The establishment a year back of the Criminal Cases Review Commission was a highly necessary move as there have been far too many terrible miscarriages of justice which the existing appeal process doesn’t cope with.
Siting the Commission in Hamilton was bloody silly, but easily fixed. What no-one expected was the 200 applications for review which have hit the Commission, something it plainly can’t deal with. We can reasonably assume many of these will be a try-on.
Chief Commissioner Colin Carruthers QC and his well regarded boss of the Commission’s Investigation unit, Tim McKinnel, appear unconcerned. They’ve made it clear it can be coped with, but, only if the original budget is increased to expand the investigation team. Hopefully the government will do this.
I’m disappointed National opposed the Commission’s formation, their Justice spokesman Simon Bridges, a former Crown Prosecutor well familiar with criminal low-lifes, taking a cynical view re the two hundred plus appeal applicants’ sincerity.
He’s doubtless right with many of them but should accept there’s also been many well publicised, serious miscarriages of justice in recent decades, which have relied on passionate, many years long campaigns from outsiders to see the situation corrected. The Nats should reconsider their opposition.
I have a strong personal interest in such miscarriages for a very good reason. In my twenties I was literally minutes from being arrested for a serious crime which would have seen me imprisoned, thanks to overwhelming circumstantial evidence against me. Presented with that evidence, were I on a jury I’d have quickly convicted me. A miracle last minute fluke saved me. But how different my life would have been had that not occurred.
What happened was this:
A residential area on the edge of the Lower Hutt CBD was rezoned light industrial.
A local commercial real estate agent persuaded another investor, Paul Lewis, and me, to each buy a couple of the rezoned houses, as he had potential tenants for new warehouses. Pending leasing negotiations concluding he arranged short term rentals of my houses with a well-known retailer Harry Westbury, to use for storage. So discussions began with Gillette for a warehouse to be constructed and after a few months a lease deal was signed on a Friday.
On the preceding Wednesday night at a party at the Hutt News editor’s home, Paul who was also concluding his leasing negotiations, began joking about us burning one another’s houses down and claiming the insurance. Everyone present joined in the ribaldry.
On Friday night after I’d signed with Gillette I was at a dinner party in Eastbourne. Driving home in the small hours necessitated me passing within one hundred metres of the two houses. In those days few people had cars and I was alone on the road.
The next morning my wife, in hospital having just given birth to my eldest daughter, called and said she’d heard on the news a house had burnt down containing Westbury’s goods and asked whether it was mine, having heard me mention this. I was ecstatic. I shot down to see and sure enough a pile of ashes confronted me.
But by Monday morning things changed. First, Paul rang and said “Good God, I was only joking on Wednesday night. I didn’t mean you to take it literally”. My protests of innocence were greeted scoffingly. Then I heard that Westbury was telling everyone I had burned down the house with all of his Christmas stock.
To add to all of this, a few months earlier a new insurance company had been allowed to open and their agents were capturing everyone’s business by massively undercutting the general price level. I’d switched to them and at the conclusion of doing this the agent had said, think about it. Are you sure there’s nothing else; people often forget things. I’d searched my mind and then remembered the houses. Probably not worth bothering with I’d pointed out, as I expect to be demolishing them soon.
The insurance agent then uttered some fatal words which he later admitted and was sacked for, “Treat it as a lottery; you never know your luck” and gave me three months full cover for a thirty shillings ($3) premium. So they ended up having to pay me out, yet more circumstantial evidence against me.
Anyway, late Monday morning after the fire, the inevitable call came from a detective. Six decades later, I still recall his name, such was the emotional impact.
He wanted to come over and discuss the arson, having as I later learnt, received numerous “tip-off” calls about my guilt. “Don’t waste your time”, I shouted. “I can tell you the culprit; Harry bloody Westbury”.
Years later I learnt from his son Paul, an affable well-known Wellington lawyer, that the police took Harry to the police-station and subjected him to hours of intensive grilling for which in the circumstances I had little sympathy, albeit he being as innocent as me.
Three further weeks elapsed then the detective rang again one afternoon, wanting to visit. Again I protested my innocence. “I’ve got good news” he told me so over he came.
It transpired, moreso with numerous people, some openly, others anonymously, all telling the Police I had burnt the house down, plus all the circumstantial evidence for motive and capability, that the detective had been instructed to go and arrest me. Then just as he left the Police station his boss had said to him to first go and knock on a couple of doors as the defence is bound to query our investigation. So he did, believing he was wasting his time but, in the very first house an old bloke answered who lived across the road of the destroyed house.
He of course had no idea it was an arson issue but obviously remembered the fire. Furthermore, it transpired he had woken early that day, unable to sleep and had gone out to see if the paper had arrived. Yes, he recalled, he had seen a bloke across the road and at that hour it was odd so he remembered his face.
The detective had taken him to the station, showed him the photograph book and unhesitantly the old bloke had pointed at one and insisted that was who he’d seen. It turned out this fellow had been released from prison only two weeks earlier for arson and as the detective told me, it’s an oddity of arsonists that they always confess once nailed, as indeed this fellow had. Our assumption the house had been burnt at night was wrong, instead it happening at dawn.
But what a near miss for me. Had the neighbour not woken early, as said, how different my subsequent life would have been. So, I never pre-judge major criminal cases, moreso when reliant on necessarily precied media reports.