Last week Terri Friesen saw her wrongful conviction quashed. Here law student Kelly Phillips recounts her crusade to secure exoneration – one which began when she saw an episode of I Am Innocent
If my partner hadn’t insisted I watch I Am Innocent, I never would have met Terri Friesen. Terri spoke directly to the camera. She had sad, dark eyes and a face framed by a halo of beautiful white hair.
Her story began with the premature birth of her daughter Chantelle. At the time, she lived in a small apartment with her two-year-old daughter and partner Brownie Broughton. The relationship wasn’t happy.
One evening after an argument, Terri fell asleep on the couch and Brownie slept in their bed next to the baby. In the morning they discovered the baby was cold and no longer breathing. An ambulance was called. It was too late.
A police interrogation followed. Terri said one of the officers picked up a doll and shook it violently in front of her saying, “this is what happened to your baby.”
While Brownie wept during his interview, Terri couldn’t. She had just lost a child to what she thought was cot death and now she was being accused of a violent crime. She sat numb and stunned, trying to process what was going on around her. To the police, Brownie appeared as a grieving father and Terri as a heartless, unnatural woman who felt no remorse for her supposed misdeed.
The possibility that a man could weep over a guilty conscience while a woman remained in stone-faced shock was not considered.
Terri said the police told her she should confess because if Brownie went to jail he might be killed. They said a jury would likely take pity on a woman. Worst of all, they threatened to take her surviving child away and put her in state care, she said. This was too much. Terri confessed to the crime.
Afterwards, Brownie told Terri he had shaken Chantelle. Terri urged him to tell the police and eventually, he did. The officer listened to Brownie tell how he had treated the baby in a way that would cause injuries consistent with the coroner’s report. He then concluded there was no need to reopen the case.
Terri’s criminal conviction remained.
Thirteen years later, Brownie found God, presented himself to the police and confessed again to causing Chantelle’s death. This time he was convicted and sentenced.
Incredibly, Terri’s criminal conviction remained.
After watching Terri’s story, I felt angry. I was in my second year of law school at the University of Canterbury and had a keen interest in criminal law.
I contacted the production company for I Am Innocent and was put in touch with Sarah Boddy who had researched Terri’s case. I said I was only a law student but would do everything I could to help. Sarah gave me Terri’s number. During our first phone call, we talked like old friends.
I told her how I became a young, single mother in a deeply religious area of the southern United States.
I wanted child support to help my daughter have a better life, but I couldn’t afford a lawyer and was reliant on the case workers from the State’s department of human resources. I was treated like a waste of time. I didn’t know the law and felt powerless. I also learned that society reserves a special sort of contempt for single mothers. I never forgot what it feels like to be vulnerable and voiceless.
I started my research for Terri by visiting the UC law library and printing out the sentencing notes from Brownie’s 2002 trial. In them, Justice Chambers wrote, “Chantelle’s mother in fact had nothing to do with Chantelle’s death. You caused Chantelle’s death. It was you who shook her in such a manner as to cause her death.” He also said Brownie’s confession was “extraordinary”.
What I found extraordinary was that Terri’s record wasn’t automatically cleared in the interest of justice.
I spent the following days going over statute.
I found law professor Jeremy Finn in his office, cornered him and asked rapid-fire questions on criminal procedure. At that point he was a few weeks from retirement and no doubt looking forward to a quiet life without such dramatic intrusions. To his credit, he was patient, supportive and very helpful.
I spoke with Supreme Court Justice Ellen France during her visit to the university. She suggested looking into the royal prerogative of mercy. I was heartened by this until I learned that potential applicants are expected to exhaust the normal appeals process first.
One issue continued to loom large: Terri needed a lawyer.
I had just finished reading Michael Bennett’s book In Dark Places which covers Teina Pora’s case. I used the book as a “how to” manual and rang up one of Teina’s former lawyers. I soon realised I was one of many people who had called her desperate for help. She couldn’t assist me but wished me well.
Next I put in a call to investigator Tim McKinnel. I told him about Terri’s case and stressed its uniqueness in having a double confession and wrongful conviction. I referred him to her I Am Innocent story. He said he had other work going on but would watch the show and try to get back to me sometime the following week. I thanked him for his time and hung up thinking I had struck out again.
The next morning, I had an email from Tim saying he would take the case. In a fit of joy, I executed a series of awkward freestyle dance moves. I called Terri and told her the good news.
I had hit a wall with her case but with Tim involved, I knew things would move forward.
In no time, Tim found a barrister named Lucy Johnson. Lucy was passionate about the case and willing to do pro bono work if necessary.
Terri authorised Tim and me to gather information and communicate with her counsel. I requested her case file from the New Plymouth High Court and was sent a huge bundle in the mail.
While reviewing the file, certain facts stuck out. Terri worked hard to find a suitable apartment, tidy it up and get all the items needed for a new baby. She had been a good mother to her older child and was looking forward to the birth of her daughter.
Chantelle’s premature birth required an extended stay at the hospital. The prosecution tried to use Terri’s absence from the hospital as proof of her callous attitude towards the baby. In reality, Terri was reliant on public transport and sometimes didn’t have money for the fare. The bus to the hospital ran twice a day, if she couldn’t catch it, she couldn’t go see her baby.
To me, it seemed Terri was doomed before she ever set foot in the courtroom. She was already “guilty” of being poor, female and Māori. With a charge of manslaughter, the scales of justice weren’t likely to tip in her favour.
My heart broke when she spoke of trying to find out where Chantelle was buried. At first, no one would tell her. Later, when she found the location and laid down flowers, someone moved them to other gravesites. There was no headstone to mark Chantelle’s grave.
Strangely, I had a friend whose family owned a memorial business in Nelson. I called her and was put through to her mother who worked on preparing a grave marker to Terri’s specifications. When it was ready, I picked it up and wrapped it in the quilt my grandmother had made for my children. It made the journey north resting on the seat next to my three-year-old son.
When we arrived in Taranaki, Terri came out to meet us and gave me a big, warm hug. I was surprised by how slight she was. It looked like a big breeze might lift her off her feet and yet she had lived through events that could have crushed the strongest human spirit.
I met several of her children and grandchildren that day. They clearly loved Terri and enjoyed being around her. My son played with her granddaughter while she took me on a tour of Waitara. I got the distinct impression that putting her into local government would lead to issues being swiftly sorted. When it was time to go, the whanau came out to see us off.
All meetings with Terri were tinged with sorrow. We met as friends but were required by circumstances to go through the darkest moments of her life over and over again.
She told me during her time with Brownie she wasn’t allowed to leave the house or have friends. She had no say over her own body.
She carried the social stigma of her conviction for nearly 30 years. She was shunned by her neighbours, monitored by the local police and rejected by potential employers who didn’t want to hire a woman guilty of manslaughter.
Her dreams of giving her children a better life were forestalled. Not only had the conviction affected her but it had tainted their lives as well. Their surname was uncommon, and everyone soon realised who their mother was. They too were watched by the police and faced discrimination in their searches for employment.
Tim and Lucy thought the hearing at the Court of Appeal might be quick and simple but after interviewing an officer involved in Terri’s arrest, the Crown appeared ready to fight.
Both sides were given time to submit additional supporting evidence and Tim instigated a new round of interviews.
A little over a year from the time I first contacted Terri, a hearing date was finally set.
In August, I visited Terri in the company of Melissa Davies. She was doing an interview for Newshub and had invited me to come up and take part. Terri recounted the tragic story of baby Chantelle and once again, she wept.
We visited the baby’s grave in the afternoon. It was such a little thing surrounded by a small circle of rocks. On either side, the other graves had long concrete caps and headstones showing that the departed had enjoyed a reasonable amount of time on earth. Neither of them had surname of Chantelle’s family. She was placed among strangers.
On the day of the Court of Appeal hearing, I woke up with knots in my stomach. I texted Tim and he reminded me that I didn’t need to speak before the court. On the plane to Wellington I worried about how Terri would be feeling. The three of us met up at the airport found our way to the Backbencher pub. The mood was hopeful.
Just before two o’clock, we walked into the lobby of the Court of Appeal. It was silent and empty, which made the occasion seem more solemn. We took seats at the back of the courtroom, rose when the three justices entered and sat after they did.
As a summary of the case was given, Terri’s shoulders seemed to slump and tears streamed down her face.
As Justice Brown began reading out a list of orders we heard these words:
Ms Friesen’s conviction for manslaughter is quashed.
I gave Terri a big hug and squeezed her hand. She squeezed mine back.
The wrong of nearly three decades had begun to come right
Now whenever we meet, she and I can talk about the happy things of the present and the good things to come.
Terri Friesen is free at last.
Watch Melissa Davies’ full report for Newshub Nation here