Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Numbered Amongst the Saints

Baptised With Laundry Water

Teina Pora was once a notorious criminal.  Now he has a different kind of notoriety imputed to him.  The  charges and convictions against him have been quashed and dismissed. This happens rarely in New Zealand.  So Pora is once again notorious, but for different reasons. 

He has given his first interview.  It is reproduced below.  We conclude with some observations.

Teina Pora's first interview: 'I forgive you, man'

Teina Pora says he forgives the police who charged him with the 1992 rape and murder of Susan Burdett.  Pora was convicted twice and spent 21 years in jail. In March the Privy Council quashed his convictions and recommended he not be put on trial again.

In this first interview, he tells of the emotion of hearing that he would not be tried again.  "I got a phone call from Tim [McKinnel, private investigator], just telling me no retrial. I stopped the car; just me and my dog. It would probably be the first ever time, tears just running from my eyes man. I went to the beach, Mission Bay, and just let everything wash out of the soles of my feet. Life began for me then."

Pora celebrates his 40th birthday next month. It will be a double celebration - it is just over a year since his release from prison.  He was shocked when police charged him with Ms Burdett's rape and murder back in 1993, he says. "I couldn't believe they charged me."

Asked what he'd say to those officers, he doesn't hesitate, "I forgive yous, man, and just move on. Back then I had all the anger towards them. I understand the word forgiveness. It will put you at peace. You don't have to carry any more s**t anymore."

Susan Burdett before her death and Teina Pora in 1993. File photo / NZ Herald
Susan Burdett before her death and Teina Pora in 1993. File photo / NZ Herald
The charges were laid after he was interviewed for four days. Two juries judged him guilty before the Privy Council ruled that: "The combination of Pora's frequently contradictory and often implausible confessions and the recent diagnosis of his FASD [fetal alcohol spectrum disorder] leads to only one possible conclusion and that is that the reliance on his confessions gives rise to a risk of a miscarriage of justice."

At a family gathering soon after he was released on parole last year, Pora told relatives who had claimed he was involved in Ms Burdett's murder that he forgave them.  "I've never met Susan," he told the Herald. "I didn't know her from a bar of soap."  Nor had he met Malcolm Rewa, a lone-wolf serial rapist with the embarrassing affliction of erectile dysfunction, whose semen was in Ms Burdett's body. Rewa was convicted of rape but two juries could not decide whether he murdered her.

Of his confessions, Pora, who was 17, said he was young and confused. "It was like getting interrogated ... I just said whatever they were saying. I just said 'yes' and said 'no'. I thought no was yes and yes was no back then. I just went along with it."

Prison was "a living nightmare.  I was in amongst some of the most notorious criminals in New Zealand. Some scary s**t there." Standing up to daily taunts of "rapist" and "murderer", sometimes led to fights, "and you can't win them all".  For the first two years he marked time, keeping note of each passing day. "And you just get sick of it. It was slowing down everything."  Years passed between visitors.

"As the years went on I just started to realise no one cared, so I might as well live the lifestyle of being in prison, the art and craft of being in there."  Everything changed 11 years ago, he says, when he was baptised by a fellow inmate using water from a prison laundry tub.

Teina Pora gets a hug from his daughter Channelle and his grandson Benson, 5, after the Privy Council verdict quashing his murder conviction was announced. Photo / Dean Purcell
Teina Pora gets a hug from his daughter Channelle and his grandson Benson, 5, after the Privy Council verdict quashing his murder conviction was announced. Photo / Dean Purcell
He taught himself to read using a pocket bible. "I'm a different person now. Humble. In the past I'd have been, yeah, aggressive."  He'd lost his anger and his attitude. "I don't have anything towards anyone anymore."

Religion changed him and McKinnel saved him. When the former detective whose work led to Pora's convictions being quashed, turned up five years ago, Pora was initially wary.  "I was in the exercise yard when I got a phone call. A Tim from Hawkes Bay? He just asked me, said he was interested in my case. I just hanged up the phone and the next day he was there. Unbelievable."

"Without Tim ... I'd still be sitting behind those four walls."
There is a lot of cynicism about jailhouse conversions.  It comes from folk who disbelieve what God has said, and what His Son, Jesus Christ has done and is doing.  But we know that God is at work in our prisons, despite the inevitable show-boating on the part of some.   On that great day when Christ will judge all men, some of the lowest scum in our society will be crowned with glory and honour--co-inheritors of the glory and honour of Christ Himself--whilst many of the great and the good will be cast out.  Teina Pora's story is not unique.  But it nevertheless glorifies the Son of God.

Secondly, we would honour Tim McKinnel, the former detective who was once a policeman and (as DNA evidence mounted) knew that Pora could not have been guilty.  His innocence was, from that point on, beyond reasonable doubt.  It had been bad policing to begin with--extracting an intense, pressured confession from a man afflicted with foetal alcohol syndrome--but McKinnel had the integrity to acknowledge the mistake, and to campaign for Pora's release.  Thank you, sir.

Thirdly, getting Pora's conviction quashed was a very, very difficult process.  There were many throughout the police--senior officers--quietly campaigning to see a manifestly wrong conviction overturned.  Full marks to them for putting justice ahead of worldly pride or group-think.  There were others in the legal profession who laboured long to see this done.  The worst part of it all is the fortress mentality that appears to exist, not amongst the police, in this instance, but in the Justice Department.  Don't rock the boat by criticising fellow practitioners and "old school" colleagues appears to be rife in some sections of the justice system. 

It has been said that the wheels of justice grind exceedingly slow, but very finely.  That is no longer true--if it ever were.  There are some obviously and manifestly unjust convictions in this country where the wheels of justice have indeed ground exceedingly slow, but for reasons of arrogance, pride, and vainglory.  We desperately need more Shaftesbury's and far fewer self-important toffs, clutching at silk.

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