Niwhai Bryan's terminal bone cancer didn't kill him but some form of compression applied to his neck by his stepson, Taratoa Hori Hokianga, did.

That was Crown prosecutor Duncan McWilliam's contention when he opened a trial this morning in the High Court at Rotorua where Hokianga is in the dock.

Hokianga, 38, has pleaded not guilty to 66-year-old Bryan's manslaughter by an unlawful act, defined in the charge as assault, at Susan St, Rotorua, on November 10 last year.

McWilliam described the case as "a family tragedy" and "a bit of a jigsaw puzzle".

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He told the six men and six women in the jury the day Bryan died he and his family had returned to Rotorua from Australia where they'd been living for several years.

Family members would tell them of hearing music, laughter and yahooing coming from the garage as the night wore on.

He outlined how around 11.20pm a highly emotional Hokianga appeared in his sister's bedroom saying there'd been an altercation.

She went to the garage where Bryan was lying unresponsive on the floor. A trained nurse, she administered CPR but couldn't revive him. Paramedics subsequently pronounced him dead.

"This trial is about what happened between the two men in the garage and what altercation the defendant was referring to," McWilliam said.

He said the jury would hear from the pathologist who performed an autopsy on Bryan's body. He'd testify about finding some neck bruising in an area where there are two major blood vessels which, if compressed, can cause a person to lose consciousness and die.

The pathologist would also say Bryan's terminal cancer could have made him more susceptible to bruising.

He said the assault the charge referred to could be a headlock or chokehold that cut off Bryan's blood supply, causing his death.

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Bryan's wife, Bernadene Louise Takuta, said he was the defendant's stepfather and they were close as she and her husband had raised him from the time he was 10.

She confirmed the couple and a daughter had been living on the Gold Coast for nine years. It was there her husband's terminal cancer diagnosis was made. They had returned to Rotorua because he wanted to spend his last days "back home".

On November 10 last year they arrived to stay with Hokianga, a solo dad to two girls aged 3 and 7.

She described her son waking her up around 11.20pm.

"He was distressed, burbling, saying 'something has happened to Niwhai, something is wrong'."

Takuta said although she's a trained ED nurse she froze when she saw her husband lying motionless on the garage floor.

"I am used to being the leader in a response team but I couldn't do anything," she testified.

She described how her husband had stem cell treatment in Australia. By the time they came home he was frail but was not useless.

"He still had a bit of energy and was able to make his own decisions," she said.

She agreed with McWilliam her husband was a man who liked to drink and despite his cancer medications hadn't stopped.

Questioned by Hokianga's lawyer Brian Foote, she said her son and husband were very close, that her husband had taught him good ethics and how to hunt.

She described both her husband and son as men who liked to reminisce when they were drunk, saying she could only recall her husband being angry or physically abusive while drunk back in his rugby playing days.

Pressed, she said she'd have to agree he could behave sexually inappropriately when drunk. "He never told me but I think he would go with another woman."

She agreed with Foote he hadn't used the word altercation to her.

In evidence read to the court Bryan's daughter. Anakura Opal Bryan, said she was unable to recall Hokianga's exact words to her when he told her something had happened to their father, but interpreted them as an altercation between them.

She described Hokianga as intoxicated, behaving like he was upset and crying.

In the garage he'd stood in the doorway saying nothing as she applied CPR.

The trial, which is before Justice Mathew Downs, has been adjourned until tomorrow. It is scheduled to last three days.