Haami Hanara was 14 when he was sentenced to life for murder. He has foetal alcohol syndrome and can’t read or write. Was he fit to stand trial? Connie Buchanan was at his appeal hearing at the Court of Appeal in Wellington recently.
In the Court of Appeal recently, three judges and four lawyers spent a morning poring over still images from a CCTV camera.
The frozen frames captured a group of kids on a stupid mission. Their plan was to crack open a chiller out the back of a local pub and nick some booze. They turned up at night on BMX bikes. They had a knife to wrench open the fridge.
Unexpectedly, there was a man in the yard, hunting for cigarette butts with a torch. Things started out friendly, but soon the kids were throwing rocks and the man was biffing back beer bottles. There was a challenge to a fight to settle things down. No weapons, said one of the kids. But within minutes, the man was dead, stabbed four times with the knife.
Transposed through CCTV to the courtroom, the murder is like an awful school play. When the action begins, the scene is well-lit. The main characters, five kids and a man, can be seen talking and then scrapping. At the crucial moment, two key actors — the man and the youngest boy — step into a shaded area.
They are concealed in darkness for 33 seconds. Only the boy reappears, with what appears to be the knife in his hand and blood on his shoes. Off in the wings, a man is dying. The plot seems obvious. Anyone watching can fill in the blanks.
The boy stood trial. An assistant sat next to him, drawing pictures to help him understand. There was a plan for what he would say in the witness box. Still, when the crucial moment came, the boy said he didn’t know, wasn’t sure, couldn’t remember.
“I can’t get any sense from Haami,” one of his lawyers wrote in an alarmed note to another.
The evidence was a disastrous departure from what the boy had said after the incident, and what he was supposed to tell the jury, too — that the stabbing was an accident after the man tried to smash them all with a bottle.
“Afterwards, he said to me, ‘How did I go?’, and he almost appeared happy. I didn’t think it was fair on him to say he had ruined our chances,” the trial lawyer later said.
Haami Hanara was convicted of murder, aged 14.
He thought he’d been sentenced to 10 days in prison. An adult had to explain that the judge had actually said life in prison, with a non-parole period of 10 years.
Later, in the Court of Appeal, this inability to understand things took centre stage. Had Haami Hanara been fit to stand trial?
The appeal judges listened to experts and read background reports on Haami’s struggles and difficulties. They questioned two sets of lawyers. One side argued that he wasn’t capable of proper participation in his trial, and the others said Haami was sufficiently on the ball for the conviction to stick.
On the second to last day, there was a long and tangled discussion about the moments leading up to the final confrontation, about how Haami came to be the one with the knife, and whether a glint of light in the CCTV images was a moth or the blade. After a couple of hours of this, no one seemed quite sure of the point.
Finally, the Crown prosecutor, trying to move things along, said: “It doesn’t matter what happened up until he goes into the shadows. What matters is what happened in that 33 seconds.”
But what happened before Haami stepped into the shadows does, of course, matter.
He was visible for 14 years, his trajectory toward that half a minute of darkness illuminated in ways that widen culpability for the twin tragedies of a murdered man and a boy locked in adult prison.
Plenty of light is shone on children like Haami before they offend. They have files, case numbers, and expert assessments written about their specific predicaments and prospects. As a group, their descriptions, statistics and risk profiles fill official reports. The things they have in common are well-known and well-described.
They’re often born to mothers who are ill with addictions. They get diagnosed with foetal alcohol syndrome, intellectual disabilities and neuro-behavioural disorders.
Their families are sapped by poverty and trauma that often goes back generations, with deep traceable roots to colonial violence. They have at least one parent who’s been in the justice system, too. They are assigned social workers and get moved in and out of state care. They struggle at school and fall far behind. They want to be different and do better. Prison won’t help with any of these things, but it’s where they end up.
All of these things are part of Haami’s story.
The Court of Appeal judges appeared surprised that the jury in the murder trial was never told about his foetal alcohol syndrome. They appeared surprised that no expert gave evidence about his significant cognitive issues, his severe memory deficits, his problems with recall, communication, decision-making and impulse control. They wondered aloud if knowing these things might have helped the jury determine if he was lying, or not lying, when he said he couldn’t remember.
One of the appeal judges asked why the information wasn’t presented. The trial lawyer replied that he thought the jury would’ve assumed Haami faced such difficulties, because of his “cultural and social” background.
It seemed, even in a hearing about murder, the most shocking moment of the day.
It was an admission of how the raw failure to address the known causes of child offending has scabbed over into racist generalisations.
It was a reminder of how much easier it is to say “that’s just how those people are” than it is to pick away the crust and ask “who among us allowed this to happen again?”
Because another way to describe children like Haami is to say that their lives are full of missed opportunities for adults to make a long-term difference. They suffer from authorities that don’t talk to each other, from underfunding of the experts who could help them, from chronic delays in responding to their medical needs, from badly executed strategies and plans that result in uncoordinated and ineffective services.
If they are Māori, which many of them are, they suffer further from Māori organisations not being resourced and empowered to care for them in kaupapa Māori ways — using methods that set out to heal intergenerational pain, not just react to immediate risk.
These things are all part of Haami’s story, too.
During the same week that the Court of Appeal heard Haami’s case in Wellington, the movie Muru played in a theatre down the road. The title was a reminder that other ways of doing justice exist.
Muru is a collective response to someone doing wrong. It is tikanga that in pre-colonial days was used to resolve offences like a marriage break-up, a serious accident that threatened life, parents’ negligence of a child, or the trampling of tapu.
A muru punished the wrongdoer’s community, through ritual plunder, and it ended in their restoration to society. Its purpose was to have others take their share in a failing, to reinforce the severity of an offence, and to reconfirm relationships and restore balance.
In the Court of Appeal, the registrar used te reo Māori to tell the people present to sit and stand, reading the short sentences off a piece of paper each time. Swirls of koru and kupu Māori decorated a frosted door downstairs. The court itself is officially called Te Kōti Pīra o Aotearoa.
A skin of tikanga lies over the justice system, but the meat of it has been scraped away.
Imagine, said a kuia in one of the many reports about children like Haami, if authorities applied the same tikanga to tamariki as they do to reptiles and insects.
She gave an example of the Department of Conservation taking great care over tika ways of doing things when a group of native lizards was discovered in her area.
The lizards were at risk and needed to be moved to a safer spot. Iwi were asked to find the correct new habitat and to arrange for the transfer. There was protocol to release the lizards from where they were, more protocol to formally accept them in their new residence. Everything happened iwi to iwi. The right people with the right whakapapa took control so the placement would take and the lizards would thrive.
“They did it with blimmin’ lizards,” said the kuia. “So, we’re saying let’s do this with babies.”
“Don’t send them in a car with Oranga Tamariki,” she said. “Let’s do this formally — as formally as you do for birds.”
The report in which she said these things is called, plainly, How we fail children who offend and what to do about it — a breakdown across the whole system.
Just as the problems are well-described, so are the solutions. They all call for action far earlier in an at-risk child’s life. Often they boil down to handing over much more power and resources to those who are far more connected to the communities from which these kids emerge. Allowing the right people with the right whakapapa to take control, as if the child is a rare lizard or a precious bird.
“Fixing trauma isn’t something the Crown, or any agency, can do for Māori. Fixing requires resources, so we can bring our own healing back,” says Linda Tuhiwai Smith.
Haami Hanara is waiting for the outcome of his appeal.
He wasn’t in Wellington to hear his struggles and mental capacity picked over and debated, to hear the judges refer repeatedly to his severe deficits, his impairments, his disabilities, his brain damage. Nor to hear himself also described as hardworking, eager to please, willing to talk to anyone, very naive with an endearing nature; as a kid who always tried his best with whatever task was given to him.
His legal team thought it better that he stayed away, concerned that the arguments and complexities would be too much and he’d take hope or despair from the wrong things.
During the murder trial, the court provided a communications assistant to help Haami follow along. He drew pictures because Haami can’t read or write. At one point though, the assistant did jot something down.
“When are they going to find out?” he scribbled to himself in the margins, referring to all the things the jury hadn’t been told about Haami.
The fact they never did find out may, or may not, matter in the decision that the Court of Appeal makes about the conviction.
Either way, the time for that context to really count was long before a murder trial. It mattered most in the years before a boy stepped into the shade and a man was killed.
Haami is 17 now. No one sought suppression, and his name and photograph are out there under the words Teen Killer and Teen Murderer. He’s been in Christchurch men’s prison for three years so far.
“By this stage, you can see Haami has disappeared from the light, he’s now in the shadows and is invisible,” said a lawyer as he looked at one of the CCTV images.
Justice takes the form of punishment for a child’s 33 seconds in darkness.
It should demand the rest of us take our share for the things that happened during the 14 years we could see him.
Connie Buchanan is an E-Tangata writer and editor. This piece was made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund, through NZ On Air.
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