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Lack of consistency in sentencing for murder in New Zealand

Why the lack of consistency in sentencing for murder in New Zealand?

It would seem the days of short and soft sentences for murder with easy parole may be behind New Zealand. Oh no wait, let’s check whether that is correct by comparing some 2011 cases.

Back in March millionaire Matamata horse breeder Greg Meads was sentenced to a minimum non-parole period of eleven years for murdering his wife by shooting her in cold-blood at close range. The ‘reason’ for his heinous crime? Well, his wife Helen wanted to leave him.

July 2011. Jacqueline Wihongi took her conviction for the murder of her partner Vivian Hirini to the Court of Appeal. The reason for the murder? Wihongi had been the victim of violence in an abusive fifteen year relationship with Hirini. However it took two to tango and such was their history of violence that Hirini had already lost an eye to Wihongi after being hit by her with a bottle. At the trial the police submitted over 500 pages of police reports of domestic disputes between the two. Wihongi had been just the second person convicted of murder in New Zealand to escape the mandatory ‘life’ sentence of ten years on the grounds that in Justice John Wild’s view it would be manifestly unjust due to her "history of victimhood". This was despite the fact that her stabbing him in the chest was deemed by the court to be pre-meditated. The Court of Appeal deemed Wild’s sentence of just eight years (eligible for parole after two years and eight months) was too lenient and increased it to twelve years but also refused to impose the mandatory life sentence so Wihongi will be eligible for parole in four years.

Early December. Judge Patricia Courtney hands down a nineteen year minimum non-parole sentence to Steven Ellis for the brutal rape and murder of Jacqueline Blackbourn, in June 2010. The ‘reason’ for his crime? He had been unable to handle their separation and had been desperate to re-start their relationship. Interestingly in this case if cumulative sentencing was imposed Ellis would have been facing a further eight years for the rape, and four and a half years for the arson he committed in a disgusting attempt to destroy the evidence of his crime.

Roll forward to last week and Justice Toogood sentenced Jonglin Yu to a minimum non-parole period of seventeen years in prison for the cold-blooded, pre-meditated, and horrific murder of Jiyai “Kiko” Li. Li was strangled and stabbed to death. The ‘reason’ for the crime? Yu & his co-accomplice Yongxin Li wanted to steal money from Li. Justice Toogood likened the case to that of the ‘body-in-the-suitcase’ when Wan Biao was murdered and his body found floating in a suitcase in Auckland harbour in 2006.

And here’s another gem from last week. In a gang ‘hit’ in prison two offenders were sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum non-parole period of eighteen years for their part in the attack and murder of Tue Fa’avae. The third offender was sentenced to life with a minimum non-parole period of seventeen years. But here’s the kicker: he is already three years into an eleven year non-parole sentence for a previous murder, and his new sentence of seventeen years started when he was sentenced. This example of concurrent sentencing shows that rather than serve the eleven plus seventeen (twenty-eight years) he will now serve just the three plus seventeen (twenty years). Knock off a further two years and nine months (the ridiculous amount of time that lapsed between the killing in March 2009 and the sentencing: does anyone remember that quote “Justice delayed is justice denied”??) and the offender (who has not been named) will serve just over eighteen years for two murders. Essentially he got seven years for the jail-house execution-style murder of Fa’ave. I wonder if Fa’ave’s parents feel that their son’s life was worth just seven years?

After reading these brief case descriptions one could be forgiven for having absolutely no idea what length of sentence would be handed down for the crime of murder in New Zealand on any given day of the week. On the surface it seems murder involving hideous violence is attracting lengthier sentences than ‘less-extreme’ murders and that the worst of the worst of our offenders are locked up for longer: yet the vicious murder of Helen Meads proves that this is not the case. Is it just that a person can commit murder and the victim’s life then be devalued further by the offender receiving a lenient sentence?

As a contrast compare this case from Victoria, Australia. In November, Sean Maraffko was jailed for 35 years for the murder of Joanne Wicking and the torture of her children. Victorian Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Curtain said his crime was an offence of the highest order. “You murdered her in the sanctity of her own home, where she had taken you in and provided you shelter. Your behaviour is totally repugnant to a civilised society."
Behind every murder sentence is a victim, and tragically, many destroyed lives for the families and friends of the victim. As a country it is important to acknowledge the importance of the victim’s life and afford them dignity by acknowledging that the most serious of all offences deserves to come with severe consequences.

The Sensible Sentencing Trust Wellington branch seeks to draw attention to the fact that sadly New Zealand still has a long way to go in ensuring that sentencing is uniform and that all victims are afforded dignity in sentencing by offenders receiving lengthy sentences. Concurrent sentencing for the worst crimes must be abandoned and ten years is simply not enough for committing murder. Where a life is taken by another if there are further crimes involved cumulative sentencing must be imposed. If, as a civilised society, we aim to uphold the sanctity of life, then there is no argument against this. The notion that we cannot afford prison beds for longer sentences needs to be discarded in such cases. To afford dignity to the victim and ensure community safety from convicted murderers the fact is that we cannot afford not to keep these people out of society for a considerable period of their own life.

New Zealand once was, and can be again, one of the safest countries in the world if we have the will and determination to stand up against crime and refuse to accept it as a part of our lives. We all have a right to be safe within our own homes, streets, and communities. We will continue to fight for that right and advocate for a tough stance to be taken against those who would have those rights taken away from us.

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