The cruel death of a baby girl comes before any excuses, background reasons or expressions of remorse, says a judge. SHENAGH GLEESON reports.
On the morning of her trial, Rachealle Namana's lawyer gave Justice Eddie Durie a letter.
In it, Namana described her terror-ridden childhood, an attempt at suicide at the age of nine, the impossible demands of her extended family, her tireless work for her kohanga reo, and her remorse.
Justice Durie read it - and decided it didn't count for much.
What counted was the inexcusable failure of Namana and her sister Rongomai Paewai to get medical help for their 23-month-old niece, Lillybing, dying from internal bleeding after a brutal vaginal assault.
What counted was the Carterton step-aunts' failure to get help for Lillybing as she staggered and fell repeatedly, the peritoneal bleeding sapping the life from her small body.
What counted was their bizarre and cruel treatment of a lump on her head with a boiling hot cloth.
Hinewaioriki Karaitiana-Matiaha, nicknamed Lillybing, finally died on July 23 last year from brain injury resulting from violent shaking by Namana.
But because of her aunts' neglect she already had no chance of survival.
For that Justice Durie imposed tough sentences in the High Court at Wellington yesterday.
Rachealle Patricia Dawn Namana, 28, was sentenced to six years imprisonment and Rongomai Paewai, 27, to two years.
Their sentences would have been longer - eight years for Namana and three years for Paewai - but were reduced because of their guilty pleas.
As well as six years imprisonment for manslaughter, Namana received concurrent terms of two years' jail on two charges of wilful ill-treatment, two years on two charges of failing to provide the necessaries of life and 18 months for an earlier assault on Lillybing.
Paewai received terms of two years' jail on the two charges of ill-treatment and the two charges of failing to provide the necessaries.
They go to prison leaving behind seven children, a bitterly divided whanau and a vitally important unanswered question. Who caused Lillybing's vaginal injury?
Justice Durie told the court he had to conclude from the depositions evidence that neither Namana nor Paewai nor anyone in their immediate household was responsible.
But the police officer in charge of the case, Inspector Rod Drew, is not sure.
In a press statement issued at the court he said that although the women admitting noticing something was wrong with Lillybing's vagina on the day before she died, "it should not necessarily be inferred that a third person was involved in inflicting the injuries.
"The injuries were violent, but not necessarily sexually motivated ones," he said.
"Expert opinion on when they were inflicted, possibly contemporaneous with the prolonged and violent 'toilet training' inflicted by Rachaelle Namana on the Friday night may be relevant."
The file would remain open and police would continue their investigations, Inspector Drew said.
Namana and Paewai and other family members have been accused of shielding the person responsible.
After the sentencing, some of the women's supporters yesterday angrily alleged police knew who it was but did not give any details.
Lillybing's mother, Terina Matiaha and Namana's partner, David Hemopo, were in court, with a small number of supporters.
The family did not escape criticism from the judge, who acknowledged Namana had sought help for her early abuse of Lillybing during the time she breastfed her.
The family stopped taking the child to her aunt but then started again.
"Lillybing was loaded on to you when it must have been known that you were heavily busy and under pressure and stress, and you agreed to take the child when others, who might have, did not," he said.
"Other persons are not on trial and they have not been heard, so there is very little I can say about that. Nonetheless, it does seem to me regrettable that you alone should be having to bear the burden of responsibility."
Namana's lawyer, Val Nisbet, said the pressures placed on Namana by the family were intolerable. She was expected to care for up to 10 children for periods that could last up to 10 days.
He called for leniency based on Namana's guilty plea, good history, personal circumstances, remorse and the nature of Lillybing's death.
Her aunt had never thought her actions would lead to the toddler's death and it was "a case where a series of mishaps and mischoices occurred".
Justice Durie acknowledged many of Namana and her lawyer's submissions, but said that in the end he gave very little weight to them.
"No matter the stress, no matter the burdens placed upon you and no matter your concerns for what might have happened had Lillybing's injuries been known to others, none of it can possibly excuse the failure to obtain medical help for this child when medical help was so patently required."
Although he accepted that Namana had shown remorse, her probation report concluded that her tendency to minimise her offending and Lillybing's injuries meant her motivation for reform was low.
In Paewai's case, the judge acknowledged she was a party to the offences but rejected a plea from her lawyer, Nigel Hewat, for a suspended sentence, saying she too failed to get Lillybing the medical help she desperately needed.
Outside the court, Inspector Drew said no one on the investigation team had heard or seen remorse from Namana or Paewai.
Visibly upset, he said Lillybing's death raised questions about the "looseness and abuse of the extended family concept" which had led in her case to no-one taking direct responsibility for the little girl.
The case had been difficult for inquiry team and had contributed to the resignation of two senior police officers, he said.
"Those of us who worked on the Lillybing inquiry won't forget her haunted wee face. Images of her injuries will stay with us."