Alleged Christchurch gunman shouldn't face terrorism charge - legal expert

A legal expert says the alleged Christchurch gunman shouldn't have been charged with terrorism.

On Tuesday Police Commissioner Mike Bush announced the accused has been charged with engaging in a terrorist act - the first charge of its kind in New Zealand history.

Former law professor Bill Hodge says it's a "feel good charge".

"Everyone would say 'yes of course he's a terrorist and let's charge him with that'," he told Newshub.

"But my problem is that murder, that was the previous charge, is well understood, everyone knows the definition, whereas this terrorism suppression act has never been tested in a New Zealand court."

Labelling the defendant a terrorist would give him more of a platform to spread dangerous white supremacist beliefs, Hodge says.

"He will be able to say 'I'm going to give evidence and I'm going to say I'm a hero, not a terrorist. I'm here to help the civilian population not terrorise them. You should give me a medal, not a conviction and I'm going to read my manifesto'. So I think it's a platform and I think we're taking a risk that we really didn't need to take."

He acknowledges the unprecedented charge may be of some comfort to the relatives of the 51 people killed in the mosque shootings on March 15.

"I think it will be satisfying to the families because the word 'terrorism' sounds very good, but legally it's a risky step because it's going to be an invitation for him to read his manifesto and to use the trial as a platform, a megaphone to the media of the world. And I thought that's what we wanted to avoid."

However, Massey University professor Chris Gallavin disagrees. He told Newshub terrorism is a fitting charge for the man accused of killing 51 people in their place of worship.

"This is clearly 100 percent his modus operandi. The allegation fits an act of terrorism," he says.

"We have a principle under our criminal justice system that the offence that one is charged with ought to meet the nature of the crime that you have potentially or allegedly committed."

The alleged gunman now faces a total of 51 murder charges, 40 of attempted murder and one charge under the Terrorism Suppression Act.

But Hodge would like to see the trial procede on a single murder charge.

"It would be efficient, it would be clean, it would be no surprises. I'm not going to prejudice the outcome but if there's a conviction the sentence would be life, and the only issue would be the non-parole period. It doesn't matter whether there are other murders or other terrorism, the judge would have sufficient facts at the sentencing hearing to make the appropriate sentence.

"So we're not really gaining anything, we're not getting any further ahead with these extra charges. You can't add anything to a life sentence."