A Day in Dunedin’s Underbelly

Busy days at the Dunedin District Court are a big excited reunion. On Tuesday 19 September, the hallways and waiting rooms were packed at the start of the day, so nods, big reverse-nods, winks, and arm-wrestle-angle-handshakes abounded, and were remarkably shared across all of the courtroom subcultures; metal-detecting security guards welcomed regularly appearing defendants by name, 40+ defendants wassuped to their much younger counterparts, and the duty solicitors nodded their recognition to everyone.

It soon became clear that it’s not only court employees that are familiar faces to the Court’s doorways: a significant proportion of Dunedin’s criminal club are regularly in and out. One of the ODT’s court reporters later told me that she can tell when some of these familiar faces have recently been in prison because they look so much healthier.
    As the beginning of proceedings drew closer, the day’s defendants settled into groups of varying levels of acquaintance. Most spent the time boastfully recounting the events that explained their presence in court. Almost everyone seems to wear their presence with pride. There is no hint of the injustice or innocence that the old jail-movie adage, “Well every man in Shawshank is innocent,” would make you expect. But as I found out, this was probably due to most cases being fairly minor. Only one jail sentence was given in the five hours of court hearings I witnessed.
    I took up my position in the crowded hallway, hoping to document the spectacular hustle-bustle taking place. Standing opposite me was a bulky young man with peroxide hair, a fluoro-green marijuana leaf stud in his left ear, and a black hoodie, the front of which read: “God made grass, man made weed. Who do you trust?” I recall this alarmingly bold fashion statement only from memory, as I was too scared to take notes. I thought that retribution might await if the filthy character to my left, say, oversaw a sentence in my notebook that began “the filthy character to my left.” 
    Deciding that my pussiness made the exercise pointless, I wandered back down to the building’s entrance. There the kind man who matchmakes first-timers with duty solicitors gave me the compliment of asking if I was a witness. I explained that I was there trying to write an article for Critic. He greeted this concept with enthusiasm, and introduced me to the Registrar, who registered my presence with the Judge and positioned me with the ODT’s court reporters, ‘in front of the bar’ in Courtroom One. The reporters were two very accommodating ladies, who between them had 60 years of experience reporting the daily activities at Dunedin Court. 
    Christchurch’s Judge David Holderness was presiding. The first case was also the only one of the day to involve a University of Otago studentJames-Frick, a 19-year-old second-year, pleaded guilty to supplying the Class-A drug LSD. At 10.15am on 2 September Dunedin police raided Frick’s flat on an unrelated matter. They found in his desk drawers enough of the drug for around 50 tabs, which they estimated had a street value of around $900. Frick admitted the drugs belonged to him, and said that by supplying some to friends, the tabs that he took personally were free. Bail was granted, and the case transferred to his hometown of Hamilton for sentencing. Frick exited the dock and was taken to a seat in front of the bar, right behind the ODT reporter who was typing up a report of his case, which would appear in the paper the next day.
    Margaret Rose McKeich, a 72-year-old recidivist offender, was next in the dock. She pleaded guilty to the charge of theft. She had tried to hide $16 worth of groceries ‘about her person’ while paying for other items at the checkout at Countdown. The explanation relayed through her duty solicitor was that she had missed her bus, so tried to steal a few of the goods on her list so that she’d have money left over for a taxi home. During his plea for a lenient sentence, her solicitor acknowledged McKeich’s recidivism but vowed that this time she was ‘making significant progress’ to change her ways. 
    A few assault cases followed in which the defendants were given interim name suppression. Young Sam Oliver was given a fine of $1200 and disqualified from driving for nine months after recording a 1200 mcg breath test result when the limit for someone his age is 150mcg. The unemployed Paul Jeffery was given 10 hours’ community service and a 12-month disqualification for a charge of aggravated drink driving, aggravated because his front-seat passenger was an infant. A 19-year-old male took the stand on four charges of entering a building with two accomplices (one his father) with intent to commit a crime, but his duty solicitor explains that he ‘may not be fit to plead.’ The ODT reporter tells me that this is probably because he might have some sort of intellectual disability. The case is delayed for a month while an examination and report is conducted.
    A case then followed which was instantly startling in its relative ghastliness. A 69-year-old man was charged with seven cases of performing an indecent act on a boy between seven and ten years of age. All seven charges related to two brothers who at the time, 1965, lived on the Ranfurly farm on which the man worked. The man pleaded guilty to all seven charges. He was granted interim name suppression, given the fragile state of his wife’s health.
    Penelope Leith, a part-time cleaner, part-time student, pleaded guilty to three charges: wilfully and without excuse opening a postal article not addressed to her, drink-driving (628mcg, limit 400mcg), and not accompanying an officer to the police station when required to do so. The summary of facts was read out as the defendantleaned forward on the dock, with embarrassment and remorse struck across her face. The court heard that Leith had been in an argument with a flatmate who was planning on moving out without paying her share of unpaid flat bills. Leith picked up a piece of mail addressed to her flatmate from the Land and Transport Authority and told the recipient that “you won’t be getting this anytime soon.” Leith duly opened the envelope, found it was a new drivers’ license, and cut it into pieces. Leith’s duty solicitor then described in detail to the Judge Leith’s profound remorse, and how “she has realised that she has a significant problem with alcohol, and is taking steps to address that.” While this plea for a smaller sentence took place, the duty solicitor whispered to the law student next to her, “Look at the Judge, you can see he isn’t even listening.” After a long deliberation period, Judge Holderness condemned Leith’s “entirely inappropriate” actions, and fined her $300 and ordered reparations of $31 for the letter-opening saga, and sentenced her to 65 hours of community work, and 12 months without a drivers’ license for the drink-driving dramas.
    After another eight cases, Judge Holderness declared a 30-minute break from proceedings. The ODT ladies invited me to tag along on their regular visit to Café Rue, but I declined, preferring to take opportunity to try to soak up some more of the vibe in the waiting rooms. After my earlier failed attempt, I was determined this time to actively go undercover amongst the uncalled defendants. Still slightly fearing that the large notepad bulging in my pocket meant that people would not be happy to see me, I sat near a ratty little man maybe 30 years of age, with the skin of a heavy smoker but the lingering, observing eyes of a man open to some chat. Check this for an opener:
    Me: It’s taking fuckin ages today eh?
    Him: Yeah … they fuckin’ tell you to come at ten but then you don’t even have to do anything until like 12 or something. All good though, get off work! Hahahaha.
    Me: Ha yeah, mean, I got off a few lectures, don’t go anyway though hahaha … where do you work?
    Him: Ah painting, just interiors, like doing a kitchen right now eh.
    Me: Oh yep, sweet as, why’d you gotta come to court today?
    Him: Man, just got shitloads of unpaid fines eh.
    Me: Aw, gay.
    Him: Yeah all good, it’ll just get changed to a bit of community service, clean up stuff at SPCA or something.
    Me: Oh true, hopefully that won’t be ratshit.
    Him: Nah should be sweet, my mate done it before, said you just put on your form extra hours and no one even knows about it.
    Me: Hah, mean.
    Silence attacked the conversation briefly, during which I debated first of all the age-old question of whether he didn’t acknowledge my ratshit joke because he didn’t get it, or because he just didn’t think it was funny, and second of all whether asking the obvious question of how he got his license suspended would be too much of a grilling. Luckily at this point the painter took the initiative.
    Him: So do you students watch much of the pornos?
    Me: Yeah quite a bit eh
    Him: Yeah ‘cos a guy I live with, he has one of the fastest computer set-ups in Dunedin, he hacked it so that we get our internet bounced off the highest tower on the top of Signal Hill, so it’s like a personal satellite pretty much; real fast.
    Me: Whoa! Mean!
    Him: Yeah so we download all the best videos first, only takes like a few seconds. Seen the Kendra one, the Kim Kardashian one, got the Catwoman movie, so knew that was a piece of shit before it was even in any of the movies here.
    Me: Haha, stoked.
    Him: So yeah, we can put those straight onto a CD, like the Paris Hilton one, or the Mini-Me one, on CD for anyone, sell it to them for ten bucks.
    Seduced by the smooth sales pitch, and the undeniable appeal of watching Mini-Me humping a lady rather than a laser, I got the painter’s number and then excused myself, hopefully never to see him again.
    Courtroom proceedings soon started again; unpaid fines were next on the agenda. My porn-dealer friend had his $2300 of fines converted to 75 hours of community service. The young man who had earlier in the day stood opposite me wearing the jacket that advocated weed appeared, having taken off his jacket. We heard that he owed $7195 in fines and $2367 in reparations. He told the judge that his only income was $20 a week from his Mum, and he could only put $10 a week towards the fines. The $7195 of fines was converted to 75 hours of community work, and he was ordered to pay off the $2367 of reparation at $10 per week.
    After nine cases of unpaid fines, the case of Donald and Damin Birchall vs. the Ministry of Fisheries was called. Donald and Damin were a father and son team, each charged with the unauthorised taking of marine life from a marine reserve, and obstruction. The room heard how the pair was confronted by a Fisheries officer when they were found fishing inside the Whangarei Harbour Marine Reserve. When asked to stop fishing and hand over their rods, the father, Donald, became aggressive, told the officer “No one’s taking my rods: and threw them all into the water. His son, Damin, told the officer to “Fuck off” and tried to start his boat’s motor. 
    Both of the men had previous convictions but leniency in the sentencing was requested based on the facts that Donald had just started a job, and the unemployed Damin would struggle to pay a fine. Judge Holderness deliberated the facts for a lengthy period before summarising the case and sentencing Donald to 85 hours’ community service for taking marine life, and 50 hours’ for obstruction, and Damin to 70 hours’ for taking marine life, and 40 hours’ for obstruction.
    The final case of the day was a sentencing, and was moved to the room that usually holds High Court proceedings. Six men from Southland ranging in age from 20 to 24 had pleaded guilty to, between them, 32 criminal charges, 30 of which were for a joint attack on four youths, three males and one female, in Cromwell in October 2009. 
    During a road-trip from Southland, the six became involved in an altercation with a group of youths from Balclutha at the Cromwell BP. Some of the Balclutha youths pulled into a carpark not far down the road, as they were waiting for friends to catch up by foot. The events from that point were summarised by Judge Holderness: “The various charges you face arise out of your joint attack on the occupants of a car parked in the carpark of Cromwell Mall. Cameron Lynch was the driver, he pulled up behind some bushes, in an attempt to conceal your arrival. The six of you then got out, and the vehicle in which the Balclutha group sat was approached. Those subsequently attacked were 18 and 19. You smashed the rear windows, and three males were punched while still in the car. Two of the group managed to get out and escape. One of you then got in, and while the victim was sitting down punched him several times in the face. Another of the victims fell out of the car; he was kicked several times on the ground by the group. Another victim tried to intervene, he was punched on either side of the head by two of you, and then kicked and punched while on the ground. The other victim was kicked and stomped on the ground, and fell unconscious. The female was warned that she would be hunted down if she went to Police. The group suffered numerous injuries and the car was damaged. Reparations of $2877.78 are sought.”
    Each of the defendants were charged with three counts of Crimes Act assault (except for Cameron Lynch, who only received one assault charge), one count of intentional damage, and one count of disorderly conduct likely to cause violence. Quintin Souness was charged with threatening to do grievous bodily harm to a police officer for telling an arresting officer eight to ten times that he would “stab her eyes out.” Tamati Pennicott was charged with the further offences of unlawful assembly, breach of community work, failing to attend court, driving at a dangerous speed, failing to stop for police, driving recklessly, and intentional damage, all committed while on bail. 
    The six men all had previous convictions: their combined total was 65 previous convictions. In addition to being ordered to pay their $479.63 share of reparation, the men’s respective sentences were: Regan Black, five months’ community detention, nine months’ supervision, 120 hours’ community work; Shannon Lynch, five months’ CD, nine months’ SV, 120 hours’ CW; Cameron Lynch, five months’ CD, nine months’ SV, 200 hours’ CW; Ricky Tippett, five months’ CD, nine months’ SV, 150 hours’ CW; Quintin Souness, five months’ CD, nine months’ SV, 200 hours’ CW; Tamati Pennicott, 19 months in prison. Pennicott’s sentence was the last to be read. He stood in a dock which could be reached by stairs that led underground to a holding cell. When his jail sentence was announced, a woman, presumably his partner, came from the public seats to try to give him a hug; the bailiff who stood with him in the dock prevented the contact by standing between the two, but a simultaneous sidestep by the young lovers allowed the woman to plant a quick kiss on Pennicott’s lips before the displeased Bailiff led Penniccott away.
Posted 12:25am Tuesday 12th October 2010 by Thomas redford.