My review of Michael Bennett's "In Dark Places"

Michael Bennett has taken Teina Pora's story and turned straw into gold. It's a sad and awful book told in a remarkably good way. You should buy it and read it at once.

Michael Bennett’s book, In Dark Places: The confessions of Teina Pora and an ex-cop’s fight for justice, tells a terrible story in a beautiful way. The story’s terribleness lies not in a lack of coherence or plot. No crime thriller could match the narrative drive of this case’s facts (a point I’ll be coming back to).

I don’t need to issue a hackneyed spoiler alert (but a trigger warning for sexual violence certainly is warranted), as anyone giving the news even passing attention will be familiar with the story’s general outline and cast. Susan Burdett, a 39-year-old accounts clerk brutally raped and murdered in 1992 after her regular social game of ten-pin bowls. Teina Pora, a 17-year-old car thief who, over a year later, “confessed” to holding Burdett down while unnamed others raped and killed her. That confession led to his trial and conviction as a party to murder—which then was overturned when DNA evidence conclusively proved the rapist was the serial (and solo) offender Malcolm Rewa. But at a second trial, the jury again must have accepted that Mr Pora wouldn’t have confessed to something so heinous if he wasn’t actually there and so, once again, convicted him.

Then, for the next fourteen years (atop the seven he’d already spent in jail), Mr Pora had to come to terms with a life spent in small rooms and ugly corridors, surrounded by razor wire and dictated by inflexible prison regulations. Until a disparate group of individuals, with private investigator Tim McKinnel at the center, drew together sufficient evidence to bring a final appeal to the Privy Council. Where on 3 March, 2015 the bench quashed all Mr Pora’s convictions and the Crown stated no retrial would be sought, making Mr Pora a free and innocent man.

So what makes this story so terrible? Well, it’s the tale of much of a life lost, of years spent apart from a daughter Mr Pora truly loved, of the psychic hurt of being punished for something you manifestly didn’t do. But as I said at the time of Mr Pora’s release on parole, perhaps the worst part is that the system apparently worked, as it should

Mr Pora’s case isn’t like Arthur Alan Thomas’, where the police clearly planted false evidence to convict the guy they “knew” did it. Nor is it like the case at the heart of Making a Murderer, with a convenient villain like Ken Kratz we can pin our outrage on. Rather, we have well meaning (if, in hindsight, perhaps overly eager) police trying to bring some justice to Ms Burdett and her family. We have lawyers dispassionately placing evidence before the court so its credibility can be assessed. And we have two juries believing what they appear to be seeing and deciding that Mr Pora must have done what he said he did. 

All of which caused an undoubtedly innocent man to spend twenty-one years in jail, marked as a rapist and murderer.

Bennett’s genius is to take this tawdry straw and spin it into gold through two techniques. First of all, he builds the story around the characters—a word I use deliberately. He allows the author-interpreted perspective of each to carry the narrative forward, generously and gently portraying their purposes and actions as those of believable, flesh and blood individuals. Even the worst person in the book, Malcolm Rewa, comes across as a human being who does terrible things and not just a cardboard caricature psychopath. 

Of these various characters, two are dominant. The first, obviously, is Mr Pora himself. This is a story not only of what was done to him, but what that experience has made of him. The second central figure is Tim McKinnel, whose time in the South Auckland police during Mr Pora’s second trial in 2000 led him to later revisit the case and adopt it as a cause (in the very best sense of the word). While others played their part in Mr Pora’s eventual declaration of innocence, Mr McKinnel’s work was the catalyst for their involvement. Credit, as they say, is due.  

Bennett’s other inspired move is to liberally apply the tropes of crime thriller writing when telling the tale. While the non-fiction novel goes back (at least) to Capote’s In Cold Blood, Bennett updates the concept for the era of Michael Connelly and Attica Locke. So, the scenes where Malcom Rewa hides in womens’ homes preparing for his “blitz attacks” could come straight from the pages of Mo Hayder’s Birdman. The descriptions of various police officers involved in the case, focusing on particular physical and behavioural identifiers to fix them in the reader’s mind, bring George Pelecanos to mind. The clipped sentences and spare language channel the prose of Don Winslow.

This may make Bennett’s writing style sound purely derivative or clichéd. Not at all. Instead, the familiarity of the technique makes the story feel more real and alive than would a “conventional” non-fiction, third person account. Placing us inside the heads of those involved in the case helps carry us over the difficulty we otherwise may have in believing that something like Mr Pora’s case ever could happen in New Zealand. The reader instead is carried along by what stylistically seems to be a well-plotted and written thriller, only to be periodically jerked back to the realisation that all of this (or something very, very close to it) actually happened.

And that is something Bennett does not let us forget. His book is about a real life (and, in Ms Burdett’s case, a real death). The reality of that fact comes crashing down on the reader in the last few pages, which I challenge anyone to get through without tearing up. Those last pages also leave us with the question—what next?

For Mr Pora, the future must—must—deliver an apology from the Crown and compensation. The only real question is how long Rodney Hansen will take to recommend this occur, and how high into the seven figures it will go. But what of Malcolm Rewa, the clearly guilty murderer of Ms Burdett, but who two past juries deadlocked over (at least in part because of Mr Pora’s convictions)? Will he ever be formally found responsible for her death?

And what of the learnings, as an idiot would say, that we may take from Mr Pora’s case? Back in 2013, then Justice Minister Judith Collins wrote in the Dominion Post that: “As Minister of Justice, I take seriously any suggestions that something went wrong in the criminal justice system. … . I cannot rule out the possibility of a broader inquiry into the circumstances leading to Pora’s convictions once any legal proceedings involving his convictions are resolved.”

Yet when the Privy Council very much found that “something went wrong in the criminal justice system”, the only comment from the current Minister Amy Adams was: “The New Zealand justice system has a highly regarded, robust appeal process for dealing with people who consider they have been wrongly convicted.”

To which I say, yeah … nah. It took twenty-one years for Teina Pora’s innocence to be formally acknowledged. That acknowledgement came from a court based in London, after New Zealand’s courts had decided Mr Pora’s conviction was perfectly sound; a court to which New Zealanders no longer have access. It only happened because an ex-cop devoted several years of his life to stirring up enough other concerned individuals to join him in his cause.

If this is the legal system working “the way that it is supposed to”, then something is wrong with our legal system. That, I think, is the story behind the terrible story that Michael Bennett has so beautifully, compellingly told.