The pressures that swirled around a witness in the Operation Rhino trials – including Canterbury Corrections staff apparently accessing his records – were detailed at a civil hearing where five people claim damages against the Crown.
The evidence was given by Detective Senior Sergeant Stuart McGowan of the Christchurch Police, who was second in charge of the burglary and receiving investigation that led to the trials in 2006 and 2007.
He gave the evidence on the second day of the hearing in the High Court at Christchurch before Justice Peter Churchman where five people who faced charges relating to Operation Rhino have lodged claims against the Crown over the presentation of its case. The main claimants are Vince James Clayton and Peter Lloyd Machirus.
They allege that the Crown prosecutor Pip Currie misled the court by failing to disclose to the trials – in spite of repeated defence requests – that the key Crown witness had been offered “inducements” in terms of a reduced sentence for his own offending.
The witness’ name is permanently suppressed.
The Court of Appeal eventually quashed the Operation Rhino convictions and ordered a retrial but it did not go ahead because the Crown opted to present no evidence.
Mr McGowan said the inquiry related to a series of burglaries of homes under construction. When the witness was arrested in 2005, he named and spoke about his co-offenders and offered to give evidence.
Police were aware of the level of risk he was exposing himself to by giving evidence.
That was reaffirmed when it was found that Canterbury Corrections staff had apparently accessed his records in a deliberate search. He was in custody at that time, charged with 26 offences of burglary, theft, receiving, and unlawfully taking a vehicle.
The police consented to his court matters being transferred to Wellington and liaised with Corrections about his safety. At his sentencing, the Wellington judge gave him a 50 percent discount on his jail sentence after being told of his co-operation.
Mr McGowan told of one Operation Rhino accused – not one of the plaintiffs in the High Court claim – making gestures to the witness at a depositions hearing indicating a throat-cutting motion and a pistol shot to the temple. The accused was warned about the intimidation by the Justices of the Peace conducting the hearing.
When the witness was being escorted by police detectives, other general remand prisoners called out to him, calling him a “nark”.
Police helped with his relocation and he was moved to the North Island. There, his home address was burgled and the transcript and brief of evidence at the Operation Rhino trials were the only items stolen. These were then distributed around the criminal fraternity, Mr McGowan said.
Another detective visited the witness while he was in prison, noting details of 25 to 30 other offences he admitted at the interview. These were handled as “custody clearance” offences and were not prosecuted.
Mr McGowan said people attending the trials when the witness gave evidence had been screened, and extra security had been provided in court.
The civil hearing is expected to last eight or nine days.