Steve Braunias reports on the trial of Malcolm Rewa, finally found guilty and convicted of the 1992 murder of Susan Burdett.

COMMENT:

Done. Guilty. At last, finally, a sane prosecution and a correct verdict against Malcolm Rewa, found guilty in the High Court of Auckland for the murder of Susan Burdett, who he beat to death one night in March 1992 and got away with it for 27 years.

He only got away with it as far as his bad hip has taken him within the walls of Paremoremo prison these past 23 years. The cops busted Rewa as a serial rapist in 1996. But he escaped the murder charge, until Friday, when justice caught up with him, finally, at last, and darkened that long, watchful face. He turns 66 today: the verdict was the birthday present he deserves.

Now and then I studied him during the trial and wondered whether it was within reason to view him sympathetically as just another pitiable old con. His back and shoulders were hunched over when he walked. If you took away his cane, he'd fall to the ground like a sack.

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There was more of him when I last saw Rewa, just over 20 years ago, at his first trial. Back then he wore his thick black hair in a mullet and raised his head high in the witness box.

Back then he was a tough sonofabitch, 45, strong, mobile, alert, only two years since his last violent attack on a woman, and it was well within reason to view him with as much fear as loathing. He had big hands, the same long, watchful face.

Even now, though, you wouldn't want to be in the same room as Rewa. His upper body – chest, shoulders, forearms – are hard and firm. "I walk," he said, "the Christian walk."

It's not a very straight walk. He was revealed in court as a nasty piece of work, and not just in his 1990s pomp as a rapist who terrorised women across the Auckland isthmus. It took a special and enduring nastiness to stick to his story that he and Susan were lovers.

The old crocodile searched for some tears. "She wasn't just Susan Burdett to me," he said, impersonating a lovelorn ex. "She was my friend."

"Susan", "my friend" – Rewa's rape victims told police that his typical form of address was to say to them, "Shut up bitch or I'll kill you." After he raped Burdett, Rewa's DNA was detected in a vaginal swab.

His defence was that they had fun sex on the night of her death. They were high on the Ecstasy he shared with her. What a generous man: "It was a freebie. The expense was on me."

After 27 long years a straight story about the rape and murder of Susan Burdett by Malcolm Rewa was presented to a jury, and they found him guilty.
After 27 long years a straight story about the rape and murder of Susan Burdett by Malcolm Rewa was presented to a jury, and they found him guilty.

He was asked in court when he first started supplying drugs to her. "Maybe…two to three weeks before she passed? It wasn't long before her passing." Before she "passed", before her "passing": the dainty little respectful words to describe the fast and violent death he brought to Burdett late on a Monday night, fracturing her skull with a blunt weapon.

There were deep lacerations. "Brain matter," prosecutor Gareth Kayes put it, "was oozing out."

The date was March 23, 1992. She was getting ready for bed. Her routine every Monday night was to come home from work, clean her unit in Pah Road, Papatoetoe, make dinner, and do some baking to share when she went out to play 10-pin bowls at Manukau Super
Strike.

Her team, Ratbags, won their game. She drove home and left a plate of left-over fudge on the passenger seat to take to work the next day. Her neighbour in the next unit heard her slam the door inside the garage.

The neighbour couldn't sleep; she usually went out to singing practise on Monday nights and got home late, and wasn't used to sitting at home twiddling her thumbs and counting sheep. At about 11:40pm she heard a loud bang through the walls.

Malcolm Rewa in the dock at the Auckland High Court. Photo / Michael Craig.
Malcolm Rewa in the dock at the Auckland High Court. Photo / Michael Craig.

Gareth Kayes said, "It's possible to kill a person in a blameworthy or not blameworthy way. But we are not talking here about an accident." The neighbour said, "Then there were other bangs, softer, and closer together. One after another."

The jury was shown a crime scene video. It was taken on a hand-held camera. It shook, it went out of focus, it was really very amateur film-making and its flat, drab power hushed the court to silence. It filmed a single teatowel on the clothesline. It filmed a moth.

It filmed Burdett's body on her waterbed. The killer had crossed one leg over the other. What sort of staging was that supposed to represent? Concern for her modesty? Shame? Better still, disgust, for what he had done to her?

Burdett's softball bat lay on top of the bed. It was left in a tidy, straight line, exactly parallel to the body. Forensic investigations failed to provide any physical evidence linking the bat to the fatal assault.

It cannot properly be labelled the murder weapon. The fact that it was kept in the bedroom for Burdett's protection, and would have been seen by her killer, might be just one of those things.

The fact that it corresponded to the kind of blunt object that struck and killed Burdett might be just another of those things. The fact that it was left next to the body, tossed aside like a kind of calling card, might be just one after another of those things.

But the police contrived to follow the demented logic that it really was just all of those things, because it didn't fit their case against another suspect, a kind of living ghost who haunted Rewa's trial these past two weeks: Teina Pora.

Malcolm Rewa, 65, was 'busted by the cops' in 1996. Photo / Michael Craig
Malcolm Rewa, 65, was 'busted by the cops' in 1996. Photo / Michael Craig

The miscarriage of justice, the epic disgrace of it, that saw Pora serve 20 years in jail for Burdett's murder, a crime he did not commit on account of such various assorted facts as never having been in her house or knowing where she lived, gave Rewa's trial an importance and significance that Justice Geoffrey Venning acknowledged in his welcoming remarks to the jury.

"You may make a connection in this case," he said, "with Teina Pora." Pora, who made a false confession to the police that he murdered Burdett in the company of two men from the Mongrel Mob. Pora, duly found guilty in 1994, and again at his retrial in 2000. Pora, finally cleared by the Privy Council, ruling in 2015 that he had been wrongfully convicted.

Two juries found an innocent man guilty; two juries, in 1998, were unable to reach a verdict when Rewa was charged with Burdett's murder.

One of the central problems was Pora. It was a Catch 22. An innocent man found guilty meant that a guilty man got away with it. Crown lawyers tried very hard to persuade the 1998 juries that Pora and Rewa were in cahoots but it was an insane prosecution and of course it didn't make a lick of sense.

Pora didn't know Rewa was. Rewa always operated as a lone wolf; in part, the Privy Council heard, because he had problems getting it up and wouldn't have welcomed another man witnessing his humiliation.

Malcolm Rewa's lawyer Paul Chambers talks about the Malcolm Rewa guilty verdict outside the High Court after Rewa was found guilty of murdering Susan Burdett in 1992. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Malcolm Rewa's lawyer Paul Chambers talks about the Malcolm Rewa guilty verdict outside the High Court after Rewa was found guilty of murdering Susan Burdett in 1992. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Many of us wish to reserve a special place in Hell for defence lawyers who appear to manipulate the law to release murderers and rapists. Too few of us want a hotter circle of Hell set aside for prosecution lawyers who assist in obtaining convictions against innocent people accused of murder and rape.

These days Justice Paul Davison sits in wise judgment at the bench. In 1994, Davison was a thin and monotonal QC who acted for the Crown in Pora's first trial. He told the jury that Susan Burdett was stalked by three men, including Pora.

They spied on her through her window while she watched TV. They broke in, and two men raped her while Pora held her down. Then they killed her with their baseball bat, wiped the blood off, and threw it in a drain in Boundary Road…All of it a travesty, but it worked like a magic spell and it took five trials to finally break it and reveal that Rewa, and only Rewa, was Susan Burdett's killer.

The past fortnight was all about Rewa. Rewa and his comb-over, Rewa and his wretched Christian walk, Rewa and his walking stick, which he gripped tighter and tighter and tighter while his lies were exposed during cross-examination on Tuesday – he sat very close to the only physical exhibit in courtroom seven, Burdett's softball bat, and the thought most certainly occurred that he had once held that very tightly, too.

His defence lawyer Paul Chambers tried talking about Pora.

He didn't get very far. Justice Venning closed him down. It concerned the bat. Chambers wanted to ask former detective Neil Grimstone about a softball bat that Pora showed police was in a drain on Boundary Road.

"I'm not suggesting it had anything to do with Mr Pora," he said, but the only relevance of the bat found in a drain on Boundary Road was its connection with Pora. Venning ruled there would henceforth be no more talk, ever, of the bat found in a drain on Boundary Road.

Chambers was a strange fellow. Sometimes I wondered whether he was just some guy with white whiskers and a big mole on the side of his head who had walked in off the street and got handed a black gown.

Former police officer turned private investigator Tim McKinnel talks about the Malcolm Rewa guilty verdict outside the High Court. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Former police officer turned private investigator Tim McKinnel talks about the Malcolm Rewa guilty verdict outside the High Court. Photo / Jason Oxenham

"Ask the witness a question," Justice Venning was compelled to tell him, a number of times.

And: "No, no, Mr Chambers. No, no, no, no." Also, more succinctly: "No." The screensaver on his laptop was an illustration of actor Leon McKern playing his great character Rumpole of the Bailey.

Chambers was more rumpled than Rumpole; there were days he scrubbed up well, and other days when he wore scuffed shoes and a loose, sagging suit. In any case, the jury plainly had a gutsful of his Rumpole screensaver. They asked the judge to please tell Chambers to turn his laptop away from them so they didn't have to look at it.

His closing address might be described as rambling and weird. How rambling and weird? So rambling and weird that I got a shout-out. He talked about a witness who had suffered post-traumatic stress disorder.

Chambers could empathise. "I've suffered a traumatic incident in the past, which I don't need to go into," he told the jury. "I don't want to give Mr Braunias palpitations."

I suppose it might have been a fair comment on my reporting of the trial. My daily reports were perhaps exercises in amateur psychology based on close observation of meaningless details, such as noticing that Chambers appears to have missing teeth.

A few years ago I wrote a book about court trials, and dedicated it to May Mackey. She was 95 when we last met at her apartment in Parnell.

She brought out custard squares to have with our tea. I wanted to talk to her about a tragedy in 1963, when a maniac in Bethells Beach shot and killed his neighbour and two police officers.

May was married to detective inspector Wally Chalmers. He was 42 when Victor Wasmuth ended his life. I asked May what her feelings were about the man who killed her husband, and she said, "From the beginning I wanted to see him. To talk to him. I always had that yen to see him. Because I never had nothing against him. Not at all. It wasn't my attitude towards people. And that's why, for 30 years, I've been visiting prisons." Then she talked about visiting Paremoremo Prison and becoming close friends with Malcolm Rewa.

Malcolm Rewa in his younger days.
Malcolm Rewa in his younger days.

Rewa talked about May at some length when he appeared as a witness on Tuesday. He spoke quietly, and with affection, respect, and gratitude. He had become a Christian in prison, he said. "It's thanks to the Christian people who came to see me. One in particular, Whaea May. She was a woman in her late 70s then and she had an aura about her…May came to see me last Saturday. She's 99 now and thank God she's still with us. She treats me like her son. That's the way she sees me."

Dear May. I dedicated my book The Scene of the Crime to her because she had such a long, close experience of violent crime in New Zealand – the widow of a police office killed in the line of duty, and now friends with serious offendors, including Rewa and the RSA killer, William Bell – but had remained a gentle soul who believed in kindness and redemption. "I never ask about their crimes," she said. "We just talk." The Rewa she knows is warm, decent, good.

The Rewa in courtroom seven, asked about his crimes, was devious, pathetic, enraged. His walking stick operated like the needle on a lie detector. It jumped and jerked all over the place.

His problem was that he introduced a whole new set of lies never previously heard at his two earlier trials but they felt improvised, made up on the spot. He claimed he had sex with Burdett in his truck. Under cross-examination, he admitted he didn't own his truck until two years after Burdett's death. Wildly, he claimed he'd never broken in through a window at any of the rapes he committed. Under cross-examination, he admitted the time he broke in through a bedroom window, and a kitchen window, and a toilet window, and a window by the back door, and a ventilation window.

Malcolm Rewa says he was in a secret sexual relationship with Susan Burdett but the prosecutor says Rewa is lying in an effort explain how his DNA was found at the crime scene.

Things were getting away from him. Things weren't going according to whatever haphazard plan he'd cooked up for his appearance in the witness box.

He tried to avoid answering Crown prsecutor Gareth Kayes's questions; he wanted to make a speech. He screeched: "I'm going to say my piece!" Justice Venning closed him down. Where could he turn to, what did he have left?

All he had left were his own lies. The new ones probably struck him as exciting and fresh. Sex in a truck that didn't exist! Sex, too, beneath the trig station on Mangere Mountain! As ever, Rewa chose stories that established his virility. I remember at his first trial, in 1998, when he said in court, "She said I had the kind of physique that would turn women on."

Kayes listened to the Mangere Mountain revelation with interest. Why was it, he wondered, that Rewa only shared the location of this tryst now, at his third trial? Rewa gripped his walking stick very tight. He answered: "No one ever asked before."

He was running out of ideas, running out of angles. Chambers approached myself and my Herald colleague Sam Hurley outside court just after the trial had begun, and said that he hoped that "the tenor" of our reporting would reflect the person Rewa was, not just a black and white stereotype.

But who was Rewa as he appeared in court? Damaged, plainly and profoundly; vain, writing Burdett's script to cast himself as the romantic lead; reckless, inventing lies that could easily be exposed; afraid, an old con backed into a corner, twisting his walking stick in his hands, coming out with sudden announcements: "There's other people involved!"

What other people? Who? Not Pora. Pora was a ghost. Rewa was by himself, the culprit, the rapist and murderer, caught out after 27 years.

Justice Geoffrey Venning. Photo / Michael Craig
Justice Geoffrey Venning. Photo / Michael Craig

In 1996, police kicked down his door at 37 Mayflower Close in Mangere and busted him at 11.15pm, on March 13, both the time and the date a close match for his murder of Burdett.

He ran for it, but was brought down by police dogs. It put an end to his CV (1987-1996) as a serial rapist who hit many of his victims, who raped one woman who was pregnant, who raped another woman in front of her two year old – a police detective said the name of his last victim out loud when we spoke in private during the trial, a 15-year-old girl who he attacked on the street in Epsom, breaking her jaw while attempting to abduct her in broad daylight, but her screams attracted her father and Rewa ran for it, too slowly, the girl's father taking a note of the license number of Rewa's car.

The detective said her name with real feeling. She was responsible for taking Rewa off the streets. He had been a skilled and effective hunter, but his hunting days were over. The hunt began to convict Rewa as Burdett's killer. It was long and demented and caused untold suffering, but finally came to an end on Friday. The jury were told a straight story. They replied with a straight answer. Case closed: Rewa, the end.