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Hautahi Kingi: After the fall

Ten years ago, Hautahi Kingi was an academic and sporting star with the world at his feet. Then he punched a guy who’d stolen his girlfriend and everything unravelled. Mike White tells the remarkable story of a young man’s mistake, those who sought to crucify him, those who gave him a second chance, and his ultimate redemption.

Words by North & South senior writer Mike White. Photos by Hannah Bliss. This article was first published in the February 2016 issue of North & South. Kingi has now graduated with his economics PhD from Cornell University and is about to take up a job in Washington DC.


He climbed into his car and drove off into the night. There was adrenalin. There was confusion. More than anything, though, there was a feeling of, “Shit, what the hell did I just do?”

Hautahi Kingi was 18, in his first year at university, and had learnt his girlfriend, who was still at school, was seeing another guy – one of his friends – back in his home town of Whanganui. Bereft and depressed, he’d come home to try to find out what was going on.

That night, on July 1, 2006, he went to a concert at Wanganui Collegiate, where he’d been a stellar student until the year before. His girlfriend and the other guy were still students there and both appeared on stage during the concert. It was too much for Kingi, just one unintended provocation too many. For weeks, he’d been leaving messages for the guy, trying to understand what was happening, but got no response. So after the concert, as the kids filed out of the hall, teen spirit mingling with winter dew, Kingi figured he’d front the other guy, bail him up, have it out.

He walked through the crowd to find him, pushed him back onto a sports field, then unleashed a flurry of punches. The other guy fell down, but Kingi hauled him up and had another go at him. And then, suddenly, it was over, everyone standing stunned, while Kingi turned, walked back to his car, and drove away into the dark.

A week later, police phoned Kingi. He’d heard rumours they were asking around and started feeling sick that he might be in trouble, but still figured it was a long shot. The guy he’d hit had received a bloody nose and cut lip but had been treated and discharged from A&E that night. While horrified at what he’d done, it was little different from things he’d seen countless times before at Collegiate, scraps and punch-ups, boys and bullshit. Plenty of dodgy stuff happened and was swept under the carpet. But the cops wanted to see him, so he went to the station with a lawyer.

They took his shoes, and then his fingerprints. “We just need these for the next time you come in,” an officer told him. And then they questioned him for three hours. “I don’t know why it took so long, because I just admitted everything.”

He’d never even been in a fight before. He’d never been in trouble before. Hautahi Kingi hadn’t even been late to a class or talked back to a teacher. When people heard what had happened, they simply couldn’t believe it was him.

Born in Auckland, he’d moved to Whanganui when he was four, after his dad left the Navy. His mother, Kara, is a Pakeha, his father, Tai, Maori, and the family built a house next to Tai’s marae, just out of town. Kara had learnt Maori while working as a journalist and they decided to talk only Maori at home. Kingi went to kohanga reo and then a kura kaupapa and didn’t speak English until he was seven.

Incredibly bright and not being stretched at the kura, he began taking night classes in Spanish and then won a scholarship to St George’s, a prep school for Wanganui Collegiate. Another scholarship saw him carry on to Collegiate, where he was one of only a few Maori pupils.

Collegiate is one of the country’s most prestigious colleges, with its caps and blazers, and history, and houses which compete between themselves. “If you’ve read Harry Potter,” says a former student, “it’s straight out of the English boarding school system. Very much the Gryffindor-versus-Slytherin kind of thing.”

Kingi’s record there shows outstanding academic success, culminating in his being the top accounting and statistics student in 2005.

He was fullback in the 1st XV rugby team and captained the school’s track squad, winning medals in New Zealand under-17 and under-20 championships. He was a senior prefect, deputy head of his college house, runner-up for dux in his final year, and was awarded the medal for the student who best upheld the school’s traditions. Classmates describe him as calm, kind and hellishly clever.

“Odie [Kingi’s nickname] was one of the superstars, the absolute cream of the crop intellectually and physically,” remembers one.

A reference in his final year, from Collegiate’s associate headmaster, calls him “the consummate all-rounder”, “an outstanding role model” and “a leader of his community in the years ahead”.

“He can stand apart from the idiot herd… we recommend him in the strongest possible terms.”

Kingi won several scholarships, including one from Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, which allowed him to move to Wellington in 2006 to study maths and commerce at Victoria University. But he struggled to settle, most of his friends having gone to other universities. And he missed his family and his girlfriend of three years.

Kingi after prizegiving on his last day at Collegiate, with trophies for all-round scholarship and for rugby, plus the medal for the student “who most worthily upholds the traditions of the school”. Six months later, the school ostracised him.
Kingi after prizegiving on his last day at Collegiate, with trophies for all-round scholarship and for rugby, plus the medal for the student “who most worthily upholds the traditions of the school”. Six months later, the school ostracised him.

When he learnt she was seeing a mate of his, everything got worse. Then his younger sister discovered their father was having an affair and confided in Kingi. They agreed he should take responsibility for telling their mother, though he’d not done this by the time of the assault.

Realising he was depressed, but thinking it was just because his girlfriend had broken his heart, Kingi’s mother suggested he come home and, in an effort to cheer him up, bought tickets for the annual house music concert at Collegiate.

“In hindsight, it was a horrible idea,” remembers Kingi. “Because in the concert was my girlfriend and that guy. And I just got emotional and went outside, pushing, got in his face, and started yelling. And beat him up.”

How severe the beating was is open to some interpretation. The police summary of facts outlines a ghastly assault, including a knee to the head, kicking the victim on the ground, and continued punching to the head and body.

Kingi signed a copy of this summary, but says he felt intimidated, says he felt there was no other option, and just wanted to admit responsibility and do what he could to put things right. He absolutely denies kneeing or kicking the victim, and says he regrets signing the document.

Even the judge who later dealt with the case admitted the minor injuries – a bloodied nose and cut lip – were surprising, given the description of the attack. But as Kingi’s first lawyer, Lance Rowe, notes: “You need to be cautious about equating injuries with endeavour. It would be wrong to characterise the assault as a scuffle, because it was very one-sided – there was nothing nice about that assault.”

Police eventually charged Kingi with assault with intent to injure, also charging one of his friends who they alleged prevented others from breaking it up. Despite being mortified at what had happened, by this stage Kingi felt an exaggerated myth was beginning to grow around the incident, with the school hastening to distance itself from him and preserve its elite reputation, police treating the investigation almost like a witch-hunt, and an affronted Whanganui community demanding the Maori kid who whacked the Hawke’s Bay farmers’ son be punished.

Soon after the incident, Kingi’s name was scratched from a school honours board. Despite his sister still being at Collegiate, Kingi was publicly denounced at a school assembly, including claims that he’d been drunk – although  Kingi had not drunk anything that night.

When he rang Collegiate’s headmaster to say sorry, he was told his apology wasn’t accepted. When Kingi offered to apologise to students who’d witnessed the fight, he was told not to return to the school. He wrote letters of apology to teachers and students, but never received replies. When he asked for references from teachers, not one responded.

As Rowe says: “This was someone whose successes they’d gloried in previously, yet when the wheels fell off for him, he was pretty much chucked out there on his own as far as the school was concerned. They completely washed their hands of him.”

Meanwhile, even people now living overseas who knew Kingi were being contacted by the police, to see if there was any evidence the assault had been premeditated.

“I just had this feeling things were getting out of control,” recalls Kingi, “that none of this should really be happening, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was a kind of hysteria.”

Kingi pleaded guilty to the charge but, prior to being sentenced, was ordered to complete a number of things. First, he met his victim and the youth’s parents as part of a restorative-justice process. It was a chance to settle things between the two young men and Kingi says he found it powerful to talk and apologise. The victim subsequently indicated he felt the process had been sufficient and didn’t want the case to go further. (He didn’t wish to comment for this story, but wished Kingi well.)

Over many months, Kingi also completed 250 hours of community service, working weekends at Wellington’s soup kitchen, a volunteer radio station and other charities. He went to counselling and emptied his bank account to pay his victim reparation.

On May 16, 2007, he reappeared before Judge John Clapham in Whanganui’s district court for sentencing. Clapham had grown up in Whanganui, and served on the bench there, as well as many years in South Auckland. Lance Rowe felt a discharge without conviction would be the appropriate outcome, given Kingi had immediately pleaded guilty, and done all the court had asked of him. He brought with him a huge file of letters from people supporting Kingi, which made clear he was destined for study or a career overseas – something a conviction would threaten.

Rowe had also arranged for Kingi to be psychologically assessed to try to work out what had led to such uncharacteristic behaviour. The report pointed to the extreme pressures Kingi faced at the time – the breakup of his relationship, the burden of knowing his father was having an affair and that he had to tell his mother, and his difficulty settling into university – and said he had suffered a “major depressive episode”.

“It was like a bit of a firestorm for a kid who at that stage just wasn’t able to cope and dealt with everything extraordinarily immaturely,” says Rowe.

But Judge Clapham saw things differently. He spoke of how sad it was “when those who are gifted amongst us and who represent tribal interests fall from grace”, and suggested there was no difference between attacking the new boyfriend and assaulting the girlfriend. He reflected on his time in South Auckland, “and the violence depicted here falls within the thuggery and violence that regularly comes before the court from those less gifted and for less reason than these defendants”.

In relation to the many accolades produced on Kingi’s behalf, Judge Clapham mused, “It is open, in my view, to an inference that some of us who are elite are above the law, that we are able to do what we wish, dictate to others, without consideration, how they should behave and impose our will to the point of beating a person almost to senselessness accompanied by words to achieve a particular objective” – but then said he was putting that to one side.

Standing in the dock, Kingi heard the words, but struggled to relate them to what he knew. He was far from elite – he was a working-class kid who’d relied on scholarships at Collegiate and university. Suggesting he’d beaten his friend almost to senselessness was utter hyperbole. Claims about pre-
meditation were equally wrong. “If I’d premeditated it, it would have been in a less public place. I remember, about five minutes into the judge’s speech, thinking, ‘This isn’t going well.’”

Ultimately, Judge Clapham said there was a requirement to hold the offenders responsible for their actions and “to make it clear that conduct such as this should be denounced… In my view, I am unable to impose a penalty other than a term of imprisonment for such offending.”

Kingi’s mind went blank. His mother, Kara, began sobbing behind him.

Judge Clapham then sentenced Kingi to five months’ imprisonment, and his co-accused to four months.

Straight away, they were led downstairs and locked up. “I remember we were both sitting there in that dark cell,” says Kingi, “and we were both in shock. We thought we were going to be put in a wagon and taken to jail – and I was just terrified of going to jail. And I remember saying sorry to my friend. And he was like, ‘You don’t need to say that.’ [Kingi’s co-accused chose not to comment.] It was a very weird experience, terrible.”

Eventually, Rowe came down to see them and said the judge had approved leave to apply for home detention. Until that was decided, they were to be released on bail.

Upstairs, Kara Kingi was distraught, aghast at the severity of the sentence. “Why would you send an 18-year-old boy to jail, for who you could show an absolutely blemish-free, perfect record, a boy with huge promise and intellect, who had a punch-up? He shouldn’t have done it, but he did – and what does it serve anybody to have jailed this boy? It just wasn’t in my comprehension. It was just madness.”

Kara Kingi remembers her son coming up from the cells and her thinking, “God, what do we do now?”

Kingi spent two years in Collegiate’s 1st XV, played premier rugby in Wellington and made the Wellington Maori rugby team. He also won national titles as a 400m runner.
Kingi spent two years in Collegiate’s 1st XV, played premier rugby in Wellington and made the Wellington Maori rugby team. He also won national titles as a 400m runner.

The previous 10 months had been unfathomable as the situation quickly slipped beyond their control. “There was this impression that he’d beaten this boy to a pulp with 17 broken bones and god only knows what – but none of that was true. So I just felt someone was driving it. It wasn’t us, it wasn’t the girl’s family, it wasn’t the boy’s family, but someone drove it, for whatever reason. Out of vindictiveness. It was a one-off incident caused by a collision of circumstances, and the chance of him ever doing it again were like one in a million billion. But there was no compassion, no one said, ‘There but for the grace of God goes me.’”

Dan Wallis, who competed alongside Kingi in athletics and lived next door to him in their university hostel, said it was like living in a work of fiction. “It just didn’t seem plausible it had got this far, but it was like, holy shit, this is actually going to happen. For this? There are gang members walking around Whanganui who wouldn’t even rate a mention [if they’d been involved in something like this]. And now this guy – who’s a national champion in athletics, whose worst grade ever is an A minus, who’s spent his life trying to do the best he can at everything, who for young Maori kids should be a poster child – was going to jail?”

Another who couldn’t see any fairness in Kingi’s sentence was his mother’s close friend Robyn Langwell, North & South’s founding editor. The pair had met as young journalists and babysat each other’s kids. Growing up, Hautahi had called Langwell “Aunty”.

Langwell knew former North & South writer Deborah Coddington was married to Queen’s Counsel Colin Carruthers, so asked if he could help by appealing Kingi’s sentence. Carruthers’ normal work involved high-powered commercial trials, but says that “when I heard the circumstances, that someone had been sentenced to prison for assault on a first offence – and somebody with his background – it just seemed so wrong”.

His help was completely pro bono. “I was so outraged by the case that I thought nobody should pay to fix something like this.”

The first Kingi knew about it was when his mother said some “big-time lawyer” whom Langwell knew had phoned. Soon after, he got a call from Carruthers, who simply said, “I’m Colin Carruthers, I’m a lawyer, I’ve heard about your case and I’d like to represent you.”

“I thought it was awesome,” remembers Kingi, “but I questioned why he would care. And I was pretty pessimistic about the legal system and didn’t know how much difference he would make.”

On September 4, 2007, Kingi and his parents, supported by many friends and family members, met Carruthers and Coddington at Wellington’s High Court for the appeal hearing. Kingi overheard Coddington say how nervous Carruthers was, as he felt Kingi’s future rested in his hands. Not only did Carruthers realise a conviction would remove Kingi’s chances to study, work or travel overseas, but privately, he was also extremely worried whether Kingi would survive prison.

Everybody’s tension dissolved briefly as they walked to the courtroom, past photos of past and present judges, and Kara Kingi asked Carruthers if he ever thought he’d become a judge. A passing lawyer overheard them and quipped that Carruthers would never accept the pay cut.

Carruthers spoke for about an hour, highlighting that the attack was spontaneous, not planned; that Judge Clapham had made numerous errors and misinterpretations; and that the sentence imposed was not only extreme, but wrong in principle.

“Even in my really scared state,” Kingi remembers, “I was able to appreciate the oratory art of it.”

Justice Simon France accepted the attack was “a significant assault inflicted with obvious vigour”, but said Judge Clapham should have given more weight to the psychological report, which showed the pressures Kingi had been under. He also noted more consideration should have been given to the successful restorative-justice process: “It seems as if none involved wanted a prison term to be imposed.”

He also pointed to the very minor injuries, and that Kingi’s behaviour was utterly out of character. Then, in front of the packed courtroom, Justice France announced he was quashing the sentence of imprisonment, but reserved his decision on what alternative sentence he might impose.

Kingi remembers hearing he wouldn’t be going to jail and being overwhelmed by relief. Sitting beside him, holding his hand, his mother began to cry, realising that a year of shock, terror, anger, and exhaustion was about to end – that sense and sanity had finally prevailed.

“And I remember Hautahi smiling,” she says. “I hadn’t seen one of those in quite a long time.”

Later, she wrote to Carruthers: “It’s a sad thing to lose the ability to dream for 16 months of your life in your teenage years. You have restored that to him.”

NS0216Kingi4Afterwards, everyone went out for lunch, and then, after saying their goodbyes, Kara headed to the airport to fly back to Auckland, where she was now living. But before doing that, she wandered into department store Kirkcaldie & Stains and bought a celebratory present – a glass bowl, which now sits on a side table in her lounge.

“It was the most beautiful thing I saw in the store that day. And I dust it regularly and remember that glorious moment.”

Two days later, Kingi was warming up at athletics training on Mt Victoria when he got a call from Carruthers’ secretary, telling him Justice France had quashed their convictions. Both he and his co-offender had been discharged with clean slates. It was over.

In his written decision, Justice France admitted his instinct was to convict and discharge the pair because the offending was too serious to avoid a conviction. However, after much consideration, he believed the consequences of that were too great.

“This court is faced with two young men of outstanding potential who can make a very significant contribution. At the age of 18, they made a serious mistake, and were lucky the physical consequences were not more serious. They are probably equally lucky their victim has also shown himself to be a young man of excellent balance and insight. He has accepted the apology and the amends and has moved on. The offenders have served an appropriate punishment; no one suggests there is any chance this type of conduct will happen again. A conviction will significantly impact upon their future prospects and if that happens, no one will be the better for it.”

He concluded his 16-page judgment by deeming that “the benefits to society lie in allowing these accused a second chance… It is to be hoped they repay society for the opportunity it is thereby giving them.”

In many ways it was a brave decision – open to criticism that he’d favoured kids who were smart and came from a good school, or that some fashionable PC liberalism had infected the enforcement of justice. But few could argue against his logic and eventual rationale. Every day, judges are confronted with such unenviable decisions and are asked to be seers as to an individual’s future. Whenever they get it wrong, and someone reoffends, the world comes down on them for their naive optimism and spineless leniency. We never hear when they get it right.

Kingi read the judgment and was determined he’d prove the judge right in this case. And to all intents and purposes, the quashing of his conviction should have ended the affair and its encumbrance on his life.

But life isn’t that simple – and people aren’t that forgiving.

In the year since the incident, facts had morphed into fable, and opinions had settled on one side or the other of the story, and then set fast. No matter what some cerebral Wellington judge had ruled, many had made up their minds that Kingi was a dangerous piece of shit.

That the assault would always dog him gradually dawned on Kingi over the next few years.

One time, he stopped off in Taupo to go for a run with a mate whose family he knew well. Afterwards, Kingi assumed they’d go back to their place for a shower – only for his friend to say he wasn’t welcome; his parents didn’t want Kingi in their house.

An iwi scholarship he’d been awarded was stripped from him.

In 2009, he was used as part of a Victoria University publicity campaign featuring successful students, appearing on posters and its website. Then he got a panicked phone call from a university official who said they’d just learnt of the assault, and likened it to a Canterbury University promotion that had unwittingly featured a sex offender.

The story about Kingi’s initial conviction remained prominently online without reference to the fact it had subsequently been quashed, until intervention from Carruthers eventually saw it cross-referenced with one about the successful appeal.

But that story was to have even more serious consequences in 2010. Having completed a joint science and commerce degree, with first-class honours in economics – during which he won many scholarships and prizes – Kingi was encouraged to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University. (Even in the tumult of 2007, when he was sentenced to jail, his university marks were A+, A+, A and A–.)

Eventually he was one of six students shortlisted, from which three recipients would be chosen in a process overseen by the Governor-General.

After the first day of engagements, Kingi returned to his hotel and was about to go to bed when he got a phone call from a member of the selection panel. He said someone had alerted the Governor-General, Sir Anand Satyanand, to the online story about Kingi’s conviction, and demanded to know why it wasn’t mentioned in his application. Kingi explained the conviction had been quashed, he was discharged, and they should check with Carruthers to confirm this.

Nobody did, but the following day, questions about the 2006 incident were the first thing he was asked by the panel, and the issue dominated his two-hour interview at Government House.

When the scholarships were later announced in the drawing room, Kingi’s name wasn’t among them. He insists he has no idea if he would have received one if the assault had not been raised, and stresses all the candidates were extremely impressive. However, it was another thing for him to deal with, and another example that, after so long, the incident was still affecting his life.

And there was the question of who had alerted the Rhodes Scholarship decisionmakers to something that had happened when Kingi was 18, in an effort to tarnish his reputation? More curiously, why?

Determined to study overseas, the following year Kingi gained entry to America’s Cornell University to study for a PhD in economics. He was subsequently awarded the William Georgetti Scholarship, which has funded his study, and is due to graduate in May.

But before he left New Zealand, there was one final chapter of the story to be played out: his shoes, taken by the police when he was interviewed for the very first time, were finally returned to him – after four years.

At times, Kingi has let himself wonder whether there was any element of racism that played a part in what happened. What if he wasn’t Maori? Was it just a chance for people to reinforce a stereotype about Maori youth – you’re all the same, you’re all going to amount to nothing, you’re all going to end up in prison?

Right from his first days at school, Kingi had an inkling that he was being treated differently – like the librarian constantly asking if the books he chose were a bit much and perhaps he’d like to find something else.

Dan Natusch, who went through Collegiate with Kingi, says that as a scientist, “I’d love to run a whole bunch of experiments where you had alternative realities, with kids from different backgrounds punching [the victim]. I really don’t know why they reacted like they did, I don’t know whether it’s the Maori thing. But given everything I’ve heard, if someone whose parents were white farmers from Hawke’s Bay with quite a lot of money did that, I can’t believe it would play out the same way.

“He was bloody stupid to do what he did and I don’t think even he would deny he was an immature idiot. But that sort of thing was a dime a dozen at Collegiate, and I assume a dime a dozen in every school in the country.”

Moreover, everyone knew how utterly uncharacteristic Kingi’s behaviour was. “He was the star child. He still is one of the brightest boys I know. And all the sporting achievements and the accolades he got from teachers. And then to receive zero support when this issue came to light – it’s kind of like, what the hell?”

Others are certain his background played a part. “It was almost like, ‘Well, we knew he was a Maori boy after all, it had to come out in the end,’” says Kara Kingi. “It sort of justified any prejudices they already had, because he dared to go out and have a punch-up with a boy about a girl.”

Dan Wallis, who now lives in the United States, knows both Kingi and the victim well, and says some of the victim’s friends still savagely denounce Kingi. “They don’t even know Hautahi’s situation, but because of – and I’ll be very open – the colour of his skin, because of where he was from, they turn from these educated, smart, sophisticated guys into just fearmongering – it’s bizarre.

“But while they’re still going on about what a thug he is, he’s getting a doctorate from an Ivy League university. In America, this story of redemption would be a movie by now. I mean, you’re writing an article – I’m writing a screenplay.”

However, Wallis stresses the victim has a completely different attitude and regularly asks after Kingi. “Odie made one mistake – he knows he shouldn’t have done it. But people mess up. And is this how the system works in New Zealand when you make one mistake? ‘Rough Maori Boy Beats Up Rich Farmer – Chuck Him in the Cells,’ that was the headline. There’s an undeniable thread of racism throughout this entire story – undeniable. I’d love to see someone refute that. I’d love to look them in the eye and say, if this had happened to a different student, would it have been different?”

All Kingi can say with certainty is his own sadness that being Maori often seemed a millstone in New Zealand. “Being in America, people judge you on your merits rather than having in the back of their mind, ‘Oh, this guy’s Maori.’ I haven’t had to deal with my race for four years. It’s ironic to come to a place that has huge racial problems, and feel liberated from racism.”

On a perfect January evening in 2015, filled with fairy-lights and champagne flutes, several hundred people gathered to celebrate Colin Carruthers’ 70th birthday. There were judges and journalists, business captains and politicians, men in daring shirts, women with sunburnt shoulders. But when his wife, Deborah Coddington, rose to speak, she ushered in from the marquee’s wings one final and unexpected guest – Kingi.

It was a chance for many to hear the story of how Carruthers had helped salvage a young guy’s life. And a chance for Kingi to publicly recognise Carruthers for that. It’s something he feels he can never do sufficiently, though the glass paperweight in swirling green that Kingi gave him after the appeal sits in Carruthers’ Wellington office.

“I chose this paperweight in particular because of the way it changes colour,” Kingi wrote to Carruthers in 2007. “When it’s holding down paper it appears dark, like the feelings you have when depressed. But if you lift it, the whole object lights up, showing that sometimes all someone needs is a helping hand. Thank you so much for the helping hand, Colin.”

The pair have kept in touch, with Carruthers taking pleasure in Kingi’s success. Both of them realise that but for a series of fortuitous connections – the mother who knew someone who knew someone who was married to a top lawyer who saw an injustice – things could have been completely different.

If he’d gone to prison, there’s a chance he would have rebelled, said stuff you to the world, and squandered his talent. Of course, he’d like to think he would have been better than that and proved you can achieve good things even after jail.

He currently lives in Ithaca, near New York, with his partner of five years, Hannah. Though only 28, his rugby appearances are now limited to social games, but he remains a mad All Blacks fan. Silver fern and New Zealand flags are strung up in his apartment.

While at Cornell, he’s rubbed shoulders with Nobel Prize winners, interned at the International Monetary Fund, and recently contributed a chapter to a book on New Zealand perspectives of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. With his PhD almost complete, he’s begun looking for jobs – but isn’t looking towards New Zealand. That’s partly to do with future opportunities lying abroad – but partly to do with what occurred in the past.

“I don’t want to go back and deal with all the bullshit of Collegiate families that pop up in every part of life in New Zealand and having this elephant in the room and knowing that they know and that I know and we don’t talk about it.”

Sadly, Kingi doesn’t think he’ll ever be free from the whole affair. The fact some continue to condemn him for what he did one night when he was 18, rather than consider what he did before or has achieved since, remains “a little stone in my shoe”.

It’s not helped by the fact the newspaper report of the assault is still one of the first things you see if you Google him. “And I don’t think there’ll be any difference in 10 years, unfortunately.” Since starting at Cornell, he’s returned to New Zealand only once.

Kingi’s name remained scratched from a Collegiate honours board for nearly 10 years. When North & South enquired about this, it mysteriously reappeared within days. Current headmaster Chris Moller was unable to say who was responsible for removing his name, or why it took so long to restore it, but would welcome Kingi back to the school. Craig Considine, who was headmaster at the time of the assault and now leads a private school in England, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Kara Kingi says what her son does in the future is anyone’s guess, but hopes he will draw on his Maori heritage and what’s happened to him. “He’s walked in the shoes – he’s owned the shoes – of someone who’s been through very difficult times, and I think that shapes you as a person. He has a huge sense of social justice.”

While everyone thinks justice is definable, in truth it’s subjective and hostage to future events. Kingi’s original lawyer, Lance Rowe, says that when he read the last line of Justice France’s judgment, about making the most of the opportunity he was giving them, “I thought to myself, you’re going to get repaid in spades, Judge. It’s my sincere wish he comes back to New Zealand at some stage and participates in public life in a way that really brings it home how much he has to offer.

“For a brief period he was a troubled kid, but you could see he was going to rise above it. It’s just such a great case for reminding us to not be so quick to judge if you don’t know all the facts.”

Rowe says it’s easy for those in the justice system to be jaundiced by the crimes they deal with, and the disheartening parade of reoffenders. “And it’s a wonderful reminder of the power of redemption, that there’s a real place for it. The media is dominated with bad stories of bad people who do bad things. And unfortunately people lose sight of the fact that really good people can make mistakes. Human frailty is universal.”