Update: Steven Wallace, Private Prosecution
Update: Steven Wallace, Private Prosecution
3 October 2001
On 6 September a private prosecution for murder was brought against Constable Abbot, the police officer who shot Steven Wallace on 30 April 2000, by Steven’s father Jim Wallace.
At that time, more than sixteen months after Steven’s death, no progress had been made towards justice by the official bodies whose duty it is to investigate the actions of police officers which result in harm or death. ‘Fatally wounded at Waitara’, the report of the police homicide investigation into Steven’s death released on 16 August 2000, raised more questions about the shooting than it answered; neither the Police Complaints Authority investigation nor the Coroner’s Inquest have yet been completed. Rather than repeat again the questions raised by Steven’s death, and the sequence of events since then, you could refer to the previous Peace Movement Aotearoa alerts and updates which, along with other reports, are listed on the index page at www.converge.org.nz/pma/steven.htm
The charge laid on 6 September in the New Plymouth District Court is the first private murder charge laid against a serving police officer. Police spokespersons responded by saying it had “put the officer under a lot of stress” and the Police Association described it as “totally unnecessary”. In relation to the first comment, that is precisely why the matter should have been dealt with properly and speedily after Steven’s death.
If a police officer who injures or kills someone ‘in the course of their duties’ were brought to court soon after incident occurred (in the same way other citizens are) then that would be better for all concerned. If, for example, a police officer over-reacted out of fear, or tiredness, or burnout, then that is something a jury would take into account. Surely it is better for any police officer, and their family and friends, as well as the family and friends of the person injured or killed by that officer’s action, to have all related facts and feelings aired, and for justice to be done for all concerned as soon as possible ?
Instead, in relation to Steven’s death, the lack of official remedy and speedy justice has added to the ‘stress’ for everyone. The initial and subsequent response from the police has been to close ranks, and to justify, rather than provide an adequate explanation for, the actions which led to Steven’s death. Which bring us to the second comment above - is the Police Association (as some of their previous comments have also suggested) saying that legal process and accountability for actions are issues which don’t apply to police officers?
The applications of the lawyers acting for Constable Abbot have further added to the sense that police officers are above, rather than accountable to, the law. Their applications to delay the inquest in May and June (see ‘Steven Wallace: Inquest delayed’, Peace Movement Aotearoa, 12 June 2001) on the grounds that the inquest may be prejudicial to the interests of the officers involved, and that it would be an abuse of process for the officers to be compelled to give evidence was extraordinary. Yet the same argument has been used in response to the private prosecution - “Our view is that this prosecution is without any foundation and that it would be an abuse of process to issue a summons and require Constable A to submit to a legal process.” (Paul Shearer, on behalf of Constable Abbot, reported in ‘The Daily News’, 11 September 2001).
Nevertheless, following the hearing of legal arguments, Judge Christopher Harding decided on 21 September that a summons would be issued to Constable Abbot requiring him to appear in the New Plymouth District Court. On 28 September, the date of his appearance was confirmed as 18 October.
What will happen next
Depositions will be held in the New Plymouth District Court, and the judge will decide if there is a case to be heard. If the decision is that there is, then the matter will go to the High Court for trial.
With regard to the Coroner’s Inquest, Gordon Matenga (Hamilton Coroner) announced on 10 September that the inquest is further adjourned pending the outcome of the prosecution. The Police Complaints Authority investigation is similarly on hold pending the outcome.
While the prosecution proceeds through the legal process in the specific matter of Steven’s death, the wider issues of police accountability remain unaddressed. Steven’s family should not have been forced, by lack of official progress, to bring a private prosecution in this matter. There has been no progress made on Justice Gallen’s review of the Police Complaints Authority late last year; no moves towards the establishment of an independent Police Complaints Authority with a mandate which allows for speedy investigation of any police officer’s actions which have caused harm or death. There has been no progress made towards involving Mäori in the oversight of police activity at the District level, one of the proposals put forward earlier this year in discussions about what could be done to prevent situations such as Steven’s death happening again in the future.
Given the level of suspicion that the Police Complaints Authority is incapable of doing anything other than defending police officers whose actions have lead to serious injury or death, perhaps there should be a complete re-think of the way such incidents are handled - instead of being subject to the PCA, perhaps as standard practice police officers too should appear in court to account for what they have done in the same way that anyone else would be required to. While there is no guarantee that the court process will bring justice for Steven’s family and friends, at least now there is a chance for all the issues surrounding his death to be brought into the open.
What you can do
Contact details for politicians: Phone and fax numbers (all to be prefixed by 04 by those of you out of Wellington): Helen Clark, Prime Minister, office - tel 471 9998, fax 473 3579; Jim Anderton, Deputy Prime Minister, office - tel 471 9011, fax 495 8441; Phil Goff, Minister of Justice, office - tel 471 9370, fax 495 8444; George Hawkins, Minister of Police, office - tel 470 6563, fax 495 8464; Nandor Tanczos Green Party Justice Spokesperson - tel 470 6712, fax 472 7116. Letters should be addressed to the relevant person and posted (no stamp needed) to Parliament Buildings, Wellington. If you can send us a copy of any correspondence you send, and of replies you receive, it is very helpful for our work.
"This is not just a Waitara tragedy, it was a national tragedy and one we must never allow to occur again." (from the Wallace Whänau Committee statement, June 2000)