There can be no doubt that the killing of 78-year-old John Rowe was brutal. Rowe was in bed recuperating from an ulcerated leg and due to return to hospital for treatment the following day, when 16-year-old Courtney Pauline Churchward and 14-year old Lori-Lea Waiora Te Wini beat him to death with his own walking stick and a broom handle. Mr Rowe’s death was not quick. Churchward, the senior partner in this murderous duo, testified that she stood by Rowe’s bed for a good two minutes ‘trying to prepare myself. Then I just hit him. He tried to get up. I hit him again. He was still trying to get up. I hit him again and again.’ Rowe’s fully-clothed body was found the next morning by a neighbour. His face and head were extensively bruised and torn. His left arm was broken and his right arm badly damaged. His fingers were torn and broken, injuries apparently consistent with attempting to ward off blows. Blood was spattered around his bedroom walls and ceiling.
‘Brutal’ – the word barely does the killing justice.
On Friday, December 18, in the High Court in Rotorua, Justice Geoffrey Venning sentenced Churchward, now 18, and Te Wini, now 15, to each serve at least 17 years in prison. He refused to make allowances for Te Wini’s age by imposing a lesser non-parole period than Churchward’s.
‘Brutal’ – the word barely does the sentence justice.
Let us set aside the issue of retribution for a moment and look at the sentence in purely pragmatic terms. What social or other purpose does it serve? Will it deter anyone else from committing murder? Absolutely not. As long ago as 1975 a Justice Department research paper on violent offending concluded: ‘It is doubtful whether this kind of conduct is readily responsive to deterrent sanctions. Explosive behaviour does not dwell on consequences, and some countries with the most severe punishments for violence have the highest incidence of violent offending.’
We are now one of those countries.
And what about rehabilitation? Will 35-year-old Churchward and 33-year-old Te Wini walk through the prison gates in 2026 having been given, in His Honour’s words, ‘more life skills in prison than you received at home’? Will they be ready to rejoin society as mentally healthy, reformed, productive citizens? Get real! 17 years with little or no contact with the outside world. 17 years associating almost exclusively with other offenders. 17 years learning not the skills but the tricks of the trade. 17 years without the warmth and comfort of family, friends or lovers. 17 years in an environment where all personal decision-making, all individuality, all self-worth are taken from you. 17 years in prison cells, counting off the 204 months, the 884 weeks, the 6,205 days of your life that are draining away.
I looked at the photographs of Churchward and Te Wini in the Herald and thought they looked like children. Churchward is beautiful and looks defiant. Te Wini has her hand over her mouth. You might think she was sucking her thumb. She looks frightened. I wondered what strategies they could devise to survive those 6205 days behind bars and could only come up with numbness or rage. If I were Mr Rowe’s relatives I might well hate Churchward and Te Wini. I might want them to rot in hell. But, curiously, they showed more compassion than Justice Venning. ‘We realise these girls are daughters, sisters, nieces,’ Mr Rowe’s daughter, Wendy, told reporters, ‘We feel for their families.’ The police agreed.. ‘It is a tragedy for them and their families as much as it is for the victim and his family,’ Detective Inspector Rob Jones said after the verdict. But the tragedy for these girls goes back further than the killing of Mr Rowe. The court heard that both Churchward and Te Wini had lived transient lifestyles, moving homes regularly between relatives in different cities. Since being expelled from school at 13 Te Wini had spent most of her time sleeping or smoking cannabis. She had told a probation officer she ate only once every three days. By 14 she had had two relationships with gang members and suffered from a stress disorder.
A pre-sentencing report on Churchward said she was intelligent, ‘full of promise’ and, in other circumstances, could have led a completely different life. She had been abused by an older relative and lived in an abusive relationship with a man recently released from prison. In his homily to the girls at sentencing, Justice Venning appeared to understand where the seat of this tragedy really lay – in the girls’ family and social backgrounds: ‘You are victims of the failure of your own families to provide any sort of direction, support or encouragement to learn any sort of values. They failed you in the most basic of ways.’ Yet neither the girls’ youth nor their backgrounds moved him to show either mercy or compassion towards the teenagers he had just described as ‘victims’. Instead he chose to meet brutality with brutality. His sentence of life imprisonment with a non-parole period of 17 years was in the finest Old Testament tradition of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. In return for taking away Mr Rowe’s life, he took away the lives of two young women, not physically but in every other sense.
There is, of course, a dilemma here. Though punishment rarely deters other than already law-abiding citizens, crime cannot go unpunished. Churchward and Te Wini had to be punished. But punishment need not involve the total destruction of the perpetrator. Does Justice Venning really believe that these girls needed 17 years to learn their lesson? Might they not have learned it in 15, or 10, or 5? Might they not have learned it on the day of their arrest or as they stood in the dock listening to His Honour’s homily, that starring moment, so loved of judges, the media and us, their audience? I think they might. I don’t know what sentence would have been appropriate for these young killers. But its aim should have been twofold – to satisfy society’s need to punish wrongdoing and to save something from the wreckage of their lives. By his 17 year sentence Justice Venning satisfied the first but rendered the second impossible.