Terror in Chch

The terrorist pleaded guilty, now what?

The country’s first convicted terrorist might also be the first person to get a ‘whole life’ sentence. David Williams reports.

It’s fair to assume the Australian man responsible for this country’s worst act of mass murder will get its longest sentence, University of Otago law professor Andrew Geddis says.

As reported by Newsroom a year ago, judges have shied away from locking murderers up and throwing away the key.

But Geddis says the terrorist is a very good candidate for New Zealand’s first whole life sentence – “which would mean he would never be paroled”.

The gunman shot dead 51 people, and injured almost as many again, who had been praying in two Christchurch mosques in March last year. At an urgent High Court hearing in Christchurch today, at which the man appeared by video from a maximum security prison in Auckland, he pleaded guilty to charges of murder, attempted murder and one charge of engaging in a terrorist act.

The shock reversal removes the need for a trial that was scheduled to start in June.

“It’s a rare bit of good news in some troubled times,” Geddis says.

The Australian man, 29, will be sentenced at a hearing to be scheduled once the Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted. An important part of sentencing will be the victim impact statements being read by the families of those killed, and the injured, many of whom are still undergoing surgery.

“I was firmly of the view that if what [he] did wasn’t terrorism, then terrorism has no meaning in New Zealand.” – Andrew Geddis

Geddis says the consequence of the guilty pleas is the country has its first convicted terrorist under the Terrorism Suppression Act. That’s been achieved without having a trial at which questions as to what exactly constitutes terrorism might have been litigated.

The loss of any potential insight into legal definitions is trifling, considering the crime he has now been convicted of.

“I was firmly of the view that if what [he] did wasn’t terrorism, then terrorism has no meaning in New Zealand,” Geddis says. “So I think the right outcome has been gained, irrespective of any legal questions that have been left hanging.”

It also puts paid to fears the terrorist would use the trial as a soapbox, something Geddis thought was slightly overblown given the powers judges have at trial.

“Most of us would agree that even the possibility of that was something that wasn’t desirable.”

The flip-side of a cancelled trial, is the lack of insight into the March 15 attack through the trial. Geddis says: “But of course we have to remember that we’ve got the Royal Commission that has been looking into this and they may well be able to provide some insight into that.”

Geddis isn’t sure if the commission has interviewed the gunman. But he thought it would have access to his social media feeds and be able to trace his connections. “There may well be some insight through that process.”

In a statement this afternoon, the Royal Commission into the mosques attack said it couldn’t inquire into the guilt or innocence of anyone anyway. So the guilty pleas don’t directly affect its work. The Covid-19 restrictions, on the other hand, are having a “significant impact”, with staff continuing to work from home.

Asked if the inquiry has requested an extension to its April 30 deadline, spokeswoman Sia Aston says: “Like all New Zealanders, we are currently working through what Covid-19 means for us. In terms of whether the Royal Commission would need an extension, no decision has been made.”

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