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New Zealand|Crime

Gangster jailed indefinitely after shank attack

Anna Leask
Anna Leask

Senior Journalist - crime and justice

A violent gang member who has repeatedly assaulted, attacked and wounded other prisoners and Corrections staff behind bars has been given an indefinite jail sentence. And he will not be released until authorities are satisfied he is no longer a risk to others. In court on Friday Justice Mathew Downs outlined the horrendous criminal history of a man with a propensity for violence who now professes he wants out of his gang - including the removal of his tattoos. While it offered a "glimmer" of hope, the judge was wary given the increasing severity of the attacker's offending, which has spanned most of his life. Senior crime and justice reporter Anna Leask looks into the life and crimes of Damian Karl Werata.

The attack was so brutal, it really should have been fatal.

And if not for the skills of surgeons during an emergency surgery, Werata's victim would have been dead and he would have faced a murder charge.

The inmate was stabbed 33 times during an attack on a landing at the country's toughest prison.

His attacker may now spend the rest of his own life there after he was sentenced to preventive detention in the High Court at Auckland on Friday.

Werata had earlier entered a guilty plea to a charge of wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.

On November 12, 2017, Werata and four other inmates at Auckland Prison near Paremoremo attacked a rival gang member without warning.

The Herald was first to report the incident, which was almost fatal.

One inmate initiated the attack, punching the victim in the head.

Once the man was on the ground Werata started to punch and kick him before taking a
14cm shank - a homemade weapon - and stabbing him repeatedly in the head, neck and upper back.

Werata then gave the shank to another co-offending inmate to wield.
He then repeatedly stabbed the victim as Werata and the others kicked him.

Corrections officers arrived at the scene - a landing in B block at the maximum security prison - and as they watched on, Werata continued using the shank to stab the now badly wounded victim.

Auckland Prison inmate attack: 'Serial shanker' allegedly strikes again

Justice Mathew Downs revealed more details of the attack.

"Your co-offenders continued the assault. You and they taunted the victim with Black Power slogans while he lay defenceless—and seriously injured," he said in court on Friday.

"The victim was from an opposing gang, the Mongrel Mob.

"You then stabbed the victim twice more. You and your co-offenders taunted the Corrections officers.

"You said to them,'this is what happens when you put a mobster on my landing'."

Weapons confiscated from inmates in Auckland Prison. Photo / NZ Herald
Weapons confiscated from inmates in Auckland Prison. Photo / NZ Herald

The victim managed to stagger away - but as he did so Werata stabbed him twice more in the upper chest and neck.

"After what is described as a protracted negotiation with the guards, you dropped the shank," Justice Downs revealed.

"You and the other offenders then congratulated each other on what you had done.

"Some of your co-offenders tipped water and shampoo on the ground to make the difficult role of Corrections officers even more so.

The victim suffered multiple stab wounds to his face, neck, head, back and side.

Justice Downs said one blow narrowly missed his jugular.

"He nearly died," he said.

"But for emergency surgery, he might have."


The attack was a third-strike offence for Werata, who has a lengthy list of previous convictions.

By law, Justice Downs was required to sentence him to the maximum term of imprisonment of 14 years - unless he chose to impose preventive detention, an indefinite term from which a prisoner can only be released by the Parole Board.

Given the severity of Werata's offending, which Justice Downs outline in court on Friday, the latter option was deemed the most appropriate course of action.

In February 2013 Werata was sentenced to 10-and-a-half years' imprisonment on a raft of serious charges including aggravated robbery with a firearm, unlawfully taking a car, demanding with menaces, threatening to kill, assault with intent to injure, causing grievous bodily harm with intent to injure, breaching community work and breaching release conditions.

The aggravated robbery and grievous bodily harm offences were first-strike offences and he was given a warning.

Auckland Prison. Photo / Doug Sherring
Auckland Prison. Photo / Doug Sherring

"The victim of the latter was, I gather, a Corrections Officer,"said Justice Downs.

His second strike warning was given in September 2015.

Werata was sentenced to a further seven years and nine months' in jail after admitting two charges - on the morning he was set to go to trial - of injuring with intent to injure and two of wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.

"This because two years earlier, you stabbed another prisoner with a shank; with others, punched and stabbed another prisoner; and attacked a third prisoner," said Justice Downs.

"One of your victims suffered life-threatening injury."

At that sentencing the Crown sought preventive detention but the presiding judge decided that "on balance", a finite sentence was preferable.

Justice Downs said Werata was the last of the group of attackers to be sentenced for the brutal jail block assault.

"I consider you the primary offender. You had the shank, wielded it repeatedly, and allowed another to use it," he told Werata.

"You inflicted most of the very serious wounds.

"That you did not commence the attack is, I think, beside the point. You very quickly joined it, using a potentially lethal weapon."

Justice Downs said there were eight factors that made Werata's role "worse" than the other attackers.

"First, you employed very serious violence; indeed, extreme violence," he said.

"Second, you used a weapon.

"Third, you specifically attacked the head by stabbing and kicking.

"Fourth, you attacked the victim because he was from an opposing gang.

"Fifth, you acted in concert with others.

"Sixth … there was some planning to this offence.

"Seventh, you committed it while in prison for similar offending.

"Eighth, you have a bad record for violence."


Prisoner Damian Wereta in the Auckland District Court. Photo / Greg Bowker
Prisoner Damian Wereta in the Auckland District Court. Photo / Greg Bowker

Werata's lawyer Ron Mansfield told the court he was acting in "excessive self defence, self-defence by a pre-emptive strike, or some idiosyncratic combination of both".
But Justice Downs rejected that.

"The victim was outnumbered five to one. You repeatedly used a shank on him," he said.
"The attack lasted no less than five minutes.

"It is no coincidence the victim was from an opposing gang. I repeat: this is why you attacked him. You know this.

"To contend you had to do so because he might have later attacked you is to advocate for the law of the jungle; not the Rule of Law."

It was also submitted to the court that Werata's offending was less culpable "because of the prison environment".

"I acknowledge prisons are unpleasant, indeed dangerous places. I am familiar with
them," said said Judge Downs.

"But, however politely or carefully framed, this submission is ultimately inconsistent with the long-standing principle violent offending in prison, whether against a Corrections officer or another prisoner, is a serious aggravating factor."

Lawyer Ron Mansfield at the High Court in Auckland. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Lawyer Ron Mansfield at the High Court in Auckland. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Werata's guilty plea came three days before he was due to go on trial for his offending.

Justice Downs said if the matter had gone to trial, a conviction was "inevitable" given the attack was "squarely" captured on CCTV.

"I do not accept you are remorseful and make no allowance for that," he told Werata.

"You told the experts in this case you felt no empathy for the victim but sad for his family."

He said there were no mitigating factors and while he accepted Werata's background helped "explain" the offending, the attack was so serious that it precluded any allowance for that.

"You say your offending is less culpable because you have been brought up to believe opposing gangs are the enemy is perilously close to countenancing gang warfare, something courts have long expressed great concern about, and treated—rightly—as a significant aggravating factor and significant community problem.

"Your background is depressingly familiar, indeed sad.

"You are one of many children. Your father was the president of the local Black Power chapter. His example was far from positive.

"Your early life was afflicted by violence, alcohol and drugs.

"You went into state care from a young age. You suffered yet more violence. You were moved from home to home. You had little stability.

"You left school when 14—with no qualifications and little ability to read and write. You later joined the Black Power gang.

"As you acknowledge, you have never had a proper job. You have spent much of your life in prison. You have suffered violence there and, obviously, dealt that too."

Justice Downs said the pre-sentence report stated Werata had "little cultural connection" with his Maori heritage.


He said the father of two had an "extensive criminal history", including 27 convictions for violence not counting the attack he was being sentenced for.

"Your history of violence is traceable to 1997, when you injured with intent to injure or with reckless disregard," Justice Downs said.

"Later that year you committed an assault; an assault with a weapon; and wounded with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. You were then only 17.

"You have been violent ever since; there are no obvious gaps in your history.

"You have obviously caused serious harm to the community.

"You have nearly killed at least twice: by this offence, and by your offending in 2013.

"The pre-sentence report writer considers you pose a high risk of harm to others. He notes, as I have, your propensity for violence and your extensive criminal history."

Another reporter writer said Werata had an "entrenched use of violence as a means of coping with challenging situations".

She said his violent behaviour appeared to be "well entrenched and difficult to shift" and believed the persistent nature of his offending and inability or lack of motivation to maintain treatment means even a long-term determinate sentence may not adequately protect the community.

Werata was assessed as posing a high risk of serious violence, and a high risk of committing a further qualifying offence.

Wereta was sentenced in the High Court at Auckland. Photo / Nick Reed
Wereta was sentenced in the High Court at Auckland. Photo / Nick Reed

A third report writer stated preventive detention 'may be the only way to ensure (he) receive the necessary interventions to reduce risk".

In the reports it was also confirmed Werata had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Antisocial Personality Disorder.

The combination resulted in the repeat offender being "hypervigilant and emotionally tense or on edge" and having difficulty controlling his emotions.

"Antisocial Personality Disorder correlates to recidivism, meaning there is a link between it and reoffending," said Justice Downs.


Werata had expressed " willingness to engage in rehabilitation" and told experts he "needed to take responsibility" for his behaviour and was motivated to receive help.

"I note you spoke positively to the experts about your future," said Justice Downs.

"You told the writer of the cultural report you hope to distance yourself from the Black Power gang and remove your related tattoos.

"I endorse or support these remarks. So, there are glimmers of hope."

While there was a glimmer, Justice Downs said a "sense of perspective" was also called for as a previous sentencing judge was "essentially told the same things four years ago".

"She noted you had 'begun to address your offending' and to 'start anew'," Justice Downs relayed.

"In other words, you have made these types of positive remarks before but then committed another very serious crime."

Justice Downs said he was satisfied Werata needed an indefinite sentence to protect others from his violence.

"I must be satisfied you are likely to commit another qualifying violent offence at your sentence expiry date—potentially many years from now," he told the offender.

"The experts agree you will continue to pose a significant risk. Their assessment is consistent with your extensive history of violence.

This includes serious violence outside in the community.

"In any event, you will undoubtedly encounter opposing gang members when you are released, and stressful situations seemingly beyond your control.

'The latter are a fact of life. You do not yet have the wherewithal, meaning ability, to cope.

"Your instinctive response is violence. As you know, this will have to change."

Examples of shanks and shivs - weapons made by prisoners - on display at the Corrections Heritage Museum. Photo / Mark Mitchell.
Examples of shanks and shivs - weapons made by prisoners - on display at the Corrections Heritage Museum. Photo / Mark Mitchell.

He said Werata had already been given a "final chance" with his previous finite sentence in 2015.

"You did not take it. Instead, you committed yet another very serious crime," said Justice Downs.

"I note also you blame others for what you did.

"You say the Department of Corrections should not have put the victim on your wing.

"Your thinking is not helping you. Nor is your connection to Black Power.

"Gangs and violence are twins."


He sentenced Werata to preventive detention, with a minimum non-parole period of eight years.

He considered making the MPI 14 years but said it would be manifestly unjust.

"An indeterminate sentence with a minimum period of 14 years would be grossly disproportionate," he said.

"A second reason is especially important. The community will be safer if you are motivated to reform.

"A shorter minimum period may give you that incentive.

"Approached the other way, if I sentence you to preventive detention and impose a 14-year minimum period, you may ultimately emerge from prison angrier and more violent. I believe it is important you have some hope, and important for the community you have some hope.

"You will not be released until the Parole Board considers it is safe to do so.

"This is something you should work for. Your partner and children deserve better."