'Black Widow' Helen Milner gets life for husband's murder

  • Breaking
  • 19/02/2014

The Christchurch woman who poisoned her husband and presented his death as a suicide has been sentenced to life in prison with a minimum non-parole period of 17 years - but Philip Nisbet's sister says she will make sure his killer never gets out of jail.

Helen Milner – known as the 'Black Widow' – was found guilty in a High Court trial last year of murdering her husband, Mr Nisbet. The jury also found the 50-year-old guilty of a charge of attempted murder for a failed poisoning carried out a month before her husband's eventual death.

Opening his submissions in the Christchurch High Court this morning, Crown prosecutor Brent Stanaway asked Justice David Gendall to order a minimum non-parole period of at least 18 years.

The punishment was deserved as Milner killed without provocation, Mr Stanaway said, and planned the murder for months before actually carrying out the killing.

Defence lawyer Rupert Glover argued an appropriate punishment would be a minimum period of 10 years, saying anything more would not fit the actual circumstances of the crime.

Milner did not cause her husband to suffer for a prolonged period of time, he argued.

Poisoning a 'despicable crime'

Justice Gendall described Milner's offending as a "despicable crime" and a tragedy as he handed down the sentence this morning.

"This was a carefully planned and carefully executed murder," he told the court. "Death by poisoning has always been seen as the most despicable of crimes.

"Mr Nisbet was particularly innocent with no clear indication other than a monetary incentive as to why he was killed."

While noting Milner had long struggled with depression and anxiety, the judge said there was no suggestion her actions had been driven by major mental illness.

"To the family and friends here today, nothing I can say or do will take away from this tragedy," he said. "The sympathy of this court is with you."

'My son, I will always love you'

A number of members of Mr Nisbet's extended family also addressed the court this morning, outlining their grief in a series of victim impact statements.

Sister Lee-Anne Cartier told of the years of turmoil as she conducted her own investigation into the death, which forced her family to move from the Australia to New Zealand.

"Helen's murdering actions have taken up so much of my headspace," she said. "Helen has taken away so many future memories we would have had.

"[She] has not only taken my brother from me, she has also taken years from my elderly parents' lives, shortening the time I will have from my parents."

A statement from Mr Nisbet's 81-year-old father James was also read to the court, detailing the "nightmare" he had endured over the last few years.

"I love my son with all my heart," the statement read. "We welcomed Helen into our family and treated her as one of her own. We stayed with her after Phil's death and all grieved together.

"To my son, I will always love you and miss you.

"I feel helpless and there is nothing I can do, I do not wish this tragedy on anybody."

'She will never walk the streets again'

Mr Nisbet's family gave a short statement to the media waiting outside court this morning, thanking the police for their work and promising to do what they could to keep Milner behind bars for life.

Carrying her brother's ashes in a small container, Ms Cartier said she was pleased with the 17 years minimum non-parole.

"It was a just sentence, we're happy with the sentence," she said. "He can now rest in peace because it's over – he's got closure, we've got closure.

 "We'd like to thank everyone for their support through this, the police's hard work and bringing her home, the wonderful jury who came here every day and listened to it and came back with the verdict.

Ms Cartier also promised to attend every parole board hearing, saying Milner will "never walk the streets of New Zealand again".

Mr Nisbet's younger brother Andrew also aired his thanks, saying he was "finally pleased to have justice".

Milner continues to deny the murder

Milner continues to deny the killing and may yet appeal her sentence, her defence team says.

"She's fine, she's just taking stock of her situation obviously it's a difficult thing to face," lawyer Rupert Glover said outside court. "At this stage she does [deny the murder].

"She had to expect life imprisonment obviously. None of us knew how long the non-parole period would be but I'll just wait for further instructions from her as to whether she wants to do anything more."

In May 2009, Milner crushed antihistamine Phenergan tablets - a drug her husband was allergic to - into his meal before leaving him to die, and possibly suffocating him.

The Crown told the jury Milner had her eye on a life insurance payout and wanted to save money on a messy divorce.

Milner staged the scene to look like a suicide, leaving empty Phenergen containers near Mr Nisbet's body, writing false suicide notes and making a tearful call to emergency services.

Police initially ruled his death an intentional overdose. A coroner later raised a number of concerns, prompting police to launch a homicide inquiry.

Milner will be 67 years old before she is eligible for parole.

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