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Top investigator urges police to speak up about wrongful convictions

Tim McKinnel. Photo/Ken Downie.

Why are police officers so reluctant to speak up about possible mistakes and share evidence of wrongful convictions? Mike White talks to investigator Tim McKinnel, who says police often turn a blind eye to possible corruption out of a misplaced sense of loyalty to colleagues. McKinnel will be speaking at a NOTED Live panel discussion on crime and famous New Zealand murder cases with forensic scientist Anna Sandiford and criminal psychologist Devon Polaschek.

Investigator and former cop Tim McKinnel has issued a blunt challenge to his colleagues to speak up about faulty investigations.

“Dear former police detectives,” McKinnel wrote on Twitter, “if you know about or have evidence of wrongful conviction, it is not traitorous or treacherous to share that information or evidence. Thank you.”

McKinnel, who was instrumental in proving Teina Pora’s innocence after he’d spent 22 years in prison for raping and murdering Susan Burdett, is currently investigating the cases of Gail Maney, and Alan Hall, who were both controversially convicted of murder.

“I’m certain there are police officers out there that have worked on cases, who have real doubts about the safety of convictions and have genuinely-held concerns about the way investigations were conducted,” McKinnel says.

“And I’ve had a number of off-the-record conversations with people who say helpful things, but aren’t prepared to stand up and risk their reputation and their friendships. At a human level, I understand that, but in respect of our criminal justice system, it’s a problem.”

McKinnel believes this reluctance of police to speak up about possible corruption and mistakes had much to do with a misplaced sense of loyalty to their colleagues, which was a part of police culture worldwide.

And those who did speak out, such as Dave Henwood who claimed in 2012 that Teina Pora was innocent, often had their lives made very difficult by the police, meaning it was even less likely others would break ranks and step forward.

“His treatment at the hands of his employer was awful. There was insinuation, there were rumours, there was refusal to give him free access to his own documents – those types of decisions at high levels were, in my view, unnecessary and quite concerning. There’s little doubt that those sorts of pressures coming from senior police officers have a chilling effect.”

McKinnel predicts Gail Maney’s case “will one day be regarded as the most grotesque miscarriage of justice New Zealand has seen.” Maney was convicted of murdering Deane Fuller-Sandys and her case is the subject of the award-winning Stuff-RNZ podcast Gone Fishing.

The former detective has investigated the case for the last year and says he has “grave concerns about what went on. From my perspective, it’s the scale and the extent of the deception and what is, in my view, four people convicted of a brutal crime that never happened.”

McKinnel says whenever such convictions were questioned, there seemed to be an utter reluctance by police to even consider they might have made mistakes or charged the wrong person, until the very last minute “when there’s no room left to wiggle, and then a concession will be made”.

He points to how police, for years, across two commissioners, ignored concerns about Teina Pora’s conviction, and only accepted he was innocent, when it was impossible to resist that conclusion any longer.

 

But sometimes that concession was never made, including in one of the country’s most infamous cases, where Arthur Allan Thomas spent nine years in jail for the 1970 murders of Jeannette and Harvey Crewe before being pardoned. Despite this, and the findings of a Royal Commission, it seemed police were still trying to “re-write history and exculpate police who planted evidence,” McKinnel says.

What was just as frustrating was that even when police accepted someone had been wrongfully convicted, they almost never reviewed their faulty investigation. In Teina Pora’s case, “as far as I’m aware, there’s not been a single step made by police to see where they went wrong, and what lessons could be learnt. And that’s an extraordinary thing, when somebody goes to prison for 22 years for something they didn’t do. I can’t understand why you don’t want to see where improvements could be made.”

The same was the case when accused people were acquitted, such as Ewen Macdonald who was found not guilty of murdering Scott Guy, but police have never reviewed their whole investigation.

McKinnel puts this resistance by police to considering they might have made errors down to myopia, over-confidence, human biases, “and I think there’s a degree of ‘exceptionalism’ where there’s a culture where police officers begin to think they can see things in a way nobody else can.”

And he believes it’s a culture that comes right from the top – from police commissioner Mike Bush himself.

Bush notoriously gave a eulogy at the funeral of one of the officers found to have planted evidence in the Arthur Allan Thomas case, where he lauded the officer, Bruce Hutton, and read a quote that “his integrity is beyond reproach”. (Bush later apologised for any offence he may have caused.)

McKinnel says he has seen flashes of progressive attitudes from Bush, but his funeral comments were an example where he seemed steeped in the traditions of police culture.

He encouraged Bush to show leadership, “acknowledge when you get it wrong as quickly as you possibly can, once you realise you’ve got it wrong. It’s about openness and transparency. I just think there needs to be an adjustment in the culture and that comes with open-mindedness, intellect, education and with a bit of humility.”

McKinnel stressed that for the most part, police did a good job, and New Zealand could lead the world in the quality of its criminal investigations, “but this requires an ability to understand and accept mistakes and learn from them.”

To that end, he called on all former police officers to be honest about past investigations that were flawed.

“If you’ve got knowledge of a wrongful conviction, absolutely, come forward and do the right thing and be prepared to stand up for the same principles and values you stood up for when you were in the police.”

A police spokesperson said police do review investigations, “in certain circumstances, where appropriate,” and also conduct “debriefs”.

“Police continuously seek to improve investigative practices and techniques, and ensure that identified lessons learned are shared and incorporated into training and police instructions.”

The spokesperson said officers who have concerns about any aspects of investigations were encouraged to speak up, and there were a number of channels through which they could do that.

Police commissioner Mike Bush stressed staff worked meticulously to do their best at all times, particularly with major investigations.

“It is enshrined in modern investigative practice to ensure that we carry out thorough, robust and professional inquiries, which meet the high standards rightly expected by the courts, victims, offenders and the public. Where we fall short of these standards, or make errors, we own our mistakes and we learn from them.”

Mr Bush said police acknowledged deficiencies in the Teina Pora investigation, had apologised, and had learnt lessons from the case. There had also been significant advances in police investigative practices since Pora’s convictions in 1994 and 2004. These included better interview practices, and greater awareness of confessions and the risks these may create.

Mr Bush said police’s investigative decisions continued to be scrutinised by the courts.

He did not respond to concerns raised about his statements at Bruce Hutton’s funeral, or police treatment of Dave Henwood.

Tim McKinnel will be speaking at a panel discussion on crime and famous New Zealand cases, in Auckland on August 1, along with forensic scientist Anna Sandiford, and criminal psychologist Devon Polaschek. Stuff and Noted have two double passes to give away to the event. Email info@noted.co.nz with the subject line ‘Night of Crime’ to go into the draw. Winners will be drawn on 24 July.