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March 4, 2019 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Rewa from the Bench

CW: Rape, Sexual Assault, Murder

 

Stories of home invasions, violent sexual assaults, and brutal murders are best associated with notorious criminals such as Richard Ramirez, John Wayne Gacy or Ted Bundy—but the stalking grounds for these predators were far from the streets of Papatoetoe. So as Crown Prosecutor Gareth Kayes addressed the jury, it was surreal to think that the crimes of Malcolm Rewa took place in a suburb much like any other, right here at home in Auckland city. Rewa (now aged 65) is currently on trial for the third time, accused of the rape and murder of Susan Burdett, a 39-year-old woman from Papatoetoe, on March 23, 1992.

He was tried and convicted of 20 previous sexual assault charges but the jury at the time could not find Rewa guilty of Burdett’s rape and murder. As the prosecution, defense, and judge gave their opening statements, all three had a common thread: Despite Rewa’s previous 20 charges of sexual assault, they urged the jury to keep an open mind, and implored that they remain unprejudiced towards the accused.

But how could a jury stand unprejudiced to rape and murder? While the lawyers, judge, and media present are accustomed to taboo topics such as these—to the point where they discuss them with blasé composure—the jury have different lives to return to after each day in court. They weren’t lawyers. They were regular people. They were sons, daughters, husbands, wives, teachers, and workers, all unacquainted with the darkness and macabre nature of a case like this one.

Approaching the courtroom after a short recess, I saw a vast number of people trailing out from the open doors of the courtroom and into the hallway, and began wondering if someone had perhaps caused a scene, or there had been some kind of disturbance in the court. No, these were the 50-odd civilians who had been called in for jury duty and had the potential to serve on the jury that would either acquit or sentence Malcolm Rewa for the crime of murder. One glaring observation I was able to make while watching this process was the great number of people who, after being called to serve, ran straight to the judge’s bench and gave one reason or another as to why they felt they were not fit to be a part of this jury.

 

For a full five minutes, every name called was immediately met with paced footsteps up to—and then briskly away—from the bench. Who could blame them? Jury duty is taxing enough as it is, but having to leave the normality of everyday life to enter a world of sex crimes and murder? Looking toward the jury box, I didn’t envy any of them, as they had been told that this case had the potential to last four weeks; nor was I the slightest bit jealous as they flicked through ring-bound books containing pieces of evidence, from crime scene photos to pictures of a blood-soaked baseball bat that police believed to be the murder weapon.

 

The fact that a jury is simply comprised of 12 random civilians creates a menagerie of different ideas and beliefs and lends itself to imperfections. The fine-tuning process of selecting these 12 individuals, out of potentially hundreds, means that the end result is a representation of the public as a whole. They are the people tasked with bringing society into the courtroom, to observe and potentially condemn the accused. It’s a decision made on behalf of our country. This task alone is enough to make anyone feel a little light-headed—even without listening to the grizzly details or about Rewa’s previous sexual offenses. Hearing how the man sitting but a few metres away from me had broken into women’s houses, covered the upper part of their bodies, and proceeded to violate them made me sick to my stomach, and I could see the jury shared my discomfort.

As the day continued, and more details of Rewa’s previous offenses were brought to light, one could see the jury’s visible discomfort, all heightened by the fact that the offending party was sitting merely meters away. Seeing Malcolm Rewa, now an elderly man clutching his cane, a shell of his former self, must have evoked the strangest feeling of pity and disdain. Here is a violent and cruel man who has committed despicable acts in his life, sitting with two guards on either side, silent. Yet (as observed each time Rewa entered and exited the courtroom), Rewa walked agonisingly, as frail as a paper doll.

With the evidence stacked very clearly against Rewa, the prosecution began calling its witnesses. From close friends to neighbours, the jury watched on as the evidence against him began to stack higher and higher. It wasn’t until the second day of the trial that Burdett’s son, Dallas McKay, was called to the stand. McKay recounted memories of himself and his mother: how they were estranged until he turned 20; how only two years later he heard a radio report of a 39-year-old Papatoetoe woman, bludgeoned to death in her own home; and of course, how he had spent many hours giving statement after statement to the police. It wasn’t until members of the public gallery were asked to leave that the defense made their move.

Defense attorney Mr. Paul Chambers accused McKay of murdering his own mother, stating he had ample means and motive. “So what are you accusing me of?” McKay stated in blatant disbelief. The defense was adamant in their accusation, and yet McKay stood unwavering, exclaiming, “I’m telling you I did not, ‘cause I’m not the one on trial here.” He shot daggers at Rewa as he said this, meanwhile an awestruck jury had yet another piece of the puzzle to fit into play.

 

Having the power to decide a person’s guilt or innocence is an Olympian task for anyone, let alone a juror on a murder trial. Chris Speyer (a former Ontario Superior Court judge) described the task undertaken by jurors as “a burden they must bear”. “There were two women in particular who had dissolved themselves in tears and were really emotionally distraught by the experience,” remarked Speyer in regards to a murder case in Brampton, Canada.

This seems to be a common trend in murder cases, as on day three of the Rewa trial, the jury watched video taken from the scene of the crime, to which some members of the jury were physically stricken ill. You can imagine how grueling and exhausting the entire experience must be for a jury member on a high-profile case such as this. And yet, each day these jurors left the comfort of everyday life to come and bear witness to a series of truly disturbing images and stories.

It is the job of the jury to decide the accused’s guilt or innocence based on the evidence given, and without regard to previous offenses. But in instances such as this, can a jury truly remain impartial? Every man, woman, and child has their own personal biases, likes, and dislikes. All it takes is a juror with a righteous attitude and a desire to see a man, like Rewa, put away for the rest of his life, and the jury could be compromised.

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