Finally, an apology before life terms for murder begins

Heath Eric Morris has finally apologised to the family of the 20-year-old he bashed to death in his sleep, just before he began his life term at his sentencing in the High Court at Christchurch.

The defence counsel for the 19-year-old, James Rapley QC told the court: “He has asked me to say how sorry he is for causing such extreme loss to the family and friends.”

Mr Rapley told Justice Rachel Dunningham that the teenager “accepts his punishment”, before she imposed a life term for murder with a non-parole term of 13 years 6 months.

Family members of the victim Oliver Johnston said as the sentencing began that they had so far seen no indications from Morris of any remorse in the 10 months since the murder.

Justice Dunningham said reports showed Morris had been using alcohol and taking cannabis and ecstasy. This had resulted in him needing medical treatment twice. It had led to paranoia, and he was also diagnosed with stomach pains caused by stress, and social anxiety and depression.

She said it had been a “brutal, unprovoked attack on someone who thought you were his friend”.

She reduced his non-parole term because of his youth, his medical issues, and his guilty plea.

But she warned that the Parole Board would not consent to his release until the causes of his offending were addressed. “It will be difficult to reach that threshold.”

Four victim impact statements were read in court.

The victim, Oliver Johnston, was described as a talented musician, playing piano and singing for his grandmother when he visited her at her rest home. Since his death “the house seems errily quiet without live music happening anymore”. He had learned the saxophone and taught himself to play piano.

He had been friendly and outgoing and had been helping disabled skiers at Mount Hutt. He had been presented with a Duke of Edinburgh Award after his death.

Family members told the court Oliver Johnston was kind and caring, with a zest for life. He was trusting of everybody. One said she believed that some people had taken advantage of his naivety and vulnerability.

One said: “The magnitude of Heath’s betrayal felt overwhelming.”

They believed that Morris should be kept in prison “for a considerable amount of time” and not released until he had undergone rehabilitation with the right support and guidance, when he could be safely reintegrated back into society.

Justice Dunningham told family members they had honoured Oliver Johnston with the poise and dignity they had shown in reading their victim impact statement.

Morris bashed Mr Johnston to death while he slept at a property in Woodend after a party they had attended in a paddock near a forest in Webbs Road, Amberley, that had been organised on Facebook.

They arrived independently about 7pm. From then until 1am, Morris drank 12 Woodstock bourbon and cola pre-mixed drinks. There had been a confrontation with another group at the party.

Morris had repeatedly spoken about killing Mr Johnston as they drove from the party to where they spent the night.

The force of the blows broke Mr Johnston’s skull in several places, and broke his jaw and cheek bone. The injuries ,were not survivable.

Crown prosecutor Barnaby Hawes said the pre-sentence report on Morris provided no real explanation and the “terrible crime” remained unexplained.

Defence counsel James Rapley QC said Morris’ family were at a loss to explain his actions. The probation officer’s report had noted “some remorse and insight” into the offending. He said he was sorry for the victim and wished he could “rewind” the night.