The release of the details of crimes committed by Ewen Macdonald, the man found not guilty of murdering his brother-in-law Scott Guy, has led to outcries for previous offences to be put before a jury in trials.
While this is understandable it should be treated with caution, as it would breach a fundamental tenet of the British justice system that this country follows.
Certainly Macdonald’s actions were despicable. He cost a neighbour $10,000 by emptying a milk tanker; worse, he slaughtered 19 calves with a hammer.
It is no surprise that the Sensible Sentencing Trust wants this case to be the catalyst for a law change that would see juries given all available evidence about the accused, and for the powers of suppression orders to be significantly reduced.
The trust’s Garth McVicar says that while Macdonald’s offences had no relationship to the murder charge, they would help establish a pattern of offending to which the jury should have been privy.
Nothing is prejudicial about the truth, and that is where New Zealand’s justice system has gone off the track, he says. Judges are partly responsible for their propensity to grant suppression orders; this creates a criminal-centred, offender-friendly legal process, he says.
With all due respect, he is missing the point. The jury, rightly in the opinion of most people, did not convict Macdonald because there was insufficient evidence. They knew about the acts of arson and vandalism directed against Scott and Kylie Guy, which were much more relevant.
Already we have seen a politically-motivated response with the removal of the defence of provocation, following the trial of Clayton Weatherston for the murder of Sophie Elliott.
It should not be forgotten that this defence did not work and the jury sensibly convicted him.
Juries should, as they did in both the Weatherston and Macdonald cases, make their decisions on the evidence before them in the particular case they are considering.