Friday, February 06, 2004

'Slipups' abort previous trials against police officer on sex charges

NZ Herald
February 6, 2004
'Slipups' abort previous trials against police officer on sex charges
by James Gardiner

A series of Rotorua court cases nine years ago gives a clear idea of the type of concerns Prime Minister Helen Clark had in mind when she spoke of the need for the commission of inquiry to look at the culture of the police. A former police officer was tried three times on charges of indecent assault and sexual intercourse with a 15-year-old girl living with him as a member of his family and under his care and protection. The first two trials were aborted after the detective in charge of the case introduced inadmissible evidence. The man was acquitted at the third trial. During these trials it emerged that the complainant had also made sex allegations against serving police officers but the detective had failed to make a written record of her complaint and advised her not to make a statement. Two of the judges severely criticised him for this. At the second trial, Judge Philip Evans said his failure to record the allegations was "remarkable ... in view of the background of such a large number of police officers being implicated and in my view shows a lack of judgment on his part". In a ruling on costs after the third trial, Judge Michael Lance went further: "I am of the view the failure to record details of these allegations was not only 'remarkable' it was utterly incredible. "During his interview with the complainant he is told of allegations of potentially serious sexual offending by ... currently serving police officers. "Such disclosures should have triggered alarm bells that would have permanently silenced Big Ben no matter how vague in terms of time and event or place. "Even more surprising than the failure to record is the officer's deliberate advice to the complainant not to make a statement about her allegations against these officers." Judge Lance said the fact that a non-serving police officer was pursued with vigour while allegations against serving officers went unrecorded leant weight to the defence argument that the accused man was "a sacrificial offering". He awarded the acquitted man more than $20,000 in costs. Because of a suppression order the name of the detective, as well as the names of the accused and the complainant, cannot be published. The decision records that the first trial was aborted after the detective said in evidence that a fellow officer and former colleague of the accused had told him he was prepared to lie to protect the man because he did not believe he was guilty. That was seen as unfairly discrediting a potential character witness for the defence and, by association, the defendant. The second trial, before Judge Evans, was aborted after the same detective said in evidence that several other officers had admitted to him that they had had sex with the complainant. The judge said the experienced detective had placed this "clearly hearsay evidence before the court during the course of what I must describe as measured and carefully delivered evidence in circumstances where there are accusations against a number of police officers of a serious nature".

At each trial the judges expressed concern about how and why an experienced and high-ranking police officer could make such blunders in giving evidence. When he aborted the second trial, Judge Evans noted it was the second time the same officer had done a similar thing at a similar point. "That leaves a question mark as to the motive of the officer which should no doubt be examined by the appropriate authority," he said. He was not the only person in court puzzled by what was behind the officer's actions. The Herald has obtained copies of statutory declarations prepared and signed at the time by a senior Rotorua solicitor not involved in the case. The solicitor, who asked not to be identified, said he was sitting in the back of the court after the defence raised its objection to what the officer in charge of the case had said. He was aware the previous trial had been abandoned in similar circumstances. According to him, after the judge left the police officer walked to the back of the courtroom "grinning and looking pleased" and said to the complainant and her family, "You know what's going to happen now - just what we discussed". The solicitor says he then overheard the officer outside the courtroom, saying words to the effect that "it was a bit of a gamble".

Judge Lance did not agree with the Crown's assertion that it would be wrong to infer the actions of the officer in charge were "a stupid and fundamental error" rather than deliberate. "I am of the view it was a willed and conscious act calculated to embarrass and frustrate the accused's defence," he said. "It most certainly had that effect. Twice." The case sparked an internal police inquiry and an investigation by the Police Complaints Authority. Although the police officer was found to have failed in his duties and had acted unprofessionally, allegations that he deliberately misled the court and was malicious in his prosecution of the former policeman were not considered proven. Documents obtained by the Herald show police chiefs and judges lost confidence in the officer but he did not lose his rank and was transferred to an administrative post in another city.


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