COMMENT

Malcolm Rewa, a 65-year-old Christian currently residing in Paremoremo prison, presented an interesting picture of himself in the High Court at Auckland yesterday. He spoke at great length about his reformed character and was also at pains to describe his numerous virtues during the years he operated as a violent and terrifying serial rapist.

He wore the same grey tracksuit pants he wore all last week, when the Crown presented its case against him for the 1992 rape and murder of Susan Burdett, but debuted a nice white long-sleeved top. It was spotless and pure; he looked like a man on his way to receive a holy baptism. And when he arrived in the witness box, he rested his hands on the top of his walking stick, and looked most dignified.

Rewa is pleading not guilty to the murder. A jury found him guilty of Burdett's rape, but he continues to deny that charge, and dismissed the idea of having hurt her in any way as a gross fiction. He said, "Oh my goodness."

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The witness box is beside an exhibits table. There is only one exhibit on it: a long, stained red softball bat, which the Crown accuses Rewa of picking up and swinging with "significant force" at Burdett's head about five times, breaking her skull and forcing brain matter on to the pillows.

"No one," he said, choking back what might have been tears, or just choking on the words, "has ever asked me about my friendship with Susan." They were "intimate". They took long walks into the sunset. They were lovers. His lawyer Paul Chambers not unreasonably asked what she saw in him. Rewa appeared to give the matter serious thought. He pondered a while, and said, "I guess it was just me. Who I was."

He was a doting father of three; he told a story about finding the one particular dairy in Papatoetoe that sold Rocky Road icecreams, and buying one for his young son, because it was his favourite. He kept himself informed; he only watched TV for the news. He had a sophisticated palate; he spent a lot of time in restaurants.

The public gallery was pretty much empty all last week but a good crowd were in attendance for Rewa's four hours in the witness box. They included former Crown prosecutor Ross Burns, who these days divides his time between Mount Maunganui and Spain. There was another visitor from Tauranga, who approached me at a recess. He was evidently a true crime fan: he'd come to watch Judge Paul Mabey QC and myself talk about murder trials a few years ago when we appeared on stage at the Tauranga arts festival. "I'm on holiday," he said, "so I thought I'd come here for the day."

He'd chosen a good day. After Rewa finished telling his tale of a tender love affair with Susan Burdett, who was 39 when she was killed late at night, in her bed, Crown prosecutor Gareth Kayes leaned towards Rewa and said: "Lies." He added, throughout the next two hours: "Lies ... A bunch of lies ... Lies ... More lies ... Lies ... It's all lies."

He said Rewa broke through her window, like he did with many of his other victims, hit her, like he did with many of his other victims, and placed her legs over the side of the bed when he raped her, like he did with many of his other victims. "I never climbed through any windows," Rewa countered; but Kayes took him patiently through the cases where he climbed through the windows of his rape victims.

Rewa has a bad hip. He needs a cane to walk. But he has a thick neck, wide shoulders, a strong chest, and enormous hands. The hands gripped the end of his cane very, very tightly when Kayes cross-examined him. He throttled that cane. He twisted it in his hands. His fingers twitched, and he developed a habit of flicking his thumb.

Kayes, too, was tense: his hands shook when he lifted a paper cup of water, and they trembled at his sides. He stood very close to Rewa. They eyeballed each other. And twice Rewa said something particularly interesting. "The point is," he challenged Kayes, "where does the truth end, and where do the lies begin?"