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Not guilty verdict in rape trial

A man accused of sexual offending against his 16-year-old niece has been acquitted by a jury in Gisborne District Court.

The jury deliberated for four and a half hours before returning not guilty verdicts on all 10 charges — one of sexual violation by rape and nine of indecent assault — to Judge Warren Cathcart.

The accused, who is in his 30s, cannot be named due to automatic suppression that applies for complainants in sexual cases.

His niece alleged the offending happened over five months in 2018 while she was in the care of her aunt and uncle.

The complainant said the indecencies began soon after she began living with the couple, happened almost daily and often while she was showering or bathing. (The representative charges applied to those allegations.)

She was able to recall two specific incidents due to other events at the time. Those incidents bookended the start and end of the alleged offending.

The rape allegedly happened during the last incident, while her aunt was absent and the complainant had been grounded with her phone confiscated — punishments issued by her aunt and uncle after she ran off to meet a man she met online and had to be located by police.

The defence position, advanced by counsel Leighvi Maynard, was that the complainant made up the allegations so she could get free of her living situation with its strict rules.

In his closing address, Mr Maynard pointed to the vague nature of the allegations and the complainant's inability to recall details.

Her evidence was also concerningly inconsistent with other evidence, which ruled out any opportunity for the man to commit in particular, the “bookend” offences, Mr Maynard said.

Crown prosecutor Michael Blaschke made much of the accused's police evidential interview, saying he was minimising or lying, Mr Maynard said. But his client was telling the truth when he said nothing sexual ever happened. His candid comment about times he went into the bathroom while the girl was showering only enhanced his credibility.

Defence witnesses revealed the man had told them he was concerned about being alone with the complainant and said they had observed some physical behaviour by her towards him.

Mr Blaschke had seized on that as proof something sexual must have happened – that the man was somehow publicly trying to dispel suspicion. But it was a leap to suggest such things, Mr Maynard said.

The jury could see from his interview the accused was not someone with the level of guile or foresight to try to remedy a situation in that way.

His client had no previous convictions, had been happily married for years, was employed and leading a productive life.

If this man had suddenly become a predatory, depraved, paedophile, would he not have taken every opportunity to be alone with his niece?

Instead, he was talking to others about his concerns and when the prime opportunity arose for him to be alone with his niece (while his wife was in hospital), he arranged to be elsewhere, Mr Maynard said.

In his closing address, Mr Blaschke said the accused's omissions in his police interview were telling.

He did not tell police he was concerned about being alone with his niece or that she had troubled him with physical behaviour. He simply denied anything sexual happened.

He said he innocently took his niece a towel while she was showering. But he had no good reason to do that. His wife said in her evidence, the towels were kept in the bathroom, Mr Blaschke said.

Defence witnesses were aware ahead of the trial of the complainant's central allegations, particularly the “bookend” ones. They bent their evidence to effectively remove any opportunity for the offending. But it was just a smokescreen, Mr Blaschke said.

The overall evidence showed there were opportunities for the offending. There were times the pair were alone together and there was no lock on the bathroom door.

Mr Blaschke rejected the complainant fabricated the allegations.

She only disclosed them at a pre-arranged appointment with a trusted counsellor for other matters, and only when asked as a matter of course if she felt safe at home.

It resulted in her immediate removal from her aunt and uncle's, so if that was her goal, there was no need for her to take the allegations further. She would not have done so without just cause.

It was true her police interview was “no novel” and she shut down when asked about the rape. But that was consistent with a teenager disclosing a recent, traumatic incident in a credible, visceral way, Mr Blaschke said.

Her account of the offending being regular and escalating was consistent with the way this type of sexually offending typically progressed.

The rapid deterioration of her behaviour was also consistent with the effect of such offending, Mr Blaschke said.