Wednesday 4 July 2012

All Of Us? Reflections On The Trial Of Ewen Macdonald

Dark Journey: How many of us came away from the Macdonald trial concerned at how large the cancer growing in the nation's heartland has become ... and wondering how far it has spread?

“THE GUY FAMILY are all of us.” Or so the Manawatu Standard would have us believe. But they’re not. The Guys are a wealthy Manawatu farming family – so wealthy they could afford to pay their son, Scott, and their son-in-law, Ewen, $100,000 p.a. each to run the family business. So wealthy that the bitter struggle between Scott and Ewen for eventual control of the property provided a plausible motive for murder.

All of us simply don’t live in a world where Dad, or our father-in-law, has enough money coming in to pay us a six-figure salary for attaching suction-cups to cows’ teats and driving around on tractors. Most of us live in a world where years of schooling and training leave us earning considerably less than the 32-year-old cow cocky who left school at 16, went to work on a neighbouring farm, and somehow persuaded the boss’s daughter to marry him.

All of us were interested in the Shakespeare-in-Gumboots drama played out in a Wellington courtroom this past month for exactly the same reason that (nearly) all of us used to watch Dallas back in the 1980s. Not because JR and Bobby Ewing were like us, but because the privileged lives of those wealthy Texas ranchers were nothing like us. Dallas drew us into a world where money was power, and where both could be had for nothing more praiseworthy than being a father’s son, his daughter’s husband, or the parents of his grandchildren.

If that all sounds a little feudal, then award yourself full marks for historical perspicacity, and get used to it. Because in the trial of Ewen Macdonald we all caught a glimpse of the vicious, class-ridden and quasi-dynastic society New Zealand is becoming. A society in which we no longer make our own fortunes but attach ourselves to someone else’s. A society in which arrogance breeds resentment potent enough to burn down one house and vandalise another. A society in which men settle scores in the dark … with shotguns.

No, “all of us” are not like the Guys – nothing like. The more fascinating – and worrying – question is: “How many of us are like Ewen Macdonald?”

On the surface he was everything the “ordinary” Kiwi admires: taciturn, hard-working, quietly ambitious; the sort of guy who rubs along well with everyone; mans the barbecue at fundraisers; gets elected to the local school board of trustees.

But, below the surface? Ah, well, that’s a different story. Gordon McLauchlan still insists we’re a passionless people, but Gordon has always been wrong about that. What defines so many New Zealanders – especially Ewen – isn’t a lack of passion but a surfeit of repression. That sinister expression: “You’ll keep!”, sums it up nicely. For what can it possibly mean except: “You’ve wronged me, but I’m not going to confront you now. No, I’m going to bury your insult deep, wait until it putrefies, collect all the poison, pour it into your beer when you’re not looking, and then watch you drink it.”

Two Ewen Macdonalds: Ewen of the Day and Ewen of the Night.

This repression was revealed during the trial, where we encountered two Ewens. The bluff cow cocky that was Ewen of the Day, and the deeply disturbing criminal that was Ewen of the Night. The man on a “mission” who crept into his neighbours’ farms under cover of darkness and poached their livestock. The man who torched his brother-in-law’s house for a laugh. The man who, accompanied by his faithful “childlike” partner-in-crime, Callum Boe, (a name worthy of Harper Lee or William Faulkner!) took an axe to Scott’s wife Kylee’s nearly-finished dream-house and scrawled “bitch slapper fucking whore” on its shattered walls.

Ewen’s outstanding lawyer, Greg King, asked the Jury to accept that these were “crimes against property” not against people. Well, that may have been true of the $20,000 stags he shot in the dark and then buried. But surely the arson and the vandalism were crimes against people? Surely they were blows directed against Scott and Kylee?

How well Mr King understood the mind-set of the ladies and gentlemen of his jury. How clever he was to call the brutal slaying of Scott Guy a “whodunit”: to turn the trial into a parlour game; to invite the eleven jury members to sit back and enjoy the ride he was about to take them on. He understood equally clearly how vital it was , in an era when the world’s television screens seem to feature nothing but crime and forensic detection, that his ride should make them think only of CSI and never of Criminal Minds.

The very last thing the Defence wanted was for the Jury to use their imaginations. Under no circumstances should they be invited to follow the evidence down the dark staircase that led to Ewen of the Night’s state of mind.

Fortunately for Mr King we live in an age where only a tiny minority of the population has even the slightest grasp of the literary canon of their civilisation. A better read Jury, when told by Mr King that the quarrel between Scott and Ewen had been mended; that they’d become the best of friends; might have recalled Shakespeare’s famous line from Hamlet: “That one may smile and smile, and be a villain”.

And so Ewen Macdonald was acquitted. The Crown failed to make the Jury stare long enough into the abyss that was Ewen of Night, and Mr King, with extraordinary forensic flair, unplaited the circumstantial rope with which the Prosecution had hoped to hang the Defendant. The Guys will go on asking: “Who killed our son?” And the Macdonalds will ask themselves a very similar question. The little town of Feilding will close ranks and keep quiet. In rural communities you either follow the lead of the big landowners, or leave.

And all of us? What will we take away from the past four weeks? Some will recall Hamlet and King Lear. Others will think of Dallas and CSI. But how many, I wonder, will register how large the cancer growing in the heartland has become. How many will ask themselves if it has metastasized into New Zealand’s cities and suburbs. This all-consuming greed; this murderous impatience; this contradictory urge to both curry favour and cast down: the cancer that’s eating us alive.

How long must we go on muttering: “You’ll keep!” Waiting there in the darkness before sunrise; listening for the sound of the ute’s tyres on the gravel; cringing from the sudden glare of the headlights; feeling the weight of the shotgun in our hands?

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.


XChequer said...

So I take it, you think that he is guilty of Scott Guy's murder then Chris?

Cactus Kate said...

Fabulous column. Second paragraph brilliant.

Anonymous said...

All this aside, the crown case was poor. If you have to speculate, it's reasonable doubt, and all of this shakespeherean rag in various blogs is just that.

If Ewen McDonald was the killer, then Scott Guy died of his own imprudence more than anything else. Saying he planned to inherit the farm would obviously drive McDonald nuts, especially given their relative work habits. Rational people try not to drive others into murderous rages. It's good policy not to screw with a man's livelihood, his wife, his kids or his car. It's just inviting violence.

Yes, whoever killed Guy was wrong but the dead have no use for the moral high ground.

B'art Homme said...

Very wise and in-depth Chris - particularly the jet stream running to the urban clouds of Aotearoa. Our cities are as full of your envisaged "you'll keep" attitudes coupled with the kowtow, doff cap to the large business, corporate and even council "bosses".
We did indeed grow up at least feeling NZ was a country of good cops, civil civil servants but now the corporate bosses receive 100 times the income of their lowest other employees. Workers for Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor are ordered to do street marches, Councils entrusted with care for the socially deprived leave their tenants dead for 14 months whilst collecting the rent - and who speaks up? No-one who has signed a confidentiality agreement with PJ, no-one in the Dom Post (that receives around 2.5million a year in "advertising" from WCC) when "told" to pull a WCC negative story, no-one in the employ of any corporate is ever going to egalitarianise their pay rates when their is utterly dependent on the antithesis. Na Aotearoa is a gonner for the Sean Key antics of the well off mate. Cap doffer to the Councils, the powerful, the maintainers of dark farm gate trigger pullers.

B'art Homme said...

Oh and who is to say the prosecution didn't do some kind of dark deal with the guilty pleas for the arson et al?

Anonymous said...

Some good observations there.

But I suspect the Guys and the McDonalds, like most of the rest of us, are pretty sure who pulled the trigger that morning.

As the Happy Prince writer said, don't trust someone who neither smokes nor drinks.

Anonymous said...

Feilding, not Fielding.
Everything else: spot on!

Anonymous said...

"This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite."

Pity, it should be syndicated.

Anonymous said...

Seeing Ewan has probably lost his farming gig , perhaps he could look at seeking security work in Iraq?

Victor said...

So, for once, a high profile New Zealand murder case is decided on the evidence and on the basis of a fair judicial summing-up and not on whether the accused is a nice person (which he obviously isn't).

I'd call that a triumph for justice.

Meanwhile, seeing the Guy family's wealth hasn't affected the outcome of the trial, I fail to see its relevance. Right through history, people have committed dark deeds for much lesser inheritances. You don't need Shakespeare to remind you of that. But he's a good place to start.

Anonymous said...

I agree with many of your thoughts, but this case highlighted something else for me, in particular in reference to your Dallas comments.

I like many others followed cases such as Lundy and the Bain retrial, and I watched it as a soap opera. However when you used to babysit children of the family, when you went to school with the 'childlike' accomplice, and when you have to drive past the deserted house everyday, it makes you remember that there are more people involved than just those whose faces are on the news every night.

This consequence is expected but still sad At the end of the day two children will grow up without a father, and others will grow up with a stigma attached to their father.

Robert M said...

In the general desire of those fragile souls, Helen Clark, Peter Davis, Bill English and Mary English to shut NZ down and return us to the world of the 1950's Bay of Plenty or 1960's Southland their was a general failure to realise that 1970s NZ or even the provincial cities of the early 1980s was not quite as hopelessly conservative as they imagine and that by 2008 NZ was not yet a place where talkback was representative democracy. Therefore the court, jury and timid police prosecution underestimated that their is still a potentially powerful minority who believe in truth,justice, beauty and intelligence. This week, Chris Trotter has judged this correctly, and unpressured in a free fired zone of public guilt and intellectual outrage, Chris has written his finest piece.
It's all true. My judgement was that SC was always a feudal estate dominated until recently be Elworthy and Studholme families and now by former classmates Victor and Oldfied and various less visible hangers on of the Act Party. In Timaru until recently again power was very much in the hands of the Christs College Old Boys who still probably control the legal establishment.
However I don't see the downfall of NZ as the result of the capitalist excess of private school merchant bankers or the mythical 1% living on unearned squillions. Rather I see the problem in middle class guilt, the guilt of the Teachers Union, the Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Labour Party do gooder, alturistic and paternalistic. And usually too sheltered and patronised to see or understand the reptile viciousness of much of the lower orders.
We devalued our educational standards, ignored the reality that it was wise to demand that anyone in a responsible position have a real IQ in the Australasian top 25% on 2010 test performance if you wanted to be a registered nurse,military officer or detective or enter university. Or in the top half if you want to be an infantry soldier. The performance needed to achieve that an IQ of about 105 is so limited, that it equates to about the level needed to pass the easiest SC paper in 1975 say Bookkeeping or Geography. All you really needed to do that was to read competently, comprehend and be able to read maps and use a calculator. What you need to achieve that is about what a man from Kabul needs to get a taxi driver license after six months residence in NZ. Half the population of NZ including the rural whites aren't even capable of that- yet we allow them to run our farms and wealth, be on our juries and adapt our political and legal system to their senseless predjudice and unreason.

Chris Trotter said...

Many thanks, Anonymous@7:23 PM, duly corrected.

Anonymous said...

Half the population of NZ including the rural whites aren't even capable of that- yet we allow them to run our farms and wealth, be on our juries and adapt our political and legal system to their senseless predjudice and unreason.

It's worse than that.

The educational system has been geared to reward the ambitious rather than the intellectual.

Intellect accompanied by ambition is fine. Ambition sans intellect is lethal.

Richard Richard said...

Bang on there with the comments Chris. Another excellent article.

Richard Richard said...

Captured the mindsets bang on Chris. Another excellent blog.

Olwyn said...

@ Victor; I agree with you that it was a relief to see a high profile trial in which the concept of reasonable doubt was properly applied. It is also true that the Guy wealth did not affect the outcome, and that people can do vicious things for lesser inheritances.

But as I understand Chris he is pointing to a drift toward neo-feudalism upon which this trial has cast a spotlight, and the damaging effect this has on the NZ psyche. When getting by is understood almost solely in terms of wealth and patronage, the ancient sins of presumption and despair come to displace the confidence,hope and cooperation that would characterise an open, healthy society. One lords it over others if one can, and kisses arse if one must, while resentment festers. This is not to speak ill of the Guy parents, who seem like thoughtful people,trying to do the best they could under conditions they did not create.

I had a similar "snapshot of a time" sense when the Bain murder occurred - then the snapshot seemed to be of the demise of a way of life that was once common in NZ; where people pursued worthy goals, whether religious or secular, but sought only modest material well being. Like Baxter delivering the mail so as to have time to write poetry, for example. As the margins got squeezed, so did such people, the Bain family among them.

Anonymous said...

A ghastly man, Ewen Macdonald. It will be interesting to see what his other crimes were when those details are revealed. well done, Chris for this analysis.

RMJ1 said...

Dear Chris,
Mr McDonald secured an acquittal. That is in the end when all else is stripped away, the process, the words and the gowns; it is the one and only right anyone in such as position as he has.

To call it into question wrongly undermines its value. Asking the jury to use there imagination as you do is to say the should deny him this right because of what they think,never mind the evidence or lack of it.

And I suggest given my experience in the NZ criminal "justice" system that the process does the accused no favours at all. In fact I suggest a good slice of that feudal mentality is to be found there in that very system. And let us not forget having that having been acquitted the accused was and is innocent, and has had to endure the vagaries of a trial.

The more important thing to worry about in the Land of the Long White Cloud is the increase in the feudalism in the actual justice system- the Dotcom sag shows the State simply and cynically ignoring the rule of law....that is a vastly bigger blight on the nation I say.

Anonymous said...

For a man who hammered the Labour party for intellectual snobbery a few weeks back, you sure do seem to lack any sense of self-awareness.
To suggest that modern farming is nothing more than attaching pumps to teats, for which unworthy drop-outs are overpaid, is snobbery at its worst.

Whatever the darkness of his character, Ewan MacDonald was a high achiever at the farmer of the year contest and succeeded in running half of a multi-million dollar business. From all accounts, he had a tremendous work-ethic to match his farming abilities. But one suspects that in the exclusive salon Chris Trotter, one isn't capable unless one is book capable. The farmers of the Manawatu simply aren't worth talking to until they get a post-grad qualification on the gender implications of medieval Spanish literature.

You go on to demonstrate how divorced you are from reality by suggesting that Feilding will close ranks out of fear of the Guys. It is as if you believe that fee simple title comes with the right of Prima Nocta or the control of a local gallows.

Perhaps the local townsfolk will close ranks to try and protect a family of thoroughly decent people who have gone through a brutal, prolonged and public tragedy? Just maybe they will respond out of a sense of community and solidarity, a desire to protect a family they see as one of their own? But of course not. Such a conclusion is far less entertaining than portraying the town as rural England circa 1381.

But my favourite part of the rant is the suggestion that justice would have been better served, not by a jury that considered the deflated evidence of the circumstantial prosecution case they had witnessed, but by a jury which came to a decision by way of reference to 400 year old literary characters. One wonders how you can possibly have been overlooked for a place on the law commission.

The rest of the column is just a Great Wall of waffling wankery constructed to protect your own prejudices from imagined threats.

Mike said...

"All of us were interested " Really? Evidence?

Anonymous said...

A rather bitter diatribe Chris? you seem to be playing the envy card about the $100k pa, most farm managers seem to be in the $80 to $100k earning area and to my observation they do put in the hours and earn it.Putting it simply, Ewen could well have done it but it couldn't be proven beyond reasonable doubt to a Wellington jury,case closed. Cant see the need for all the other bitter suppositions and generalisations you make about provincal NZ.

Chris Trotter said...

The reference to the men's salaries was simply to indicate how far from the daily reality of life in NZ these people were.

Barely 3 out of 100 New Zealanders enjoy an income that runs into six figures.

We may sympathise with them, but the Guys are most definitely NOT "all of us".

Chris Trotter said...

A splendid diatribe, Anonymous@12:58 PM, which would have been even more effective had you the courage to sign it.

If you really think that the fortunes of rural and provincial retailers, stock agents, accountants and district councillors are improved by biting the hands that feed them, then you have never lived in the country.

Shakespeare may have written his plays 500 years ago, but the distillation of human experience contained within their pages rings as true today as it did in the sixteenth century. A Jury more familiar with Hamlet might not have proved so susceptible to Mr King's theatrical summing-up.

Your own (paradoxically) eloquent anti-intellectualism marks you down as the sort of person whose misplaced reverence for muck and Diesel is currently holding New Zealand back.

Sadly, provincial New Zealand is full of them.

Anonymous said...

Greg King is a meatworker's son from Turangi. I assume he earns a 6figure salary. Case dismissed!

Victor said...

Hi Olwyn

For once we disagree!

I certainly recognise that our society is becoming unpleasantly and dangerously polarised between rich and poor and that tough economic times make for much licking of more privileged posteriors.

And, obviously, the Guys aren't just like everyone else, in the sense that they're richer than most.

But, strange as it might seem, many of those with whom I've discussed the case were unaware that there was a great deal of money involved. They clearly saw the stricken families as folk similar to themselves and followed the case so avidly for that very reason.

Moreover, the Guy family behaved, though most of their ordeal, with a simple dignity that instantly refuted any possible charge of being "up themselves". Moreover, even if the deceased had pitched himself as the young prince claiming his 'ain, without first paying his dues, his parents don't seem to have been too enamoured of the idea.

And, yes, Anna McDonald was always exquisitely groomed for her days in court. But that's a pretty thin thread on which to hang the charge of neo-feudalism, unless you're using the logic of Madame Defarge!

Turning to the character of Ewen McDonald, there's surely nothing remotely new about the dark truculence and vengeful rage that lurks behind the quiet, non confrontational persona of many an old fashioned Kiwi male.

If anything, this type, although still far too numerous, is less predominant than in the days when Muldoon built his career on siphoning their rage.

Nor is there anything new about the extraordinary capacity of New Zealanders to nurture grudges.

I hate to peddle national stereotypes. However, had there been an Olympic Gold available for grudge-bearing, we'd probably have been a shoe-in for at least Bronze every four years since the late nineteenth century.

And, both here or overseas, inheritance is the field in which anger is most likely to simmer away for years, sometimes reaching catastrophic breaking point.

Just about every family I know is in thrall to some poisonous myth of promise betrayed, inheritance denied or patrimony squandered. And that's not normally because of the amounts involved but because of the outrage felt at denial of personal mega-narratives.

To accept defeat is to question your own worth, the love of your parents, your love for them, the years you have suffered in worthy but unremarked silence etc. etc.

Another thing that isn't new is the casual and callous violence of much of rural New Zealand. The truly terrible aspect of some of the incidents associated with this case was not the damage to property but the brutal slaying of innocent animals.

There's certainly a great deal in New Zealand that can be blamed on the triumph of neo-liberalism and the consequent splintering of our society. But almost everything of significance about this case would, to my mind, have been equally possible in the infinitely more egalitarian New Zealand of mid-century.

And so, at the end of the day, we're left with around a dozen broken lives. You might consider that the people concerned have too much dosh. You might not like what you think they stand for. But, ultimately, they're people and deserve our compassion.

Returning briefly to Shakespeare, who's been cited so much in recent days: Lear isn't memorable because he's "King of Britain" but because he's every fast-aging father, who was ever filled with vanity, regret,weakness and a clumsy inability to express love in the right way, as his eyes cloud over and his mind moves in and out of sanity. Perhaps Shakespeare based the character around his own father, the master glover and one-time alderman who had fallen on hard times.

And, of course, Hamlet isn't memorable because he's the "Prince of Denmark" but because he's Everyman.

As another famous writer put it: "Only connect"!

Olwyn said...

Chris; my jaw dropped when I read this sentence: "A jury more familiar with Hamlet might not have proved so susceptible to Mr King's theatrical summing-up."

Mr King's summing up involved showing the jury where reasonable doubt lay; it was impassioned but was not pure theatre. Possible motive is not enough to convict someone of murder; the concrete evidence also has to link them to the murder. And if the evidence can point to other, equally plausible explanations, then there is clearly room for doubt. There was insufficient evidence to convict Ewen MacDonald, and Mr King would have been letting him down had he not pointed that out.
There are probably more innocents languishing in jails because juries do not study critical thinking than there are criminals walking free because juries have not read Hamlet. I agree that reading Shakespeare gives you insight into the human condition, but it cannot stand in for the critical appraisal of evidence and argument among jurors.

Olwyn said...

@Victor: I certainly did not mean to slight the families, who seem like decent people and who have suffered terribly. Nor am I obsessed with their having "too much dosh." Furthermore, I accept your point that such things happen in the best of times. However, I do think that the concentration of wealth into fewer and fewer hands along with diminishing opportunities add an edge of desperation to any real or perceived threat of this kind. Nonetheless,I may well be "reading in" something that I already think, independently of the trial.

pyGrant said...

Ronald Hugh Morrison anyone?

Tim G. said...

The article would have made Ronald Hugh Morrison proud. Now we just have to find the straw man put up by Greg King, er, I mean the Scarecrow-type character that prowls random driveways who was responsible for the murder!

More than anything, I just like the way your article operates as a call to arms against the kind of fiefdom that has always existed in NZ (and is inherent in farmer's way of life we cherish) being extended to the corrosive attitudes that are fast expanding out of Epsom and Remuera.

I am afraid that the horse, the stags and chocolate labs and the have already bolted on that one.

newzild said...

A brilliant column. Thoughtful and well writing.

Anonymous said...

The Ballad of Ewan McDonald

Hold up your head there Ewan
give us a big high five
hold up your head there Ewan
at least you are still alive

Pity about the arson
the house wrecking and graffitti
hadn't of been for Callum Boe
you'd have got off scott free

Hold up your head there Ewan
give us a big high five
hold up your head there Ewan
at least you are still alive

hanging around the cowshed
"wonder why Scotty's late?
the bugger must be sleeping in!"
yeah,down by his own front gate

Hold up your head there Ewan
give us a big high five
hold up you head there Ewan
at least you are still alive

Victor said...


I think where we might have been differing is that I found many of the faults of traditional New Zealand (as alluded to in my previous post) so obviously apparent in both the crime and the events leading up to it.

In contrast, I saw little of the faults (many and gross though they are)of the new New Zealand in either the circumstances or conduct of this case.

And I also saw many traditional New Zealand virtues at play, not least on the part of the deceased's family.

But, above all, I'm pleased that many of the all too normal traditional New Zealand pitfalls to the administration of justice were removed or circumvented this time around.

The accused was tried on the evidence and not on his character.
The defence counsel insisted on playing the ball and not the man, and neither judge nor jury demurred. That's how it always should be, but is far too rarely.

Perhaps the police were too obsessed with making an arrest or perhaps they merely presented their case badly. Either way, there was no great sign of the deliberate fabrication of evidence. Would that we could say that of every high profile murder case of the last several decades!

Might I add that, as someone with reasonably firm views on a range of political and social issues, I nevertheless object to individuals (or families) being held up for public censure on the grounds, not of their thoughts or actions,
but of their membership of this, that or the other population quartile. It doesn't take a huge degree of imagination to see where this could lead.

And, of course, this type of approach takes on an additional and highly distasteful level of nastiness when those pilloried are suffering from grief and trauma. Frankly, I'm appalled!

In summary, if I didn't believe so firmly in playing the ball, I'd be tempted to suggest that whenever Chris and Cactus Kate agree, they're both likely to be wrong.

Victor said...


Just one more point....

It's not your comments that appall me. I understand your viewpoint.

It's the original piece that amazes and horrifies me.

Chris Trotter said...

No one was pilloried, Victor. I simply pointed out that the Editor of the Manawatu Standard was wrong, the Guys are not "all of us".

I would find your compassion for the family more convincing if you could forbear from celebrating the legal legerdemain which so theatrically thwarted the claims of Justice.

Only the Law has been served in this case, Victor. To insist otherwise is not only ignorant, it is cruel.

Victor said...

Well, Chris, what is the evidence that's been ignored?

And since when was insistence on
the known facts legal legerdemain?

It could be that insisting on the accused's right to silence prevented him breaking down under cross-examination and admitting all. But, on the evidence as presented, this seems unlikely.

As to the Law being served in this case, that's no small thing when you recall the barely lawful travesties of the recent past.

Meanwhile, with respect to Justice, this may yet be served by ensuing prosecutions of McDonald on lesser charges.

Undoubtedly there's room for further police investigation of the murder and the events surrounding it.

And, yes, I accept on reflection that 'pilloried' is considerably too strong a word.

I'm not sure what the correct term is for turning people into involuntary hooks for someone else's pet ideas.

But Kant's insistence on treating individuals as ends and not as means seems to have some relevance here.

kevin said...

Fair size chip on your shoulder there Chris.

Anonymous said...

"A Jury more familiar with Hamlet might not have proved so susceptible to Mr King's theatrical summing-up."

Given that so many other plays, movies and telly shows are based on Hamlet I really doubt that many are unfamiliar with the storyline. Sons of Anarchy is a great example.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

The most important part of any murder inquiry seems to me to be the Police interviews of the persons "helping with their enquiries". If I were to be called for jury duty I would want to see, not just some grainy, poorly made video footage taken from the side view, but a high definition, front-on, full-face exposure of the suspect answering Police questions. I would want to clearly see their reactions, facial expressions as well as their body language at the time of questioning or arrest, not just the well groomed, well tutored defendant in the courtroom many many months later.

Anonymous said...

The most important part of any murder inquiry seems to me to be the Police interviews of the persons "helping with their enquiries". If I were to be called for jury duty I would want to see, not just some grainy, poorly made video footage taken from the side view, but a high definition, front-on, full-face exposure of the suspect answering Police questions. I would want to clearly see their reactions, facial expressions as well as their body language at the time of questioning or arrest, not just the well groomed, well tutored defendant in the courtroom many many months later.

Steve F said...

There is still some life in this thread, although it is dwindling fast until, that is, the collaterals - books, magazine exclusives, movies, DVDs, re-enactments, add to the mix.

I have two cents worth on a couple of points:

Interestingly this case was tried under new evidence disclosure guidelines set down by the 2008 criminal disclosures act. I think the importance of this has slipped through the cracks with most of the court reporters. Under these new rules the prosecution has to hand over to the defence EVERY statement, signed or unsigned give by anyone interviewed in connection with the investigation, whether they appear as a witness for the crown or not.
Previously they were only obliged to hand over evidence from those who were going to appear as crown witnesses. So this changes the dynamics of the trial dramatically. It is probably why the crown had so many witnesses. If they didn't call all of them, then the risk to the prosecution would have been the defence calling them and an implied inference amongst the jury that the crown were trying to sweep evidence under the table.
In the instance of the timing of the shots the court heard from four witnesses who heard the shots at, or very close to, 5am. One of them, Mr Sharpe had an unreliable clock, so he he said, an it ran a bit fast. That was the trapdoor for the prosecution out of what was a locked room of evidence that would have given the accused an alibi. But the jury probably didn't buy the crown's argument because they had heard all of the evidence from everyone interviewed. Under the old prosecution guidelines, perhaps Mr Sharpe may have been the only one they heard from.
The new disclosure guidelines now balance the opposing sides more equally. The previous imbalance was a major weakness in our adversarial justice system. The new rules reduce the limitations of an under-resourced defence.
It may well do to reflect for a moment on the conduct of previous high profile criminal trials, and how, if brought before a jury today, the outcome could differ.

The principle of open justice is sacrosanct in our legal system and pre dates even the Magna Carta in English law. Court reporting forms an essential part of the principle. The expansion of media exposure made possible by technological advances are testing the principle in it’s delicate balancing act of a free press v’s a fair trial.

What we have seen in the Ewen McDonald trial is the emergence of the courtroom verdict being marketed as a brand. The extent to which this has been visible throughout this trial is, I believe, unprecedented in court reporting in New Zealand. Even within the strict confines of reporting directly from witness testimony the media have managed to evoke emotions amongst the public building the brand power. Snippets of evidence interspersed with suggestive and memorable images of witness close ups. You Tube clips to whet the insatiable appetites. Stories of puppy dogs that only a true sociopathic monster could harm. All of it contributes to the public’s desire to buy or reject the brand.
This new age of courtroom drama now places the defendant on trial with a presumption of guilt where in reality, it is the evidence on trial and the defendant is in the dock under a presumption of innocence until the evidence proves otherwise. The front page story of last week’s Dompost “ The Court of Public Opinion” underscores my proposition and the power of the media to sell the brand. It is the result of trial by television.

Continued below…………

Steve F said...

Continued from above…………

Inquisitorial justice systems do have adversarial trials, despite what some in the blogosphere infer. They differ by having an independent investigator, often a judge, to order inquiries and dig up the evidence.
In an inquisitorial jurisdiction I doubt very much whether this case would ever have got to trial. The inquiring judge, would have in all likelihood, not been able to recommend a prosecution. It highlights a shortcoming in our current system whereby the crown solicitors, independent private practitioners contracted to the state, are not involved at the investigative stage and at the time of arrest.
They simply have the file dumped on their desk, after indictment, with a post it note, - go prosecute. They do have the power to stay a prosecution but their late involvement probably limits this discretion significantly.
In either system it will always be easier to show reasonable doubt, the bar in any civilized society, than it is to prove certain guilt, especially when no direct evidence exists. Prosecutors conform their cases to the demands of the legal system. The defence on the other hand, conforms the legal system to the demands of their case.

In a jury trial there are three simple rules that guide every single decision on every single case: ask any experienced criminal defence lawyer:
1) Trial is war, second place is death
2) Truth is relative- pick one that works
3) In a jury trial there are only 12 opinions that matter.
For the defence winning is the only thing that counts, don't mention justice, that's God's problem, their job is to win.

“The accused wore size nine dive boots” was a truth expounded by the prosecution.
“Size nine dive boots don't fit the plaster casts “ was a truth expounded by the defence. Clearly the defence picked the truth that worked. It's all relative.

Chris Trotter said...

Thank you, Steve F, that has been immensely helpful - and not a little disconcerting.