One murder verdict, two manslaughter in prison trial

File image. © Andrew Bardwell
File image. © Andrew Bardwell

A 23-year-old inmate has been found guilty of the murder of prisoner Benton Marni Parata and two others have been convicted of his manslaughter.

The verdicts were met with a muted cheer, tears and hugs, at the end of the highly charged nine-day trial in the High Court at Christchurch.

Ten Corrections officers, police, and court security staff were inside the court room for the verdicts, but the public gallery accepted the verdicts with calmness and dignity.

Early in the week, Justice Gerald Nation issued a behaviour warning to the crowded public gallery, and reassured jury members who may have been concerned about their security after witnessing an altercation between factions outside the court.

After the verdicts, Parata’s mother, Maria Parata, hugged the police who had driven the investigation and trial over the March 2015 death after a bashing in prison. She said outside the Court House that she was happy with the verdicts.

She said it had been an extremely long process. “It was a horrific thing. How could they do that? No-one deserves that. He (Benton) was so kind. He just helped everyone and anyone.”

Akuhatua Tihi admitted carrying out the prison cell assault that caused the head injuries from which Benton Parata died in hospital five days later. He would have admitted manslaughter, but the jury found him guilty of murder.

Levi Hohepa Reuben, 21, entered the cell at the time of the assault and the jury found him guilty of manslaughter.

Steven Betham, 37, was only in a cell for about 20 seconds after the bashing had evidently taken place. The Crown said he had acted as the look-out for the other two. The jury found him guilty of manslaughter.

Justice Nation convicted all three and remanded them in custody for sentencing on September 2, and ordered pre-sentence reports. The Crown will inquire whether a restorative justice meeting can take place between the three men and Parata’s family before the sentencing.

The court was told that Reuben’s family knows the Parata family quite well.

Benton Parata’s younger brother, Sharne Parata, said they were a close family and the trial process had brought them even closer together. They had sat together all through the trial to support and encourage each other. Benton’s mother had been there, and brothers, sisters, aunties, including family members from Australia.

The trial had raised terrible things like gang affiliations, but the family had never had links “to that side of life”.

They had greeted the verdicts with relief, he said. “Whether it happened on a street corner or a prison cell, no-one deserved what happened to Benton. We were glad it came out in court.”

The defence had made much of the culture of violence in Christchurch Men’s Prison’s Rawhiti wing, where the inmates were tough and fights happened often. They argued that fights like this one happened every day, but people did not die.

Benton Parata, 44, received serious head injuries in the assault, but had continued for some time afterwards including making efforts to clean up his cell – which also destroyed most of the blood-spatter evidence left after the attack.

He was found in the cell later, badly injured and his condition deteriorated as medical staff worked on him and took him to hospital where he remained in a coma until his death.

Phil Shamy appeared as defence counsel for Tihi, James Rapley for Reuben, and Kerry Cook for Betham. Deidre Orchard appeared for the Crown.

The jury deliberated for about six hours before delivering its verdicts.

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