Cutting up rough: What the Rex Haig case could mean for the justice system

by Bruce Ansley / 15 July, 2006

Rex Haig.

Rex Haig's story had everything a ripping yarn should have: money, adventure, daring, plots, bloodshed and retribution, all upon the high seas. Paua-diving made Haig rich. When he sold his "black gold" quota in the early 90s, he spent the money on a rakish Japanese fishing boat. Ominously, the ship fought three typhoons on its delivery voyage and was soon in even more dangerous waters.

Writs began to fly, debt mounted. Haig embarked on a scheme to poach paua in the wild southern islands and take it to Indonesia. His luck ran true. By chance, he and his ship were spotted. While fisheries officers, the navy and police set up an elaborate sting, Haig set forth to raise money by tuna-fishing. They called in at Jackson Bay, then crewman Mark Roderique went missing and was never seen again.

Haig returned to the southern islands. The trap closed. Then Roderique's family reported him missing, police investigated, Haig was convicted of murder.

The court case was reported locally, and a few paragraphs made newspapers elsewhere. But Bluff is in the very deep south. When I turned up, fisheries officers and police seemed mystified at the lack of attention paid to what they saw as one giant, colourful episode. So the story appeared on the cover of the Listener and Haig became a national figure.

Before publication, Rex Haig called me from prison, filling in gaps in the story and protesting that he was innocent of murder.

Read more: Did racism play a part in the Rex Haig controversial murder case? | The dubious justice of jailhouse confessions

I first laid eyes on the man when he appeared in court charged over the paua scam. By then he was serving time for the killing. Haig admitted the Indonesian plan, but the charge was conspiracy and he was acquitted. The Listener's picture of him was of a buccaneering Haig on his ship, his world at his feet. I was shocked to see how frail he'd become. Now we're all familiar with his slight figure, his tremble, his wry expression.

Haig has always insisted that he did not murder Roderique.

The Court of Appeal seems on the point of agreeing with him. It's always risky to second-guess a court, and at time of writing it had yet to deliver its decision on Haig's latest appearance before it. But if comments by judges during the hearing are anything to go by, Haig may well be vindicated.

Either way, though, his claims will have taken some 12 years of campaigning, trials, reviews, even a prison riot to run their course. The wider consequences are almost as dire: the public now believes that another innocent man may have been jailed. The real killer may still be free, and a man's family even now unable to lay him to rest.

Challenged like this, the justice system assumes a fetal position. Apart from its vested interest in protecting itself, it seems to believe that any admission of error will undermine public trust.

Uncertainty, however, is far more corrosive. The courts' ostensible infallibility has been challenged most publicly in the cases of Arthur Allan Thomas and David Dougherty.

In Haig's case, one QC's review left the conviction standing, the next found it suspect. Others clamour at the door: notably, Scott Watson, David Bain and the indefatigable Peter Ellis. Earlier this year Sir Thomas Thorp, a former High Court judge, estimated that some 20 wrongly convicted citizens remained behind bars. If the Court of Appeal does quash Haig's conviction, it will effectively declare the present system of reviews, petitions and so on redundant.

The British, from whom we inherited a good judicial system, confronted the dilemma after the release of the Birmingham Six in 1997 and established the Criminal Cases Review Commission to provide an independent examination of alleged miscarriages of justice. It has worked very well. In the 2004-05 year, the commission referred 45 cases to the Court of Appeal: 23 convictions were quashed and seven sentences reduced, without good old British justice suffering a bit.

The Justice and Electoral Select Committee last year recommended that New Zealand adopt the British solution. Thorp did the same this year. When I last checked, in 2003, Justice Minister Phil Goff was giving the review idea careful consideration. Three years on, Justice Minister Mark Burton says the government is giving it careful consideration. The wheels of justice do grind slow.

So Haig's has indeed been a ripping yarn. But whatever happens now, after 12 years, a conviction for murder and a long jail sentence there will be no happy ending for him, nor for Mark Roderique's family.

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