When academics venture into the media to inform the public about their discipline, they have a basic obligation to be accurate in what they say. I'm afraid that Prof. Chris Gallavin has fallen short of this standard.

In an opinion piece published in Monday's NZ Herald, Professor Chris Gallavin made a number of suggestions as to how the Court of Appeal should respond to appeals by the killers of three-year-old “Baby Moko” against their 17-year jail sentences. He did so while labelled as "Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, at Massey University", so it's fair to say that his commentary was intended to carry the mana and credibility implied by his academic position. Those of us with the privilege of commenting from such vantages have attendant duties.

Given that, as reluctant as I am to publicly diss a fellow academic who has ventured into the media commentary game, Prof Gallavin's article so misrepresents both the criminal appeals process and reasons for the original manslaughter verdict that a response is necessary. In fact, I think it operates as an object lesson in the risks of academic commentators writing on contemporary topics without stopping and carefully asking themselves "is what I'm saying about this correct?"

Although it hardly needs saying, let's begin by acknowledging that the actions of those responsible for Baby Moko’s death, David Haerewa and Tania Shailer, were quite reprehensible. They have met with perfectly justified, widespread public condemnation.

And while they have a legal right to appeal their sentences, it is understandable that many regard both their decision to do so and the arguments they are using in support as adding insult to their earlier injurious behaviour. Nevertheless, our feelings of moral repugnance at their actions ought not to replace important matters of legal principle and process. And those with academic knowledge of those matters of legal principle and process have a responsibility to explain why they matter; or, at least, not misrepresent how they work. 

Unfortunately, however, in his Herald article Prof. Gallavin appears to have allowed the emotion of this case to overcome this responsibility. His first suggestion is that “the Court of Appeal ought to take the unprecedented move of quashing the convictions, and substituting them with murder.”

This move would indeed be “unprecedented”, because it is legally impossible. Under the Criminal Procedure Act 2011, where a sentence (and not a verdict) is appealed a court can only alter that sentence. It has no power to quash a conviction, much less impose a conviction for a completely different offence.

In his article, Prof Gallavin refers obliquely to the Court of Appeal’s alleged “inherent ability to oversee plea bargains” as permitting such a move. With respect, he appears to have just made this power up out of thin air. It has no basis whatsoever in the governing statute.

Furthermore, consider what Prof Gallavin’s call really amounts to. He is, in essence, saying that the judges on the Court of Appeal ought to simply declare Haerewa and Shailer guilty of murder without their ever having been tried on that charge and so having had no opportunity to mount a defence. Such a proposal is entirely antithetical to the very rule of law.

In fact, it rather reminds me of the demand issued by Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts for “sentence first—verdict afterwards.” To which the only sane response is that of Alice: “Stuff and nonsense!”

This same problem infects Prof Gallavin’s later suggestion that the Court of Appeal could alternatively “quash the conviction for manslaughter based upon the plea bargain and leave it then for the Crown to come back with charging them with something else - i.e. murder.” Once again, the Court simply has no legal power to do so on an appeal against sentence brought by the convicted party.

So Prof Gallavin really is recommending that our courts completely ignore the law, in order to produce an outcome he thinks would be a good one. This is not how these institutions should operate in a society predicated on the rule of law.

Furthermore, Prof Gallavin’s understanding of why Haerewa and Shailer were charged with (and plead guilty to) manslaughter instead of murder seems fundamentally misguided. He appears to believe that the reason for only bringing the lower-level charge was because of the existence of possible defences to a murder charge.

That, anyway, is the only sense I can make of his claim that Haerewa and Shailer “have, in effect, received the concession they would normally receive had [the defences of] diminished responsibility and provocation been successfully plead at a trial for murder - that came to pass the moment they were convicted of manslaughter.”

But we know why the Crown decided not to bring murder charges in this case, and this had nothing whatsoever to do with any possible defences that Haerewa and Shailer may have had.

Rather, as the Attorney-General explained following trial’s conclusion:

“To prove the legal charge of murder in this case, the Crown was required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Moko’s fatal injuries were inflicted with murderous intent.

....

The injuries Moko suffered were not inevitably fatal. With reasonably prompt medical treatment, he could have been saved.

...

If the jury was not satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that Ms Shailer had murderous intent at the time she inflicted the fatal injuries, then neither she nor Mr Haerewa could have been convicted of murder.

In other words, murder was not charged because the Crown concluded there was a real and substantial risk it could not prove the necessary elements of the offence. Further, should it lay a charge that it could not prove, the Crown believed that there was a real risk the jury may end up acquitting Haerewa and/or Shailer of both murder and manslaughter.

Of course, the Crown's decision not to pursue a murder charge in order to ensure a manslaughter conviction was obtained against both accused represents a judgment call that may reasonably be debated. But it had nothing whatsoever to do with the issue of “diminished responsibility and provocation” that Prof Gallavin raises. Which in turn means that Prof Gallavin’s claim that arguing such matters in their appeal against sentence somehow shows that Haerewa and Shailer were guilty of murder makes absolutely no sense at all.

To reiterate, Haerewa and Shailer’s horrible actions in killing Baby Moko stir real outrage and anger. But when academics venture into the public realm to comment on such matters, especially when they are explaining to the lay reader how legal processes operate, there is an obligation on them to make sure their contributions are as accurate as they can be (always given the reality of human frailty and the fact that the occasional slip-up will occur).

Prof Gallavin’s errors go beyond such understandable slips made in the heat of the moment. It is regrettable that his discussion of the appeal process is so misleading and gives such a false impression of what the Baby Moko case was about. Given his background as a former Associate Professor and Dean of a law faculty, he really ought to know and do better.

Comments (15)

by Stewart Hawkins on July 26, 2016
Stewart Hawkins

I think you might have really enjoyed writing this...almost as much as I enjoyed reading it.

by Raymond A Francis on July 26, 2016
Raymond A Francis

Thank you for putting this fool back into his box.

Fortunatly it appears he is a former Associate Professo.

by Andrew Geddis on July 26, 2016
Andrew Geddis

Thank you for putting this fool back into his box.

I'd prefer that comments avoided personal insults - I'm already aware that I'm bagging a fellow academic quite publicly, so don't want the comment thread to rub salt into any wounds that may have been caused.

by Ross Bell on July 27, 2016
Ross Bell

Interesting. He's provided expert comment (RNZ's The Panel) on alcohol law recently that was also wrong.

by Ross Bell on July 27, 2016
Ross Bell

Prof Gallavin live on Stuff at 1pm (in 5 minutes) taking questions:

"Law professor Chris Gallavin will join us live from 1pm to discuss why our murder and manslaughter laws need to change."

https://www.facebook.com/Stuff.co.nz/

by Rab McDowell on July 27, 2016
Rab McDowell

Andrew

I, like many others, find the sentences less than commensurate with the crime.

However, I find the logic of your argument compelling. That the rule of law cannot be trampled.

It appears obvious that Gallavan, at the very least, is uninformed and perhaps naive. Something someone in his position should not be.

I am, though, intrigued with your hesitancy to call out a “fellow academic” when he is wrong. Presumably that means you would be less hesitant if he was not a “fellow academic” Why?

Why should he be protected just because he is a peer?

How can there be healthy debate if those who have the skills to dissect a false argument refrain from doing so because of some kind of convention?

What chance do mere mortals such as us have to bring such as Gallavin into line if those that know do not?

by Andrew Geddis on July 27, 2016
Andrew Geddis

@ Rab,

Two reasons for my hesitancy.

One is a concern that "calling out" an fellow academic commentator may have a disincentivizing effect for other academics who might be thinking of venturing into public commentary (something many still feel uncomfortable doing). If they were to think the consequence of making a small or passing error when speaking up is to have a colleague leap on you and publicly criticise (which, believe me, can really sting), then will they feel inclined to do so? Thus, I think there's more value is having lots of academic voices speaking up (and maybe getting the odd point wrong) than there is in error-correcting every fellow academic (and maybe having fewer speaking up). That's a judgment call, I guess.

The second is the sheer fact that NZ is a small place, we all end up seeing each other in professional (and then afterwards, social) settings and it can be awkward. Sure, the truth should be our lodestar and all that, but (as I said) it still stings to have someone say in public that you got something completely wrong. And it may be hard to leave it on the field, if I can adopt a sporting analogy.

These reasons aren't so applicable to most of the usual targets of my posts - politicians, or media figures, or even judges. They (frankly) probably aren't that bothered with what I have to say, and I don't have to meet with them face-to-face that regularly. So I feel less hesitant about saying that I think they're wrong.

by Graeme Edgeler on July 28, 2016
Graeme Edgeler
Thank you for writing this. Have been a little busy, but was very much as incensed as you seem to be. With any luck, the result will be the opposite of what you fear - academics may realise that if they want the public to not be misinformed they'll have to speak out, lest their only representatives in the media be people who have no idea what they are talking about. I suspect Gallivan gets press for the same reason I sometimes do: I'm willing to answer my phone. I just like to hope that I recognise the limits of my legal knowledge, and when I don't know I say so, because the idea of misinforming someone horrifies me.
by Rich on July 28, 2016
Rich

it still stings to have someone say in public that you got something completely wrong

There is a simple answer to that one, though? And if Prof Gallavin was a practising barrister rather than a legal academic lawyer (turned academic manager), he'd get to make his mistakes in public and have them politely ripped apart by the judge.

by Rich on July 28, 2016
Rich

Just also, the murdered child's name was Moko Rangitoheriri. The use of 'Baby X' irritates me, personally - I think it's a bit wrong, and tabloid.

by Andrew Geddis on July 28, 2016
Andrew Geddis

The use of 'Baby X' irritates me, personally - I think it's a bit wrong, and tabloid.

That's a fair criticism. I mirrored Prof Gallavin's use of the phrase - I shouldn't have. Sorry.

by Rab McDowell on July 28, 2016
Rab McDowell

I'll accept your explanation but it sounds the reverse of the old "Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small".

by Ian MacKay on July 30, 2016
Ian MacKay

Duncan Garner views life differently from you Andrew. Just goes to show that a little mischief from Gallavin goes a long way

"I support Massey law professor Chris Gallavin on this.

We should be applauding him for his bravery and guts in speaking out. He won't be popular with some in his profession.

He says when these two appear before the Court of Appeal their convictions for manslaughter should be quashed - and they should be re-tried for murder. Like they should have been in the first place."

http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/82605037/duncan-garner-mokos-callo...

by Donald Ellis on July 31, 2016
Donald Ellis

@Rab to add to Prof Geddis's explanations above it is worth remembering that our academics still enjoy the extraordinary privilege of being able to strongly criticize their paymaster, the government, and keep their jobs. It is a privilege that is continuously under threat around the world but is well worth fighting for.

There is however an unwritten rule that the body slams and sleeper holds they deliver will be done under some supervision. Traditionally academics deliver their criticisms in controlled environments like peer-reviewed journals. Politely. While it is not unknown for academics to have a go via the media I can understand that publishing a piece like this would feel 'wrong'. There is a small risk that unseemly public squabbling would put the important privilege of tenure at risk. 

by Graeme Edgeler on July 31, 2016
Graeme Edgeler

There is a small risk that unseemly public squabbling would put the important privilege of tenure at risk. 

New Zealand academic don't have tenure.

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