Derek Powell this week won his long battle to clear his name over the death of a woman on a Lyttelton picket line in Dec 1999. PHIL TAYLOR reports




The war room at the Powell household has been dismantled. Upstairs in his house, which sits at the tail of a small new Hoon Hay, Christchurch, subdivision with a river wandering by the bottom of the section, this long and slender room with its computers, boxes of documents, diagrams and videos is where Derek Powell analysed his way out of jail.



He calls it his time in "solitary". Each night he would confine himself here, studying the evidence, poring over statements, compiling diagrams: unpicking the tapestry of a police case he says should never have been brought against him. A case, he says, that was slanted from the start.



He was the villain, according to police. Without securing the accident scene, without recreating what happened, without investigating whether Powell was, as he claimed, being assaulted through the driver's window at the time he drove off, police decided that the stocky boat dealer alone caused the death of Christine Clarke on December 29, 1999, in the port town of Lyttelton.

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He was charged the day after the accident, convicted of manslaughter 18 months later but ultimately found not guilty.



A week ago the Police Complaints Authority released its review of the police inquiry into 20 complaints Powell made of their handling of the case. In effect, the authority found the union picket and the police were implicit in the tragedy, picketers by blocking the road and the police by allowing an illegal picket to go ahead.



It's a view the judge at the first trial also reached, commenting after Powell was convicted that the picketers and the police had to take some of the blame for Clarke's death.



The authority report comes 4 1/2 half years after Clarke, a mother of two, died. Her family, naturally, are devastated. More so that no one has ultimately been held responsible.



Powell is not the same man he once was, either. It nearly cost his marriage and his sanity. His wife Jennifer left him for a time, less able than he to cope with the stress of Powell being painted as the villain - "the capitalist in his shiny truck" - responsible for the death of a woman doing her bit for workers' rights.



"December, 1999. It seems an eternity ago," says Powell. It's as though day-to-day existence proceeded in a numbed slow-motion. It consumed my life, all of it."



Each night would be spent in the "war room". Three weeks before the first trial he took leave from work and worked on the case round the clock, fighting to bring to light what he believes happened. Before the retrial, he needed a month.



Christine Clarke was part of a picket on a public street near the port entrance by the local branch of the Waterfront Workers Union. They were protesting at port management plans to use non-union labour.

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About noon that Wednesday Powell, driving his Toyota Landcruiser, was on his second trip of the day to pick up a boat from the port.



The exact events and their sequence is unlikely ever to be agreed. The little key common ground is that Powell's vehicle was stopped by picketers, there was an argument, he drove off and Clarke lay injured on the ground.



At first, Clarke was thought to have no worse than a broken leg, but it was later realised she'd suffered a head injury caused by her head hitting the ground. She died two days later. There is no reliable evidence on the cause of her fall.



Powell accepts his Landcruiser ran over Clarke's leg, though he says he doesn't recall any bump. "I was being attacked at the time, my head was being pulled out of the [driver's] window."



Police took the view his vehicle knocked her down, though there is no reliable evidence the front of his vehicle came into contact with her.



A traffic expert, called by the defence, said she couldn't have come to rest where she did had she been hit by Powell's vehicle. A pathologist noted a lack of the sort of injuries usually found on someone knocked down by a vehicle.



What police had was the views of some fellow picketers who claimed Powell was responsible. One picketer had a different view. A watersider told a friend soon after the incident he believed Clarke tripped over his placard. He later told a policeman he may have been partly to blame.



The police were less than vigorous following this up. No note was taken of his comment to the policeman and the friend was not interviewed.



Authority judge Ian Borrin partially upheld Powell's complaint that police failed to properly investigate this aspect. Powell thinks he knows why. It didn't fit the picture they settled on after the incident.



"They set up a scenario where I alone was responsible ... a madman going berserk on a picket line. The police statement of fact was that I lost my temper and drove into the crowd."



One witness claimed Powell sped deliberately into the picket line. Evidence from television and security cameras enabled Powell to prove he had stopped for about four minutes. This was supported by some at the scene who said he had "inched forward" before driving off.



By the time it came to court, says Powell, the language had been loaded and the prosecution was describing this "as slow-speed lunges".



None of the picketers said they saw Powell being assaulted through the driver's window as he drove off.



Powell is in no doubt the reason for that is collusion. Clearly, the picketers who chased him into the wharf after the accident and gave him a beating were covering for one another.



Powell received a broken rib, cuts and abrasions and was taken away in an ambulance. Film from port security cameras indicates 12 people were involved. Only three admitted being there and they wouldn't identify any others.



Powell says it's exactly that sort of group loyalty that the police should have taken into consideration when assessing what they were being told by the picketers.



The police were being told he knocked Clarke down but "not one witness gave evidence that they were standing in front of my vehicle while it was moving and not one gave evidence that they jumped out of the way".



Where were the people saying 'he came straight at us'? asks Powell. "I spent two years looking for them and I didn't find them because they didn't exist."



He did find the driver of a Bedford truck - traced by a private detective hired by Powell's defence team - which was the vehicle closest to the incident. The driver's evidence supported Powell.



The Bedford driver said he saw activity at Powell's window consistent with an assault about the same time Clarke moved to the front left of Powell's Landcruiser and bent down to pick something up.



The officer in charge suspected the witness was lying and had possibly been paid off by Powell.



The court refused the detective's request for access to the witness' phone records to try to establish a link because he lacked grounds for his suspicion.



Further queering the pitch is that the detective's integrity has previously been called into question. He was accused of manipulating evidence in an unrelated case in which his conduct was criticised by a judge. Further details cannot be reported because of a suppression order.



Television cameras were filming the picket until just before the incident, and began filming again when cameramen realised Clarke had been injured. Without that, and footage from wharf security cameras, Powell doesn't believe he'd have had a prayer.



A fundamental characteristic of Powell's defence of the charge and of the man himself is his refusal to budge from what he believed. "I don't think the police had the vaguest notion they would strike somebody who would have the determination to go to the lengths to ensure the truth was told. I think what they considered was that they had 80 witnesses and whatever they said was to be how it happened.



"I don't know what it is inside of me that I wouldn't give up, but I wouldn't."



That may be the same characteristic that brought him into confrontation with picketers. They recognised he was unsympathetic to their cause.



Powell was singled out to be stopped because picketers considered he'd shown disrespect by passing too fast earlier. He was to incur what some referred to as a "a time penalty" punishment, says Powell, "for not agreeing with their right to stop people and hold them whenever they felt like it".



But Powell says he was bewildered rather than angry because at the time he had no idea why he'd been stopped. Then he became frightened.



Footage shot by television shows picketers ushering vehicles around Powell's Landcruiser.



"I thought I was going to get a beating. I was being abused by the crowd. One guy said 'you are an arsehole'. I said 'hey, I'm not an arsehole' and he said 'no, you're a ******* arsehole'."



When he moved forward "slowly", he was "attacked", he says, through the open window by three men. Because of his research, he can identify them. One went for the keys in the ignition, another poked a placard through the window, a third pushed and pulled at his shoulder.



He says he felt defenceless. "When you are attacked like that, you can't step back, can't duck, you can't get out of the way. I took that beating until I was sure the road in front was clear."



Those 4 1/2 years have changed his view of the world. He'd thought the facts would come out as a matter of course and he would be cleared of any criminality.



He'd been naive. A friend with whom he stayed while his assault injuries healed was the first to sum up his predicament.



"He said: 'You are up against the most militant union in the country. The police allowed them to have that picket and you're up against the media, too. And you're alone in your truck. Good luck."



Clarke's mother, Marie Chirnside, continues to blame Powell and has criticised him for not showing remorse.



Powell says nothing he said could make a difference for her. "There can never be any winners in this."



Timeline of a tragedy


December 29, 1999: Christine Clarke falls to the road as Derek Powell drives through a picket line near the Port of Lyttelton.



December 30, 1999: Powell charged with dangerous driving causing injury.



December 31, 1999: Clarke dies. Powell charged with dangerous driving causing death.



May 2001: Powell found guilty of manslaughter.



November 2001: Court of Appeal quashes conviction, orders retrial.



August, 2002: Powell acquitted.



April 30, 2004: Police Complaints Authority upholds some of Powell's complaints, finds picketers and police contributed to the accident, picketers by blocking the road and police by allowing an illegal picket.