits in court with his head bowed, wearing a pair of glasses, and writing in a 3B1 notebook. Another man sits nearby with his head bowed, wearing a pair of glasses, and writing in a 3B1 notebook. Sometimes we raise our heads, and look at each other. He sees just another journalist and I examine the 65-year-old face of the very well-known Malcolm Rewa.

"Mr Rewa," as Justice Geoffrey Venning put it to the jury at the High Court of Auckland on Monday morning, "was convicted of a number of sexual assaults, including rape." Well, yes. Quite a number, really, quite a lot, between 1987 and 1996, all throughout Auckland, nine years of terror on the isthmus, until he was finally busted and sentenced to preventive detention with a minimum non-parole period of 22 years at his trial in 1998. But the charges also included the rape and murder of Susan Burdett, in 1992, and the jury couldn't reach a verdict. There was a retrial later in 1998. He was found guilty of her rape, but once again a jury couldn't decide on the murder charge.

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Something extraordinary happened along the way to bring Rewa back to the High Court during a beautiful week of summer in 2019. "You will probably know the name Teina Pora," the judge said to the jury. The court heard a brief precis of how Pora was busted for Burdett's murder and found guilty, but his conviction was later quashed by the Privy Council. It reopened the case against Rewa.

Pora served 20 years prison for a crime he did not commit. The shocking story was investigated at great length and in great detail by Herald reporter Phil Taylor, who I expected to see in court this week. All reporters are obsessed with being a witness to history and Rewa's third trial, 27 years after Burdett's murder, is a historic event and, possibly, the end game in a long criminal saga. But all, or some, reporters are also human, and Phil was on leave.

Crown Prosecutor Gareth Kayes.
Crown Prosecutor Gareth Kayes.

However there was a brief appearance in court by Tim McKinnel. The private detective initiated and stuck at the long campaign to prove Pora's innocence. We ran into each other in the shade of the giant magnolia outside court. He cut a spruce figure in a black suit but I resisted the temptation to insult him by saying he looked like a lawyer. He was actually at the High Court on other business but a meeting had been cancelled. I urged him to come into courtroom seven and have a look, and said, "The prosecution are about to call the guy who found Susan's body." Tim said, "Steven Dawson." He knows all the names, all the secrets, but came in and sat at the back of court, listening to evidence he has pored over many, many times.

I doubt Rewa noticed he was there. He was really very preoccupied with his 3B1 and his note taking. Rewa's DNA was left at the crime scene but he denies it was rape. "Paul," he hissed, usually once or twice a day, to attract the attention of his lawyer Paul Chambers. "Paul!" Chambers would turn to face his client, who'd lean forward in the dock to hand over a handwritten note. On Wednesday, Rewa added: "It's crucial!"

Hard to know whether the accumulated scraps of paper are put to any use, but Chambers is very attentive to Rewa, always bounds over to talk to him at the end of each session and before the guards take him away. He felt a particular need to discuss something with Rewa on Thursday. The guards had already taken Rewa out of the courtroom, to take him to the downstairs cells, and were in no mood to cease the journey. "But," said Chambers, indignantly, "I need to speak to my lawyer! I mean, my client!"

The rape and killing of Burdett was brutal. Her skull was fractured and there was brain matter on the pillows. She lived alone; the weapon may have been a softball bat she kept for protection. But farce is never far away from tragedy. It pulls faces through the glass, snickers behind the door, rings the bell and runs away. As well as presenting graphic and awful evidence, the trial has veered into farce, comedy, parrot sketches.

Susan Burdett.
Susan Burdett.

There was the learned conversation between the judge, a witness, and the prosecution on how best to describe one of Susan Burdett's ear-rings, a silver-coloured sleeper. Crown prosecutor Gareth Kayes asked former police detective sergeant Michelle Moore what a sleeper looked like. She said it looked like a ring or a circle. Kayes asked if it had a hole in the middle and Moore confirmed it did, because that was the essential nature of rings and circles, but Justice Venning burst in, and said, "Sorry, I might be missing something. Is it just to keep the holes in the ears open, or is it something else?" Moore did her best to illuminate His Honour, and so did Kayes, who asked her whether she agreed that a sleeper is a hooped, circular ear-ring. "Yes," she said. Justice Venning nodded sagely, and said, "That's good. I always like to learn something every day."

But there were limits to his search for knowledge. The jury asked a question of His Honour on Wednesday. It's not unusual for juries to seek clarification. The expectation on Wednesday is that it might conceivably have been about a complex forensic detail – DNA, blood spatter, something in that range – but in fact it briefly transformed the trial into the case of the missing bird.

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The issue that exercised the jury concerned the photo booklet of the crime scene. A police photographer recorded the rooms in Susan Burdett's house. It showed a toaster, a hanging fern, slippers on the floor, a washing basket, a birdcage...The jury asked, "Photo 33 has a cockatiel in a cage but not in photos 32 and 37. Was it removed at some point?"

Justice Venning looks rather a lot like John Key. He has the same pink, good-humoured face. He told the jury in one of the most high-profile murder trials in recent New Zealand criminal history, "It's fair to say I don't think anyone else has addressed their mind to this issue. Mr Kayes has indicated to the court he'll make inquiries of the police to see if we can clarify that for you. I'm sure the fate of the cockatiel was looked after. I'm sure it was alright. But please put that to one side, and don't think of about it again."

Justice Geoffrey Venning.
Justice Geoffrey Venning.

Kayes was as good as his word. His inquiries revealed that some of the crime scene photos were taken in April, the year after the killing . A new homeowner had taken residence; and they owned the bird. Justice Venning said, "We will all appreciate having that clarified."

For the most part, though, the trial has proceeded with all due seriousness of purpose. It was set down for four weeks. It may not last that distance. Fast progress has been made with called witnesses, and many others simply had their testimony read out by the court registrar. The only physical exhibit in the courtroom is Burdett's baseball bat, found on the bed next to her body.

Justice Venning instructed the jury to put aside any prejudice or distaste they might have towards Rewa as someone convicted as a serial rapist. "You will deal with this case," he said, "solely on the evidence you have heard in the courtroom." And so the jury heard about Burdett's whereabouts on the last night she was alive, the attack, the quick death. A duvet was placed over her face and her head was struck about five times. Her son Dallas McKay appeared on the stand. Chambers accused him of murdering his mother. He said McKay, 20 at the time of her death, had motive and access. To a detective who examined the crime scene, Chambers suggested it was impossible for Burdett's killer to climb through the bedroom window, that it was more likely he let himself in with a key.

The jury also heard a litany of agreed facts, read out by Justice Venning, taken from women who Rewa had raped. The 19-year-old in Panmure; Rewa placed a pillow over her face, and said, "Don't fight or I'll kill you." The 24-year-old in Manurewa; Rewa tied her hands and feet, and placed a duvet over her head. The 23-year-old in Otahuhu; Rewa blindfolded her, punched her in the jaw, smashed her face into the carpet.

Rewa, in the dock at the High Court, bowed his head, and wrote possibly crucial notes in his 3B1. The trial recommences on Monday. The defence is about to open and present Rewa's side of this long, dismal story.