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Top cop related to discharged Abbott trial juror

6 December 2002

The prosecution wanted the Abbott trial stopped during the second week when it became known that one of the jurors was related by marriage to a top cop.

The identity of the juror and name and rank of the officer have been suppressed.

The trial ended in the High Court at Wellington on Wednesday with Keith Abbott, 48, being found not guilty of murder or manslaughter of Steven Wallace in Waitara on April 30, 2000.

Mr Wallace's father launched New Zealand's first private prosecution of a police officer for murder.

A high-ranked police officer, who regularly attended the trial, contacted the court when he realised his wife's cousin was on the jury. One of the prosecutors, Mike Behrens, QC, wanted the trial stopped and restarted before a new jury.

Instead Justice Chambers discharged the juror concerned. The juror was so unhappy with the situation his protests to court staff led to him being trespassed from the building.

It was understood he threatened to go to the media if he did not get a proper explanation. Justice Chambers saw the man privately and explained his reasons, apparently to the man's satisfaction.

The judge suppressed the circumstances till the trial was over.

The juror and the officer saw each other socially occasionally but did not discuss police business.

The judge said they had both acted with propriety at all times.

The judge said a fair-minded and informed member of the public may have a reasonable apprehension that the juror might be inclined to favour the defence.

The trial lost another juror, to illness, on the last day. Lawyers for both sides agreed to the trial continuing with 10.

The trial was first scheduled to take place in New Plymouth but was moved to Wellington because of prosecution fears that a Taranaki jury might not be seen as impartial.

It was revealed that police polled 77 Waitara businesses to see if they had any difficulty with Steven Wallace or his family. Justice Chambers said it was hard to see how a survey was relevant to whether Mr Abbott acted in self-defence.

" But the fact that such a widespread survey was carried out will have contributed to an impression that the Wallace family are on trial," the judge said.

In a ruling suppressed till the trial was over, Justice Chambers said an editorial in the local newspaper clearly allied itself with Mr Abbott's case. A readers' poll and letters to the editor showed a vehemence in views about the case.

New Plymouth had a relatively small pool of potential jurors, and Waitara was included in the jury area, so it would be hard for the lawyers to know who on the jury panel already held strong views or knew key players.

Justice Chambers said public meetings were held, and many in Taranaki had formed views on racial lines about the case.

He said it would be appalling if lawyers based their challenges to certain people sitting on the jury on blatant racial lines.

Dominion Post, © Independent Newspapers Limited 2002

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