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Don Brash on Peter Ellis: the Supreme Court needs to hurry

Don Brash, who campaigned for an inquiry into the Peter Ellis case, gives a fascinating behind-the-scenes perspective on his fight for justice.

There can be few cases in New Zealand history where a person has been so egregiously failed by the police, the court system, and by successive governments, both National and Labour, as Peter Ellis.

I confess I didn’t pay much attention to Peter’s alleged crimes when they were supposed to have happened in the early 1990s. As Governor of the Reserve Bank, I guess I was too concerned with the serious recession New Zealand was going through at that time, and what the bank could do to improve the situation. It was only a decade later, soon after I entered Parliament in 2002, when I was persuaded by my son Alan to read Lynley Hood’s award-winning book A City Possessed, that I realised the extent of the injustice.

That book convinced me – and the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders - that Peter’s conviction on charges of child molestation at the Christchurch Civic Creche was utterly without merit and should have been struck down years ago.

We’ve known for years that the oral testimony of very young children, when cross-examined by authority figures committed to achieving a particular outcome, is highly unreliable. We’ve known that parents who are offered significant financial ‘compensation’ from ACC for any harm experienced by their infant children have an incentive to identify such harm.

And yet successive appeals for a commission of inquiry (the first within a month of Peter’s conviction in June 1993), requests for legal aid to enable an appeal to the Privy Council, referrals to the Court of Appeal, three requests for pardon, and a special inquiry under Sir Thomas Eichelbaum, have all came to nothing. In the eyes of the law, Peter Ellis remains guilty of serious offences against young children.

After reading Lynley Hood’s book and learning the whole story - including how one of the children whose testimony had been important in convicting Peter had subsequently recanted - I persuaded my parliamentary colleague Katherine Rich to join me in mounting a petition calling for a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the case.

We were both busy with parliamentary duties so had limited time to gather signatures. Katherine thought we could well get a few dozen signatures; I thought we could get 100. We were both totally wrong. People rushed to sign. People from every party in Parliament added their name – Winston Peters, Judith Collins, Rodney Hide, Clem Simich, David Parker and many more. Two former Prime Ministers signed (David Lange and Mike Moore), with 11 law professors and umpteen Queen’s Counsel. Chris Finlayson signed, though he was not yet in Parliament.

In the end, more than 4,000 people signed the petition. The petition was considered by the Justice select committee. It rejected the call for a royal commission to deal exclusively with the Peter Ellis case, but instead recommended that New Zealand follow the example of the United Kingdom and establish a Criminal Cases Review Commission to look at all convictions where there’s a widespread public perception that the justice system has got it seriously wrong.

The then Labour Government ignored that recommendation, as did three subsequent National-led governments, despite the fact one minister in the National Government had children in the Christchurch creche at the time of Peter’s alleged offending - and was absolutely convinced of his innocence. She was normally one of the more courageous National MPs, but on this occasion she let the side down.

Time rolls on. Peter was released from prison in 2000 after serving two-thirds of a 10 year sentence. I only met him once, briefly, when Katherine Rich and I held a public meeting about the petition in Christchurch.

We now have a Labour-led Government, and one minister in that Government is David Parker. He was in fact the only member of the Labour caucus to sign the petition which Katherine Rich and I mounted in 2003, but he felt so strongly about the matter that he went to the trouble of seeking the approval of his caucus before signing – as he felt he had to do, given that his party was in Government. I have little doubt that the fact that setting up a Criminal Cases Review Commission was part of Labour’s 2017 election manifesto had a great deal to do with David Parker, and it’s good to note that a Bill to set up such a Commission has already passed its first reading.

I believe it is impossible to believe an objective review of the evidence against Peter, in the light of everything we now know about the unreliability of the evidence of very young children, and about some of the quite preposterous claims which were never put before the jury, would not result in his total exoneration. Indeed, I have not yet met anybody who has read Lynley Hood’s book who still believes that Peter was guilty.

Several years ago I was at a small dinner party hosted by a judge. One of the other guests was a member of the Supreme Court. I clearly remember that judge, who is no longer on the court, saying they had ‘severe misgivings’ about the soundness of Peter’s conviction.

Media reports suggest Peter’s lawyer is still hoping to get his conviction over-turned by direct appeal to the Supreme Court. Given that Peter has cancer and may have only three months to live, the Court needs to hurry.

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