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Steven Wallace: Inquest Delayed

12 June 2001

The Hamilton Coroner, Gordon Matenga, has today released his decision regarding the inquest into the death of Steven Wallace (shot and killed by a police officer in Waitara on 30 April 2000). The inquest remains adjourned, and a further meeting to discuss it will be held on 10 September 2001.

This alert is in five parts: Background,   The issues involved The decision Where to now? and What you can do.


The New Plymouth Coroner, Roger Mori, announced in March that the inquest into Steven’s death would begin on 21 May. Subsequently, the lawyer acting for the three police officers involved applied to have the inquest adjourned until Steven’s family have made a decision as to whether or not they will take a private prosecution against any or all of the officers. That application was due to be heard on 27 April, but the hearing was adjourned until 21 May. Roger Mori then announced that he had asked the Hamilton Coroner, Gordon Matenga, to take over the inquest. For more detail about this, see Update: Steven Wallace inquest.

On 21 May 2001, George Matenga met in New Plymouth with legal counsel for all involved to consider the application for adjournment of the inquest and other matters.

The issues involved

At the meeting on 21 May, Susan Hughes, acting for the three police officers, argued that it would be plainly improper and an abuse of process to compel someone to give evidence on oath at an inquest only to have that evidence subsequently used against them.

QC John Rowan, acting on behalf of Steven’s family, opposed the application on the grounds that any such prejudice could be overcome by each constable refusing to answer questions which may incriminate themselves. He also said that the Wallace family would not give any assurance about a private prosecution.

In considering these arguments, the first matter to be taken into account was whether the Coroner can postpone opening an inquest, or adjourn an inquest, under these circumstances; and Gordon Matenga cites Section 28 of the Coroners Act (1988) as providing that power.

Under Section 28, subsection 1, the Act states: “a coroner to whom a death has been reported may postpone opening an inquest into the death, open an inquest into the death and then adjourn it, or adjourn an inquest already opened into the death, if the coroner - a) has been informed that some person has been or may be charged with a criminal offence relating to the death or its circumstances; and b) is satisfied that to open or (as the case requires) proceed with the inquest might prejudice the person; - and in that case the coroner shall not open or proceed with the inquest until criminal proceedings have been finally concluded.”

Subsection 4 allows for a coroner to open or resume an inquest “if satisfied that to do so would not prejudice the person charged or thought likely to be charged with a criminal offence relating to a death or its circumstances.”

There were four further issues which were then considered:

  1. Whether the inquest was already open - yes, it had been opened by Roger Mori, New Plymouth Coroner, and then adjourned by him;

  2. Whether the police had investigated the circumstances of the death - yes, and they had decided that no criminal prosecution would be taken by them against anyone involved;

  3. Whether there would be a private prosecution - still uncertain, but Steven’s family have made it clear that they are considering the possibility. This then brings the matter back to Section 28, subsection 1 a), that the coroner has been informed that some person may be charged with a criminal offence relating to the death or its circumstances;

  4. Whether proceeding with the inquest would be prejudicial to the constables involved - Gordon Matenga describes this as the crucial issue. He points out that while each constable could refuse to answer questions which may incriminate themselves, this would turn the inquest into a farce as they could refuse to answer questions which are crucial to the purpose of an inquest as defined in Section 15 of the Act. Section 15 describes the purpose of an inquest as follows:

    “Section 15, 1) - the coroner holds an inquest for the purpose of - a) Establishing, as far as is possible - i) that a person has died; and ii) the person’s identity; and iii) when and where the person died; and iv) the causes of the death; and v) the circumstances of the death; and b) making any recommendations or comments on the avoidance of circumstances similar to those in which the death occurred, or on the manner in which any persons should act in such circumstances, that, in the opinion of the coroner, may if drawn to public attention reduce the chances of the occurrence of other deaths in such circumstances.”

The decision

As Section 28 subsection 1, b) says that proceeding with the inquest ‘might’ prejudice the person, a minimal requirement, and taking into account the other points outlined above, Gordon Matenga granted the application for adjournment.

However, as he points out, all parties are in agreement that the matter cannot be adjourned indefinitely, and he therefore specified that the inquest be adjourned until 10 September 2001 at which time the situation will be reviewed, and if at all possible, a date will be set for the hearing of evidence. Decisions on other matters which were raised at the meeting on 21 May will be announced by Gordon Matenga immediately prior to 10 September.

Where to now?

While George Matenga’s actions may be limited by the requirements of the legislation governing the powers of a coroner, this further adjournment is altogether unsatisfactory in a number of ways.

Firstly, there is the delay in the delivery of justice for Steven’s family and friends, and indeed for everyone who has concerns about any police officer seeming to be unaccountable for their actions which have caused harm or death. It is now more than thirteen months since Steven was killed - just how long do people have to wait for justice?

Secondly, there is the way in which the possibility that Steven’s family will take a private prosecution is being used to justify the lack progress in the official channels - which might have reasonably been expected to have properly investigated this matter by now.

The Police Complaints Authority is using the possibility of private prosecution and the delay in the inquest as reasons for their failure to deliver their Report. As we said in an alert earlier this year: “It is grossly unfair that the burden of progress in this matter is being portrayed as contingent on action by Steven’s whänau. The restrictive Act which governs the PCA’s activities does put the PCA in an inferior position in relation to the courts when a matter under PCA investigation is also the possible subject of criminal proceedings. However, a PCA inquiry does not necessarily need to wait on a Coroner’s Report - the role of the PCA is to investigate whether or not the police actions which lead to Steven’s death were unlawful; not to determine the manner of death which is undisputed in this instance.” (Peace Movement Aotearoa, 18 January 2001).

It is clear to us, although perhaps not to the authorities, that if the official channels do not or cannot ensure accountability for the actions of police officers, then obviously the only option left to Steven’s family will be to take a private prosecution. The simplest way to rule out their need to do that would be to get on with the remaining official reports - the inquest and the PCA Report. At that point (we would hope) there would be no need for a private prosecution because justice would have been done.

Thirdly, this whole argument about the inquest possibly being prejudicial to the police officers involved in Steven’s death is extraordinary; as is their lawyer’s argument that it is an abuse of process to compel someone to give evidence on oath at an inquest only to have that evidence subsequently used against them.

If the police officers are confident that they did nothing unlawful, as the police homicide investigation report went to great lengths to ‘prove’, then why do they have a problem with giving evidence at the inquest?

The deep misgivings about the lawfulness of the actions which led to Steven’s death, which have been covered in previous Peace Movement Aotearoa alerts and updates, in Moana Jackson’s analysis of the police homicide report, in the TKM productions documentary screened in February on TV1 and elsewhere, were again raised in ‘60 Minutes’ shown last Sunday on TV1.

The most inexplicable aspect of the shooting, that less than one and a half minutes after two of the police officers went and got guns Steven lay dying in the street, was highlighted again by the former police officers interviewed on ‘60 Minutes’. This extremely short time period between the two events has always appeared to have been a total breach of the principles of the Police Response to Armed Offenders which are to ‘cordon and contain’ and ‘wait and appeal (negotiate)’ and to use the minimum force necessary and reasonable. Frank Saunders (a former Santa Monica police sergeant) in particular was very clear that these rules were not followed - rather, that Constable Abbot had forced a confrontation unnecessarily.

From the evidence in the police homicide report, Frank Saunders concluded that at no time was Steven close enough to Constable Abbot to be a direct threat to him. He described the police inquiry as being designed to justify the killing of Steven rather than to investigate and solve the crime which would be the usual focus of a police homicide investigation.

It is imperative that these, and the many other, questions raised by this police shooting should be addressed without further delay. The Police Complaints Authority are unlikely to progress this matter without the inquest first being held; and it now looks as if the inquest will not be proceeding before September at the very earliest.

It seems the only way forward at this point in time is to increase the pressure on the government to establish an independent inquiry and to do it now. This situation of injustice cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely.

What you can do

  1. Continue to voice your concerns: the most crucial thing you can do at this time is to continue to raise your concerns about Steven’s death, and about the serious lack of resolution. You can also continue to demand an independent inquiry into the shooting (see also 2 below). Raise these issues with your local MP, or with list MPs who live in your area; write to the politicians and mass media listed in the contact details below. If you need a reminder of some of the questions raised by Steven’s death, and the sequence of events since then, you can check out the Peace Movement Aotearoa alerts and updates, and various other reports listed on this index page

    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.

    Contact details for mass media:

    • Christchurch Press, fax (03) 364 8492 ;
    • Dominion, fax (04) 4740257;
    • Evening Post, fax; (04) 474 0237 ;
    • New Zealand Herald, fax (09) 373 6434 ;
    • Sunday Star Times, fax (09) 309 0258;
    • Press Association, fax (04) 473 7480;
    • Radio New Zealand, fax (04) 473 0185;
    • Listener, fax (09) 360 3831,

  2. Circulate and sign the petition calling for an independent inquiry into Steven’s death: the petition is available here or you can get a paper copy from Peace Movement Aotearoa.

  3. Continue to support Steven’s family - send them a note of sympathy and support, let them know that you have not forgotten Steven and that they are not alone with their grief and longing for justice. Post to the Wallace Whänau, 80 Broadway, Waitara 4320.

  4. Support the Steven Wallace Independent inquiry Fund - the fund was established to help with legal costs and expenses incurred by Steven’s family (including those arising from their private independent investigation into the police actions which resulted in Steven’s death), and to campaign for possible changes to the law and to police procedures. If you wish to make a contribution to the fund, please refer to the updated details on this page.

    "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)

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