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April 28, 2008 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Court Report

Back in the 70s, Salient printed a weekly court report. I decided to resurrect this report, and headed on down to the Wellington District Court, with my tidiest collared shirt tucked into dress pants (eww).

Reception (level 6) told me to check out the jury trials in Court Rooms 3 and 4 (level 3), but one was closed to the public and the other was taking a morning tea break, so I headed up one level to observe the depositions hearing for the thirteen Mongrel Mob members accused of shooting two-year-old Jhia Te Tua. This was the only room with a metal detector; after passing through this hurdle I scrambled into the empty row of seats beside the defendants’ supporters, behind two bored-looking police officers who sat there scratching their arms.

In the dock, another officer in plain clothes was being cross-examined on the way he took witness statements. He seemed uncertain about how he had taken the statements – apparently the official version was collated from notes he’d written on various pieces of paper and a notebook, but he could neither recall the exact details, nor anything about how much money was spent on the witnesses (one day later, the police released a report stating that 64 per cent of officers interview witnesses poorly). The lawyers tried to piece together the information-gathering process, and questioned the procedures used to interview witnesses suffering from mental illness. At one point the defendants made curious hand signals to their supporters, and when morning tea break was called they stood in a line while their supporters formed another line; the two lines progressively patted each other on the back, much like two opposing teams after a footy match.

I wandered on down to level 2 where the most minor cases are heard, and chatted with one of the guards while a young Indian guy in a G-Unit shirt complained over his cell phone to a friend who hadn’t shown up to support him. Suddenly, the guard had to rush away to help a large man who’d fallen to the ground in an epileptic fit. As the guard rocked and soothed the afflicted, I was approached by a haggard middle-aged woman with two dots tattooed on her face and crude designs on her hand, who informed me that she had stopped drinking her daily bottle of vodka in order to be at her boyfriend’s hearing. She was suffering withdrawal, swinging a water bottle, and couldn’t find her boyfriend; she had asked the “rude”staff, and said that if she wasn’t on withdrawal the glass over the reception desk would have taken a hammering. She then wandered off to look in courtroom windows in case her boyfriend was there, and I entered another room.

A dental assistant who’d emigrated from the Ukraine 14 years ago was on trial for drink-driving. The uniformed constable in the witness box said she’d failed a breath test and had been cooperative, but when she was taken to the booze bus and told she could not have a blood test (as she hadn’t asked for one within ten minutes), she became shocked. The defence lawyer managed to show, contrary to the constable’s prior claims, that this ten minute period had been interrupted. When the defendant took the stand she told us she’d never been involved with the police before, did not have the best English, and had believed she would get a blood test without having to ask. In summing up, the judge began by stating that she had failed her breath test, and that proper procedures had been followed (i.e. she’d signed a form stating she had ten minutes to ask for a blood test). I thought this meant she would be found guilty, but the judge then pointed out that in her case, the constable needed to communicate more clearly that she had to ask for another test, and dismissed the charges. I then noticed that the word ‘FLARE’ was carved all over the plastic armrests in the courtroom.

My one conclusion after a day in court was how confusing it all was. I expected the defendants to be a little confused, but I had not expected that every police officer I saw in the witness box would get details about their investigations wrong. None of the defendants understood the process, and frankly, I didn’t know I did either.


About the Author ()

Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

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