A year and a half after gunning down two unarmed police officers in West Auckland - killing Constable Matthew Hunt, who was shot in the back - Eli Epiha was ordered on Friday to serve life in prison, with a minimum non-parole period of 27 years.
It is among the longest sentences ever handed down by a New Zealand court. Epiha had, however, faced the possibility of becoming just the second person in New Zealand to receive a sentence of life without parole.
During emotional victim impact statements just prior to Justice Geoffrey Venning's decision - read before a packed Auckland courtroom, an overflow courtroom and family members watching via audio-video feed - some of the slain officer's friends and family asked for such a sentence.
In weighing his decision, Venning, who oversaw Epiha's jury trial in July, lashed out at the 25-year-old's repeated claim the killing was "reckless" but not intentional. He also scoffed at Epiha's testimony at trial that he thought momentarily about taking Hunt to the hospital.
"On that day, your actions showed no concern for anybody other than yourself," Venning said. "Your actions…were plain for all to see…It's nonsense to suggest and maintain otherwise."
But, he said, he had to take into account Epiha's relatively young age and his limited criminal history in considering whether the very rare step of life without parole would be "manifestly unjust". Epiha's cowardly and callous actions that day could warrant such a sentence, but the potential of spending more than 50 years in prison was not just, he said.
"The name Epiha will be remembered for your cowardly killing of an unarmed police officer," Venning said. "That is a shame you and your whānau will bear into the future."
As Epiha was lead out of the courtroom after the sentencing, the longtime Bloods member could be seen flashing gang signs, said MP Mark Mitchell, who attended as a friend of Hunt's family.
Diane Hunt, the mother of the slain police officer, agreed Epiha's claimed remorse was "vacuous and self-serving".
"We will never be the same people we were before this cold and callous murder," she said outside the courthouse after the hearing, noting that her son was only 28 years old.
Earlier, she had turned around to look Epiha in the eyes as she read her victim impact statement.
"You never pointed your gun at any other people on the street that day. Your targets were only the two police officers," she said.
"The jury saw you for what you are - a killer."
She recounted spending time with her son's ashes, surrounded by his pictures.
"It's not enough," she told Epiha. "I'm struggling to continue."
Attempted murder charge
Epiha's trial began in July with a surprise guilty plea for Constable Hunt's slaying and for the injury of a bystander that day. However, he pleaded not guilty to attempted murder of Constable David Goldfinch.
Epiha testified he had just received a Norinco semi-automatic assault rifle on the morning of June 19, 2020, and he was en route to his brother's house to scare off gang members when the police officers decided to pull him over.
Driving fast through Massey's residential Reynella Drive in an attempt to evade the officers, he ended up swerving to miss hitting a rubbish truck and instead crashed into a parked car, injuring the bystander who was loading his vehicle ahead of a weekend trip to Rotorua.
Witnesses have given slightly varying accounts of the mayhem that followed, but it was uncontested that Epiha is the one who fired 14 shots that day — hitting each officer four times.
Constable Goldfinch told jurors he tried to reason with the gunman that day.
"I put up my hands again and went, 'Just f***ing stop. Just f***ing walk away. I won't arrest you,'" he testified. "I saw him almost contemplating what I said to him. After a few seconds, he just like made a decision: 'I'm going to kill you.'"
Epiha didn't dispute firing at Goldfinch, but maintained he was trying to scare away the constable. Goldfinch adamantly disagreed, and ultimately so did jurors.
Justice Venning on Friday also found Epiha's explanation incredible, referring to Goldfinch's testimony as "chilling".
In his own brief victim impact statement, Goldfinch told Epiha that everything the convict did that day was cowardly - from the shooting itself to his continued refusal to take accountability.
"I'm not going to waste any of my time on you," he said.
Justice Venning ordered an additional sentence of 12 years for the attempted murder charge and a one-year sentence for reckless driving injuring the bystander.
'I will never forgive you'
Also among those who gave victim impact statements was Police Commissioner Andrew Coster, who said Epiha's "shocking, senseless, unacceptable act of violence" had caused anxiety and concern for all police officer and their families.
"It's a sad day when police appears as a victim in court," he later told media outside the courtroom. "This was a cold, callous and brutal gunning down of one of our own.
"Our people come to work to keep our communities safe. They should be able to go home at the end of their shift safely to their loved ones."
Matthew Hunt's sister, Eleanor, said no words could ever describe how painful his death was.
"I will never get over how much he didn't deserve this," she told Epiha. "Justice for Matt is unobtainable."
Hunt's mother added: "I will never, ever forgive you."
Appearing via audio-video feed, Sam Swaffield noted it would take five times longer to read his victim impact statement than the 34 seconds of "unprovoked ... inhumane, selfish rage" that resulted in his friend's death.
"You left us without our rock - our mate we'd turn to for anything," he said, struggling to hold back tears. "What gave you the right to take him away from us?"
Had Epiha looked beyond the police uniform, he probably would have liked Hunt, he suggested.
Constable Hunt's uncle, Rob Winterbottom, also appeared via audio-video feed, calling Epiha's contention that he didn't mean to kill the constable "pathetic" and "utterly ridiculous and offensive".
"Matthew's killing was abhorred by most of New Zealand," he said. "I cry on an almost daily basis and the thought of Matt is almost always on my mind."
He pointed out that New Zealand's first life-without-parole sentence was handed down in 2020.
"This broke the glass for others to follow," he said, calling for it to be used a second time for Epiha. "It is no longer an unreasonable sentence."
A family's shame
Epiha submitted a letter of remorse prior to the sentencing hearing, but Justice Venning declined defence lawyer Marcus Edgar's request to read it aloud in court.
"I've read that letter carefully, looking in it for an acknowledgement of full responsibility," Venning said, adding that he couldn't find it. "I have to say I am cynical about your statements."
It's too little too late, he said, turning to Epiha's behavior during the trial.
"Your arrogant attitude throughout the process...was obvious for all to see," he said, referring to Epiha's "complete lack of empathy".
The judge did, however, allow Epiha's uncle to address the court.
Warren Epiha apologised to the family for his nephew's actions and said the name his family had been proud to bear for generations was now soiled.
"It was not my doing, but I have to bear that shame," he said.
"You should be ashamed," Constable Hunt's mother briefly yelled back.
After the hearing, however, Diane Hunt said she shook the uncle's hand.
"I said to him it's not his crime to bear, and that his nephew has to take responsibility," she said.
All society affected
During his statements to the judge, Crown prosecutor Brian Dickey said Epiha continues to be of high risk to the community - especially uniformed officers.
The "wanton attack on two uniformed officers", he said, was gratuitous and "a crime that has and ought to shock the New Zealand public".
He acknowledged that the judge may find fault with a life without parole sentence, and he suggested a minimum sentence of about 26 years if life without parole wasn't ordered.
He pointed to Epiha's prior prison sentence, for a 2015 shooting in which he said it was lucky no one was injured, and pointed out Epiha had only been released from prison seven months prior to Constable Hunt's death.
The defence, meanwhile, suggested a minimum parole period of less than 20 years.
In Edgar's opinion, Epiha's remorse was genuine, the defence lawyer said.
"In his own words, he's not proud of the fact he is responsible for taking the life of another human being," Edgar added. "He accepts he must face the consequences."
While Justice Venning couldn't agree to a sentence of life without parole, he emphasised the importance of sending a strong message.
"It affects all society when a police officer is killed," he said. "Criminals need to know that the use of firearms against police officers will have severe consequences."