The campaign to free wrongfully convicted Teina Pora is now the subject of a book – In Dark Places: The confessions of Teina Pora and an ex-cop’s fight for justice, by Michael Bennett (Paul Little Books, $34.99). Dr Jarrod Gilbert interviews the book’s hero, the “tall and good looking” Tim McKinnel.
One day Tim McKinnel decided he’d bust a man out of prison, and that’s what he did. After 21 years behind bars, Teina Pora was set free and Tim had brought to light a terrible miscarriage of justice. Others helped, of course, but they all say nothing would have happened without Tim. A book was written.
It’s almost clichéd that the book’s hero is tall and good-looking. I assume his parents are responsible for that, but the straight and deliberate manner in which he delvers facts are straight out of police training college. Tim used to be a cop, but his involvement with the Teina Pora case began only after he had left the police with a nagging belief that his former colleagues had put an innocent man behind bars.
Our interview was conducted via Skype with McKinnel, who was in Switzerland.
Just before we start, if one of your mates described you as “tall and good looking” in print, would that be weird at all?
Um – why do you ask?
No reason. I was thinking we would do this over a beer but yesterday I discover you’re in Switzerland, what’s up over there?
I’m attending a course on the protection of human rights and the environment at the University of Geneva.
Yeah, that sounds quite serious but – and I want you to be honest now – is it true that yesterday you said that you would bar hop around the country until you found Martina Hingis to give her my phone number?
Well you…after you expressed an interest in her I said I was prepared to…I’m beginning to feel worried about this interview.
Don’t laugh, mate, don’t laugh and don’t worry. I’m building a picture, I’m trying to build empathy in the minds of reader for you, you know, as the type of guy who does things for other people. After all, that’s why somebody wrote a book about you. Is it strange that, having a book written about you?
Yeah, really unusual. It feels strange from my position and it feels strange to be talking about a book in which I feature.
In fairness, we haven’t really talked about the book yet.
That’s true but I assume we will
Maybe. Are you tired of being asked the same questions over and over about the case?
Well, you get used to answering things efficiently. But you have to be patient, you know, people genuinely care and their inquiries are genuine. So it’s really a small thing to ask of someone like me who was involved in the case to answer their questions, but some of the questions are pretty regular.
I’m really pleased you said that because I really wanted to ask you a question you’ve never been asked before: I bought this Laser Kiwi t shirt today, do you like it? Can you see that?
I do I like it a lot. It looks particularly good on you. Hingis would like it.
Let’s talk about the case.
I feel we should. Tell me about the time you went to prison and met Teina Pora for the first time, what did you think of him?
I had a whole lot of prejudices, of course, after nine years in the police working in the area where he came I had a whole lot of preconceived notions. But for the most part he was none of those things. He was quiet, he was gently spoken, he didn’t…he wasn’t gangster, he was very humble and there was a touch of sadness to him…he wasn’t as hardened as I thought he would be.
If you had found him to be an utterly objectionable human being would that have changed anything?
Difficult to say, it shouldn’t of course because justice shouldn’t be a popularity contest, but if I’m honest, probably. Perhaps not at that point but down the track when you’re a year or two into it there’s some fairly substantial sacrifices that need to be made and it would be difficult to do that for somebody you didn’t like.
What were the sacrifices?
It’s costly, of course, but mostly it’s time. But it’s not just in what you spend working on the case, but also the time you spend thinking about it – it takes up a substantial piece of you. And as the case becomes more and more involved further down the track and toward some sort of resolution it becomes almost obsessional. So the sacrifices, and there are financial sacrifices, but the main sacrifices impact on the time you should be working and time you should be spending with your family.
When Teina was finally released from prison you had been working on the case for four years, how did it feel when he was finally freed?
It was a combination of feelings. It was relief, it took much longer than I thought it should have. I went through – Jonathan and I went through – several parole hearings, with him. So the primary feeling was one of relief to get him out of that environment and having to front every year and try and do something he was ill equipped to deal with – those parole hearings. So primarily relief but also I was pleased for him. But there were also elements of fear of the unknown; he went to jail at 17 and he’d about 21 years in prison and we really had no idea how he was going to cope.
You mentioned Jonathon, and just because I know you, you will want to acknowledge others. There’s Jonathan Krebs as legal counsel, of course, but who else was important for your team?
Teina had a brilliant legal team, starting with Jonathan and Ingrid Squire… [this list of lawyers, expert witnesses went on and on and on so I cut it]…there is an enormous list and I couldn’t begin to name them all
Yeah, I’m wondering if I will because it sounds a bit dull.
Well some of the people on that list are a bit dull, you know Glynn [meaning Glynn Rigby, Tim’s business partner, who is a bit dull].
I might leave that in.
You know I’m only joking, he was actually bloody generous and very patient throughout this whole thing. All of the people actually, everyone involved was great.
What about the media? Clearly elements of the media were crucial.
Phil Taylor first reported it [for the New Zealand Herald] in detail and then Paula Penfold, Eugene Bingham and Tony Longbottom played massive roles for 3D. They are all testimony to the importance of investigative journalism that is being currently chipped away by some in our corporate media.
I think we know who you’re talking about, care to elaborate?
I think it’s best I don’t name names.
So you’d rather not mention Mark Weldon?
Fair enough. Do you feel responsible for Teina now that he’s out of prison?
There’s probably an element of that but I try not to. It’s been difficult over the years to compartmentalise things. I’ve done a reasonable job of it at times and completely failed at other times. He should never have been in jail, he should never have been arrested, he should never have been prosecuted, and while we stay in close touch I’m not responsible for what happens now. But hopefully nothing will happen, he’s done remarkably well in the two years he has been out and we’re really proud. His adjustment hasn’t always been sound and he’s made some really poor decisions, I think he’s probably treated some people poorly that he shouldn’t have, but I don’t blame him for any of that. Spending 21 years in prison for a crime you didn’t commit would cause problems for anyone, but he has some additional challenges. He went to prison when he was 17, he’s got fetal alcohol spectrum disorder that adds a whole layer of complexity. He’s done some things poorly. But I don’t think there’s malice, I think he’s just having to adjust to having relationships with people who aren’t in prison and I think he’s struggled with that at times and I think that’s understandable.
Teina is applying for compensation, and given those issues, are there risks he will be exploited if he gets a payout?
Those risk are very real. He’s undoubtedly vulnerable in a number of areas and always will be. If he ever finds himself with a large sum of money some things will have to be put in place to ensure he wasn’t exploited or taken advantage of.
You’ve told me some stories that speak to a world that has been hidden from man behind bars – those personal wee stories. I understand if you can’t but do you feel you can share one or two?
Yeah, I think so. He came down and spent a bit of time with my family in Hawkes Bay – I later learned the police were aware of that and had it flagged in their intelligence system, which is interesting – but when we were driving down the hill into Taupo he looked at all of the lights and asked me how much bigger than Auckland it was. When you’re asked a question like that you know that you’re dealing with somebody who has no idea about many, many parts of life. There are many stories like that. Some of them are really tragic and make you really think about his life. When Jonathan and I first met and spent time with him he would talk about his home, going home, having books at home. He was referring to his prison cell.
The prime minister [John Key] and the minister of justice [Amy Adams] both said that the fact Teina is now free is proof the system works. What are your thoughts on that?
I don’t agree with it of course. That’s not the system working, Teina Pora has been failed by the system and failed badly. To focus now on his freedom and say that is success is to ignore the 21 years he spent in prison. An innocent 17-year-old kid being locked up for 21 years is not the system working.
It is an enormous hill to climb to get a conviction overturned. I really thought that eventually at some point those in authority would come to their senses and make things easy but that never, ever happened. That was perhaps naive of me to think that. We were able to find ways with the system to get justice for Teina, but let me be very clear, it was not easy and we had to take some huge personal and financial risks – like sometimes we couldn’t guarantee payment of our experts, but asked them to commit anyway. The time investment and the effort that we put in, I just don’t think that’s a fair assessment. People who haven’t had to do it might see it like that, but nobody who goes through it will see it like that. I don’t think either John Key or Amy Adams properly understand what was required to get to the point where we’ve got to. Their view may well be reasonable from the position they sit in but in reality it’s not the case.
I wonder if the prime minister is a reader. He might be reading this right now and thinking, “I will have to go out and buy that book.” I wonder if this will help: The book mentions, for reasons that baffle me, that you once dated your school principal’s daughter. It makes very specific mention that she was very attractive. How important was that detail to the book?
You’ll have to ask Michael [Bennett, the author] that.
How attractive was she?
She was very pretty.
Did she wear her hair in a ponytail? Asking for a friend.
Oh shit, the poor woman, she’ll be embarrassed. I haven’t seen her since I was about 17. But at that time, she did.
That couldn’t have gone better. One of the most stunning parts of this whole thing for me was that the Police Association came out and said the Teina Pora case was troubling and may need another look at.
I thought Greg O’Connor [Police Association boss] was incredibly courageous and I know he took some stick for what he did. It was a difficult thing for him to do but he did the right thing, in my view.
But your dealings with police were often far from easy or pleasing, were they?
People talk about the injustice of what happened to Teina in the 90s and then again in his 2000 trial and those thing are in my view terrible, but some parts of what happened are understandable, but what’s happened over the last 6 and half years, the resistance from police we have faced is inexplicable and indefensible in my view. Some of the efforts that some of the police leadership have gone to make sure that this was as difficult as possible, and to defend the status quo was indefensible. To have people involved in the investigation back in the 90s working on the case again, when we had asked that they be excluded because of what we had seen, was incredibly frustrating and I thought poor judgment.
A different times we had to issue proceedings against the police to get them to release information to us and to allow us to be involved in critical forensic testing.
There were also some nasty things being spread in phone calls to media and there were rumors within the Police about my private life which were completely untrue and had no factual basis whatsoever. Some of those filtered though to me. They never cause any harm other than the stress of hearing them but those sorts of things are disappointing.
In large part our police are full of wonderful and intelligent, smart people but there is something that happens in the culture of the police that often warps that for even good people, It can, sometimes, be pretty unpleasant when you’re on the other end of that.
You helped establish the New Zealand Public Interest Project, as a means to look at unsafe convictions because of how tough you found the whole process.
I think we largely have a very effective justice system, but if you are wrongly convicted the chances of having your conviction overturned are very, very slim. Many jurisdictions similar to ours have identified a need for a criminal case review commission – a case made by Sir Tomas Thorp, but ignored by successive governments. I think there is a need for that, a desperate need in fact. There are a number of troubling cases out there and I think the economics of such a body stacks up, and the justice side stacks up. I think there needs to be a release valve. There needs to be a body that can ventilate some of these troubling cases that has ready access to independent expertise.
There appears to be no appetite in the current government for that, as there wasn’t in the previous one, so in the absence of that NZPIP getting people with experience in these cases around the table and trying to fill the gap.
If you sat next to [Minister of Justice] Amy Adams on a long haul flight could you convince her of the need for a criminal cases review commission? She was very skeptical when NZPIP was formed.
I’d like to think I could. I don’t think there’s a rational argument against it, when everything is considered. But when politics is in play nothing is for certain. But from what I’ve seen from Amy Adams in general terms she seems to be pretty fair and evenhanded.
That’s as good a place as any to leave it. I hope the book goes well, mate, you deserve all of the accolades you get. You did something truly great and you should feel incredibly proud. Certainly your friends are proud of you.
Thanks, Doctor, but I don’t want it to sound like I did this by myself, I was one of many people in this case. I really think it is important that that is recognised.
Of course [it’s not like I’d delete them or anything].
The list of people who worked on or contributed to the case are: Jonathan Krebs, Ingrid Squire, Dr Malcolm Birdling, Kim McCoy, Dr Anna Sandiford, Dr Jarrod Gilbert [in an extremely minor way], Prof Gisli Gudjonsson, Dr Valerie McGinn, Dr Craig Immleman, Mark Herrick, Prof Glynn Owens, Terry Reardon, Prof Neil Brewer, Several unnamed Police officers.
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