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Reliability of prisoners turned secret witnesses back in spotlight

Latest developments in the case of David Tamihere have brought one of the country’s most controversial cases to the fore again and, more importantly, cast fresh doubts on the evidence given by secret witnesses who are prison inmates.

So-called prison lawyer and serial litigant Arthur Taylor has brought a private charge of perjury against a witness in the Tamihere case, while Tamihere himself told the Weekend Herald some of the claims this witness made were ludicrous.

The killing of Swedish backpackers Heidi Paakkonnen and Sven Urban Hoglin in 1989 attracted a wave of sympathy from New Zealanders, horrified that a young couple should suffer such a ghastly fate in this country.

Tamihere was duly convicted and after unsuccessful appeals served 20 years before being released in 2010. He continues to deny the charges.

University of Auckland law professor Bill Hodge has reviewed the prosecution papers and says the perjury case is “very strong”, but adds that the case against Tamihere also remains strong. The attempted prosecution requires a judge’s approval to proceed.

The man being prosecuted is one of three who gave evidence against Tamihere, and is serving time for a double murder. He was arrested for the indecent assault of a 14-year-old girl on the same day of his latest release. Tamihere says he has a letter from the man admitting he lied at the trial.

The use of secret witnesses has been highly controversial in at least four of New Zealand’s most high-profile trials. They gave evidence of questionable, strongly-challenged veracity in the trials of Teina Pora and Arthur Allan Thomas, who were both later acquitted, and Scott Watson, who continues to deny killing Olivia Hope and Ben Smart in 1999.

It should be noted that a jury gets to see the witness give their evidence and is entitled to decide whether or not they believe it is credible, which is a cornerstone of the judicial system. But there will always be concerns, at least in the minds of the general public, about how much credibility should be given to secret witnesses.