Moko Rangitoheriri and Pleas Bargaining
June 7, 2016
The recent tragic case of Moko Rangitoheriri and the subsequent plea bargaining in relation to his death has raised the question of Grey Power making public comment on criminal trials. The comments below are based on my many years as a court journalist.
Firstly the Grey Power Federation should not become involved in emotive reactions to such tragedies as heart rending as they are. Associations are free to take whatever action they see as appropriate. Only the prosecutors and defence counsel know all the evidence. Even the judges and juries only hear what is put in front of them. The news media simply cannot record everything that is presented to the court as that would take hundreds of pages of evidence and cross examination. They are trained to report only the significant points and outcomes and must make many judgement calls every day throughout several weeks of a trial.
The definitions of murder and manslaughter are many and legally complex.
Murder is generally defined as the deliberate or intentional killing of a person but there are many other factors involved such as reckless disregard for the known consequences of an assault etc.
Where a charge of murder is presented to the court the jury can return any one of several findings; Guilty, not guilty, not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter, not guilty of murder but guilty of any one of several lesser charges such as assault with intent to inflict harm, or common assault. These lesser charges do not always have to be laid separately but it are part of the overarching charge of murder. Unless directed by the judge a jury can simply decide guilty or not guilty on the principle charge of murder alone.
Judges have no discretion and must impose life imprisonment for murder but can set the minimum period in prison before an application for parole can be made. A defendant on parole is still under life sentence and can be recalled to prison to complete that sentence for any subsequent offending.
Manslaughter is generally defined as causing death by an illegal act. That can include drunk driving, careless use of a firearm, assault etc.
Judges can impose any penalty up to and including life imprisonment for manslaughter. They can also set the minimum period of imprisonment before an application for parole can be made.
The rules of evidence are very tough and where there is the possibility of a not guilty verdict on a defended charge of murder prosecutors will often accept a guilty plea for manslaughter rather than risk a complete acquittal. Plea bargaining is usually initiated by the prosecution but can only proceed with the agreement of the defence. It is not a decision taken lightly or as a soft option.
Judges and juries are not involved in these decisions as they are made long before the case comes to trial. This may be seen as usurping the role of the jury and I have some serious concerns about that possibility.
We will signal our concern to Government at the increasing incidents of domestic violence against our most vulnerable people; children, the elderly and women, the potential for plea bargaining to be misused and also repeat our call for a Parliamentary Aged Commissioner.
Former National President
Grey Power Federation