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Karl Kuchenbecker Case - The Coroner Got It Wrong

Karl Kuchenbecker Case - The Coroner Got It Wrong

By Roger Brooking

On June 18, the Wellington coroner Garry Evans released his report into the death of Karl Kuchenbecker. According to Mr Evans, the fundamental mistake in the mismanagement of convicted murderer Graeme Burton's parole in 2006 was treating the highly volatile and dangerous offender as a normal parolee. This was a mistake. However, in my view it was not the fundamental mistake.

According to the news media, Graeme Burton had been using drugs since he was 15 years old. He already had 91 convictions including convictions for possession of drugs before he committed his first murder in 1992. After he was arrested, he told police he was ‘out of it’ on a cocktail of six different drugs. He reportedly used drugs most of the time he was in prison, but managed to remain drug-free in the two years before he was released on parole. Soon after he was released on parole, he began using stand over tactics with drug dealers to obtain methamphetamine and anything else he could get his hands on. A few months later he committed his second murder.

Judge John Dalmer was on the panel which twice refused Graeme Burton's application to be released into the community and remembers him as someone who had appeared before them with a 10-year drug habit. When Burton was released and re-offended, the judge was quoted in the media as saying he suspected that Burton's problem was that he had relapsed to drug use.

Judge Dalmer was right. The Corrections Department was aware that drug use was a contributing factor in Burton’s offending. However, it appears that he managed to avoid using drugs in prison in the two years before his release. Apparently this was enough to convince the Department that he had kicked his habit. As a result, they failed to provide an alcohol and drug assessment to the Parole Board.

In a letter to the writer, Minister of Corrections, Phil Goff justified this by saying: “Mr Burton consistently maintained that he was not using drugs or alcohol both before and after his release”. He went on to say that the special investigation by the Department into the management of Mr Burton's parole found “it is unlikely that Burton would have been assessed by a drug and alcohol programme provider as requiring treatment as he stated he was maintaining abstinence and was not admitting to having any issues with drugs or alcohol.”

This explanation provided by Mr Goff is patently ridiculous. The Coroner states that the Police were well aware that Burton was using stand-over tactics with drug dealers in Wellington a full two months before Mr Kuchenbecker was shot. It seems that rather than have Burton assessed by a professional addiction counsellor before (or after) he was released, the Department choose to believe the word of a known psychopath. To think that a drug addict (let alone a psychopath) would tell the truth about his drug use is surely naïve in the extreme.

Even when someone does achieve temporary abstinence in prison, this does not mean they have dealt with the underlying issues that led to their addiction. Many inmates achieve abstinence but still need to do a rehabilitation programme on release. In fact being abstinent is merely the first step in what is generally a five year journey to recovery. The reality is that only a professional alcohol and drug clinician would be qualified to determine whether or not Burton’s drug dependence required further treatment.

Drug addiction was clearly not Burton's only underlying problem. A psychologist assessed him as having a psychopathic personality which pre-disposed him towards violence. Burton had completed a living without violence programme in prison and apparently done motivational work with the psychologist. However, a violent psychopath released into the community with an untreated methamphetamine addiction is nothing short of a disaster waiting to happen.

Inmates are often required to attend and may successfully complete cognitive skills based programmes in prison known as criminogenic programmes. Burton did some criminogenic programmes. But these are ‘education’ programmes, not ‘therapeutic’ programmes which the treatment of substance dependence (drug addiction) requires.

When an offender with an untreated drug addiction is released from prison, they often relapse to their drug of choice within a few days. Once relapse occurs, anything that might have been learnt in a criminogenic programme is forgotten because under the influence of alcohol or ‘P’, the offender no longer has any impulse control. Rapid relapse to alcohol and drug use followed soon after by further re-offending is probably the norm rather than the exception for those released from prison in New Zealand.

Clearly there is no guarantee that Burton would not have re-offended even if he had received treatment for his addiction. But his parole condition should have been that he was placed in a residential alcohol and drug programme for a minimum of 12 months, where he could have monitored on a daily basis. If he relapsed or misbehaved, he could have been recalled to prison immediately. Instead he was placed with his mother – for one month. After that he seems to have been on his own.

Everyone with anything to say on this matter including the Coroner seems to have focused on what the Corrections Department, the Police and the Parole Board did wrong after Burton’s release. Undoubtedly, mistakes were made. However, the fundamental mistake was actually made long before Burton was released. It was made by Corrections staff who don’t understand the nature of addiction and level of treatment required to address it.

Perhaps this is not surprising considering that the Department does not employ alcohol and drug clinicians on its staff and does not even have a budget to have inmates assessed by alcohol and drug clinicians coming up for parole.

If the Department had taken his drug addiction more seriously, and if Burton had been released into a residential treatment programme, none of the subsequent mistakes identified by the Coroner would have occurred.


Roger Brooking is the Clinical Manager at ADAC Ltd that specialises in Alcohol & Drug Assessments & Counselling.


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