Murder or manslaughter?

The death of Taupo toddler Moko Rangitoheriri has again highlighted this country's appalling record of child abuse, but also raises questions about the judicial system.

In May, Tania Shailer and David Haerewa pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of Moko, instead of his murder, and this week they were sentenced to 17 years' jail with a minimum non-parole period of nine years.

The case, and subsequent sentence, has prompted a tsunami of anger throughout the country. Yes, the pair will be behind bars for a lengthy period and the sentence was the longest for manslaughter in New Zealand.

But had they been convicted of murder, and most believe they should have, the sentence would have been even heavier.

Demonstrators took to the streets on Monday in support of Moko, demanding harsher sentencing and an end to child abuse. This is a case, like that of Nia Glassie in 2007, which has outraged and sickened New Zealanders. How can such brutality towards children go undiscovered?

Three-year-old Moko, who was being cared for by Shailer and Haerewa, was subjected to prolonged abuse over many weeks. He was kicked, punched, bitten, thrown against walls and had faeces rubbed in his face.

When the pair finally called for medical assistance, claiming Moko had fallen from a wood pile, his injuries were so severe he was beyond saving. Shailer and Haerewa were initially charged with murder but after an extensive investigation the Crown accepted guilty pleas to the lesser charge of manslaughter.

That sparked national public outrage and opposition MPs and the Sensible Sentencing Trust launched scathing attacks at the justice system. Why was this pair not convicted of murder?, they demanded.

The sentences were far too lenient for such a heinous crime. The answer certainly to the latter is yes.

But, the decision to accept a manslaughter conviction has sound reasoning. Attorney-general Christopher Finlayson said the decision was motivated by the need to secure convictions for Moko's death and avoid the prospect of Shailer and Haerewa escaping punishment because of issues with evidence.

A decision to accept manslaughter over murder is not taken lightly and required the approval of the solicitor-general. The Crown was confident Shailer was the main offender and most likely directly responsible for Moko's most serious injuries.

However, the nature of Haerewa's involvement was less clear on the evidence available for trial.

Mr Findlayson said it was also relevant to the likelihood of securing a murder conviction that the injuries Moko suffered were not inevitably fatal. With reasonably prompt medical treatment, he could have been saved.

The jury would have had to decide if Shailer had "murderous intent'' when she inflicted the fatal injuries. If the jury was not satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt, neither she nor Haerewa could have been convicted of murder.

As difficult as it is to accept, Mr Findlayson's explanation does make some sense. Had one, or both, of these offenders walked free there would have been even more of a national outcry, and rightly so.

The Sensible Sentencing Trust has accused the justice system of allowing two killers to get away with murder and says the attorney-general should be fixing the system, not defending it.

But it is easy to hurl insults at those who make the difficult decisions. It is a safe bet most of the police and lawyers who worked gathering evidence and preparing the Crown case are parents.

Given what they uncovered they would surely have been trying their hardest to ensure a murder conviction would stick. When they realised it might not, manslaughter was the safest option.

Was justice found for Moko? On the face of it, you could argue no. But if his death goes even some way to curbing child abuse and opening our eyes to the signs of such abuse then maybe it was.

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