Moko's case prompts calls for legal reform

Moko's case prompts calls for legal reform

The brutal torture and death of three-year-old Moko Rangitoheriri has sparked outrage and protest marches around New Zealand.

Tania Shailer and her partner David Haerewa were originally charged with murder, but after a plea bargaining deal, the charges were reduced.

As his killers face sentencing, there has been universal condemnation over how the charges were downgraded from murder to manslaughter.

"Along with many, I am both appalled and bewildered by the decision to replace the charges of murder originally laid against Tania Shailer and David Haerewa for the killing of Moko Rangitoheriri with charges of manslaughter, to which the accused then pleaded guilty," writes the Sensible Sentencing Trust (SST).

"Clearly this came about by what is popularly known as a 'plea bargain'. It is unclear whether the prosecution or defence initiated the discussions which led to that deal. No one is talking."

Plea bargaining is the process where criminals have the option of pleading guilty to less serious charges, so the Crown avoids the lengthy and expensive process of going to trial.

Traditionally, Crown solicitors were paid per court day -- and, with the ability to decide whether to prosecute or negotiate with the defence, that created an incentive to go to court and drag cases out.

Now, plea bargain negotiations may be initiated by both the defence and the Crown. Crown solicitors are bulk funded -- so they are now encouraged to offer deals to move cases through the system as quickly as possible.

In Moko's case, it appears the negotiations were initiated by the Crown Solicitor at Rotorua -- something lawyers are struggling to understand.

"One criminal defence barrister with 25 years experience has said that if the facts are as reported, he would not even have bothered trying to get the charges against Moko's killers downgraded," said the SST in a statement.

"This should never have been a case where a plea deal was done," said Labour's Children's spokesperson Jacinda Ardern.

"I have looked over 40 cases of child abuse cases, and while manslaughter is a charge that features, it's unfathomable that the Crown Prosecutors used it in this case.

"Justice would have been better served by allowing this case to go to trial, and allowing a jury to decide."

National director of Family First NZ, Bob McCoskrie, said the fact that Moko's killers escaped murder charges shows the legal system is failing to protect children.

"Anybody who reads how little Moko was treated in his final days can see that this was intentional violent abuse with no surprise that death would be a consequence," he said.

"The message has to be clear -- if you violently abuse a child in such a way that it results in their death, then it will be treated as murder.

"Violent child abusers should not get manslaughter when the child victim gets a life sentence. Moko's case continues to set an ongoing and dangerous precedent for other child abuse cases."

Ultimately, the changes to the Criminal Procedure Act have allowed faster sentencing and given young offenders more options to avoid 'strike' offences. However, the failure to lay murder charges show the system needs reform.

The debate is now over which features of our plea bargaining system should be retained, and how justice should be linked to education, domestic violence funding, and rehabilitation.

Justice Minister Amy Adams has ordered a report into whether law changes are needed -- but that's no comfort for Moko's family.

"What sort of message would that be sending to New Zealand that you can kill a boy and be out in a few years' time?"