Nearly three decades after Susan Burdett was murdered, her case is finally closed. Radio NZ's Anneke Smith traces one of New Zealand's most epic justice journeys, that ensnared a young car thief who was wrongly convicted for her murder, lured in an investigator who campaigned for his innocence, and circled rapist Malcolm Rewa, who avoided responsibility for her death until last week.
He pleaded not guilty, but at his 1994 trial, the Crown argued his confessions meant he had been there at her home, and the jury agreed. His case went to the Court of Appeal, and it was decided he should go in front of another jury, but at his 2000 retrial he was found guilty again.
Pora spent more than two decades in prison. But police officer-turned-private investigator Tim McKinnel led efforts to clear his name, and in 2015, the Privy Council quashed his convictions. In 2017, he received more than $3.5 million in compensation. It closed one chapter of the Burdett case and reopened another, featuring Rewa front and centre.
Read more: Freedom Fighter: Tim McKinnel
Semen was found inside Burdett's body and when Rewa was arrested in 1996, over other rapes, police found his DNA matched the semen. He was charged with the rape and murder of Burdett, along with a series of other rapes, and tried between March and May of 1998. The Crown argued he and Pora had attacked Burdett together. Rewa was found guilty on other rape charges, but the jury was unable to agree on whether he raped and murdered Burdett.
At a retrial in December 1998, he was convicted of raping Burdett but again the jury was unable to agree on whether he murdered her. The solicitor-general imposed a stay of proceedings against further prosecution, saying it was only under special circumstances that Rewa could face a third trial.
After Pora's convictions were quashed in 2015, a legal battle over the stay ensued and in 2018 it was lifted. Last week, 20 years after his last trial for Burdett's murder, Rewa walked into the High Court again.
In his version of events, on 23 March 1992 Burdett showed up at his house looking for drugs he promised he'd source for her. He didn't have what she wanted so they halved a pill of ecstasy before having sex. She then left his house and it wasn't until days later he found out she had been killed.
But the recollections of people who knew Burdett made his story sound implausible. They described her as neat and tidy, and said she kept a regular routine. On Mondays she always baked and cleaned the house before going to the Manukau Super Strike to play ten pin bowling with her team, The Ratbags. Friends told the court she had said she had bad luck in love; that men she liked weren't interested in her and those she didn't like, were. Would this woman really have been interested in a senior member of the Highway 61 gang?
And Rewa became entangled in his own web of lies when Crown prosecutor Gareth Kayes cross-examined him. In 1998 he said he and Burdett had sex in the evenings, but now he was sure it was in the mornings.
He also told the court he never went to Burdett's home because his in-laws lived around the corner and he drove a distinct orange American truck with the words 'Lone Wolf' across the front. Kayes asked him how he drove the truck at that time, given he didn't yet own it. Documents showed he traded his Harley Davidson motorbike and cash for the truck in 1995 - three years after Burdett was killed. Asked if he'd told another lie, Rewa said it wasn't a lie, that he was just mistaken.
Perhaps the most peculiar detail of Rewa's story was an anecdote about toilet paper. He told the court Burdett had gone into his bathroom after the pair had sex the night she died. He said she emerged and mentioned the three-ply, scented toilet paper his wife had bought. Kayes was quick to point out that this detail was new and possibly an attempt at explaining why Rewa's semen had been found inside Burdett's body but not on any of her clothing. An expert had earlier testified that if Burdett had dressed and taken herself to tenpin bowling after sex, it would be expected that semen would be found in her underwear or on her jeans. It wasn't. Instead, the clothes she bowled in were found neatly placed in her washing basket, with no trace of Rewa's DNA.
Rewa's defence put forward another, unlikely, suspect; Burdett's son, Dallas McKay. McKay drove down from Whangarei to give evidence in the first week of the trial. He told the court about finding - and then losing - his mother. Burdett had McKay when she was 16 and he was fostered by his paternal grandparents. He grew up thinking his father was his brother, and didn't meet Burdett until he was 20, just two years before she died.
Rewa's lawyer, Paul Chambers, said McKay had the motive, opportunity and means to murder his mother. Burdett had amended her will to ensure he was in line for a $250,000 inheritance, though McKay said he wasn't aware of this until after her death. Chambers said the night Burdett was killed, her son, who lived in Whangarei, had plenty of time to make the three-hour drive to Auckland, murder his mother and drive back to Whangarei in time for work on Tuesday. It was a claim hotly contested by McKay, who told Chamber he wasn't the one on trial.
Rewa sat with his head bowed, reading or writing, for much of the trial. When he spoke, as the defence's first witness, he told the jury he would never forgive himself for hurting women. He'd raped many but insisted he didn't rape or murder Burdett, who he said had nicknamed him 'Hammer' and had watched the sun set with him on Mangere Mountain.
Dark clouds gathered today, as the jury deliberated. Rewa kept his head down and stared at the floor as they returned after three hours and delivered their verdict: guilty. He left the dock less than a minute later.
A little while later investigator Tim McKinnel, who spent so many years untangling the case, captured the years of injustice like this: "27 years after Susan Burdett was brutally raped and murdered in her own home, justice and the truth have merged". Jim Burdett said it had been hard hearing his sister's character "besmirched" and said there was now a sense of finishing something that started 27 years ago, "The right person, is in the right place, for the right reason."
This article was first published on Radio NZ.