Eli Epiha trial: Unintentional murder defence backfires for man who killed cop

Up until the shootings of two unarmed police officers and the injury of a bystander on the morning of June 19 last year, one of the biggest news items that week had been the Government passing the second tranche of regulations on military-style semi-automatic rifles.

But Eli Bob Sauni Epiha, toting such a gun with the serial number partially filed off, was about to cause a wave of chaos and pain that would supersede all other news in New Zealand that day. The widespread anger and revulsion over the senselessness of it all continue to reverberate over a year later.

Did he do it intentionally, as the officer who survived the rampage and Crown prosecutors contend? Or was he merely a reckless idiot whose understanding of the deadliness of such firearms was limited to video games — more or less his own defence?

Jurors sided with prosecutors on Tuesday, finding him guilty of attempted murder in an 11-1 vote after 11 hours of deliberation spanning two days.

The jurors didn’t seem to have trouble deciding the fate of co-defendant Natalie Bracken, who drove him away from the rampage. They were unanimous in their decision the 31-year-old was an accessory after the fact to wounding Hunt with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.

It might have seemed to the public at the outset of the trial that the pair were Bonnie and Clyde, but the two didn’t actually know each other, Bracken’s lawyers said. She drove him because she was scared for her life and because she wanted to defuse the situation, preventing a “bloodbath” if more cops showed up and were ambushed, they argued to no avail.

While Epiha’s intent that day means little to those who have suffered as a result of his actions — including the many family members of slain Constable Matthew Hunt, who sat through every day of his two-week trial — it could have a bearing on his sentencing. It’s a long shot, though, at least one legal expert says.

Epiha, 25, admitted to Hunt’s murder and to dangerous driving resulting in the injury of the bystander — two out of the three charges against him — just days before his trial began earlier this month. He is expected to receive a discount on those sentences for having saved jurors at the High Court at Auckland some work.

But even though he is now officially a convicted murderer, he’s remained steadfast that he didn’t intend to kill anyone when he pulled the trigger 14 times that day. As a result, a guilty plea was off the table for the remaining attempted murder charge regarding the non-fatal shooting of Hunt’s partner, Constable David Goldfinch.

In reality, the guilty pleas didn’t save a whole lot of work for Crown prosecutors. To give jurors a sense of what was in Epiha’s mind that day, they called many of the same witnesses who would have been called had he denied all charges.

With his jury conviction now added to the mix, Epiha has the tricky task of trying to convince Justice Geoffrey Venning at sentencing that he deserves mercy for not intending to kill the man he murdered — despite being found guilty of intentionally trying to murder Hunt’s partner.

From a purely academic standpoint, Epiha’s defence is exciting, innovative and unusual, longtime law professor Bill Hodge told the Herald. It’s also very unlikely to work, he said.

‘Just praying’

Residents of Reynella Drive in West Auckland suburb Massey first realised something was wrong that day when they heard a vehicle ploughing over the neighbourhood roundabout — not a completely uncommon occurrence — followed by a loud crash.

Fearing that it was their parked car that had been hit, several residents peered outside their windows or ran outside for a better look.

There was the sound of revving as the smoking car tried to leave the scene, accentuated later by the screams of a woman who found her husband face down and bleeding on the pavement.

The man, who was granted permanent name suppression midway through the trial, was the first of Epiha’s victims that day.

He was loading the boot of his Prius that Friday — getting ready to hit the road for a short holiday in Rotorua — as his wife heated up a bottle for their baby inside their home. He didn’t remember what happened next, but his wife appeared to be still shaken as she recounted the morning for jurors.

“The first thing I saw [was] that my husband was lying down and there was bleeding outside his head,” she testified, as a screen separated her and the defendants at her request. “I was screaming for help — just crying and screaming for help. He was totally unconscious.”

She began dragging her husband towards their house in a panic after police arrived and shots rang out a short time later, she recalled.

Then the stranger with the military-style gun began walking in her direction, she recalled.

“I was very afraid,” she said. “I just got [on] top of my husband. I’m covering him. I just feel afraid that maybe we get shot. Just praying. Praying.”

Her husband suffered two fractured bones and received stitches on his head but was discharged from the hospital the same day.

Prosecutors read a brief statement from her husband aloud in court. In the aftermath of his concussion, he recalled Bracken briefly coming to his aid.

“The lady checked the back of my head and asked, ‘Are you OK?'” he said. But when they asked her to call 111, she got in her car and drove off, he recalled.

‘This is where I die’

The chain of events had started a few minutes earlier, when constables Goldfinch and Hunt — settling in after only a couple weeks at his new assignment — spotted a car race up to an intersection they were monitoring while on traffic duty and nearly crash into the side of a truck.

“We both went, ‘Whoa, that’s some pretty poor driving!'” Goldfinch recalled to jurors from the witness stand.

The car then slowed down significantly after the driver, later identified by Goldfinch as Epiha, noticed the marked police station wagon. The officers had an instinct that something was off, and they decided to stop the vehicle. But when Hunt pulled their car onto Triangle Road and activated the lights and sirens, it sped off again at “an incredible speed”, Goldfinch said.

The pair called in the details of the car, realising they wouldn’t be able to catch up to it without a potentially dangerous chase. But when they turned onto nearby Reynella Drive, they saw the residential street was covered in smoke and debris. The person who fled had crashed.

“Because the smoke was so thick, Matt had to slow pretty much to a crawl,” Goldfinch recalled, explaining that his immediate thought was the need to administer first aid. “The last I saw Matt was he put the car in park and I jumped out … I thought maybe I was goingto find an injured driver slumped over the steering wheel.”

Instead, Goldfinch said, he found himself staring down the business end of an AK-47-like gun — later described by an arms expert as a Norinco NHM-90, a semi-automatic version of the rifle used by China’s military.

“He was walking sort of very aggressively towards me. I put up my hands to show I didn’t have a gun,” Goldfinch said, explaining he yelled out at the stranger: “F***ing stop, bro! Put the f***ing gun down!”

But with maybe a car-length between the two men, Epiha began pulling the trigger, the officer recalled. Knowing an engine block was the only thing that could stop bullets from a gun that size, Goldfinch ran for a nearby vehicle and engaged in what he called a game of cat-and-mouse — circling around the vehicle as Epiha tried to follow him in order to get a clean shot, he said.

“It was kind of a surreal moment,” Goldfinch said. “We both stopped and looked at each other. I put up my hands again and went, ‘Just f***ing stop. Just f***ing walk away. I won’t arrest you.’

“I saw him almost contemplating what I said to him.

“After a few seconds, he just like made a decision: ‘I’m going to kill you.'”

That’s when the man turned the gun sideways, angled it above the roof of the car and started firing shots again, Goldfinch said. He ran for his life, sprinting across a lawn in a zig-zag pattern as bullets exploded the ground around him.

“This is where I die,” he remembered thinking to himself.

He didn’t die, kneeling in a backyard then sprinting again and jumping a fence after it appeared Epiha was continuing to “hunt” him with the weapon. But he was hit by four bullets. And he didn’t know where his partner was.

Hunt’s final moments

Despite Epiha’s best efforts to avoid discussing Constable Hunt’s last moments, he was forced to answer questions about it from prosecutors after deciding to testify in his own defence.

Epiha had only come into possession of the gun that morning, going to a friend’s house to borrow it with the intention to scare gang members away from his brother’s home, he told jurors.

After the crash, he first confronted Goldfinch, shooting in the officer’s general direction only to make him run away so that Epiha could run in the opposite direction, he said.

When Goldfinch disappeared from sight, Epiha began pacing backwards towards the crashed car, he said, explaining that there was another gun in it and he needed to return both weapons to the person he borrowed them from or face “some pretty heavy consequences”.

“I turn around to head back to the car and that’s when I got a big fright,” Epiha said. “I didn’t know there was a second officer. He was just there, standing next to the boot of the car.”

Pathologist Simon Stables determined Hunt suffered one non-fatal wound to his chest and three other gunshot wounds to his abdomen and thigh from behind which severed arteries and caused damage to his vertebrae. Any one of those three shots could have individually been fatal. Combined, Hunt had no chance of survival, Dr Stables testified.

Co-defendant Bracken said in her police interview the day after the shooting that she was helping the bystander and didn’t see Constable Hunt fall to the ground. But she said through tears that she did look up as Epiha walked over to the police officer lying in the street and fired two bullets at him. Prosecutors described it as execution-style.

Epiha, meanwhile, said he didn’t realise Hunt had been shot four times or seriously injured. “It’s not a PlayStation game,” he explained. “You don’t know if someone gets hit. I know that now.”

When questioned about why he didn’t offer to help the officer if it was all an accident, Epiha — who had earlier sworn to tell the truth on his own copy of the Quran — said he had contemplated it. In fact, he said, the officer had asked him for help.

“I’m thinking about chucking him in the police car and driving him down to Waitakere Hospital,” Epiha told jurors, explaining that he gave up on the idea seconds later when he heard sirens approaching. Prosecutors later lambasted Epiha’s assertion as “just inconceivable”.

Most of what the public knows about Hunt has come from tributes to him from family, colleagues and friends outside the courtroom. The 28-year-old, who would have celebrated his 30th birthday this Friday, was the 33rd police officer to be killed in the line of duty in New Zealand.

He’s been honoured at Parliament, multiple plaques have been dedicated to him and twice the Sky Tower has lit up in blue in his memory.

Hunt grew up wanting to be a police officer and he had been living that dream for two-and-a-half years when he was killed, his family previously told the Herald. Prior to that, he served as a case manager at Corrections. The daily, often thankless grind of police work hadn’t dampened his passion. After two years posted at the Orewa police station, he had just started with the Waitemata Road Policing Team — part of his plan to eventually earn his way up to detective.

In the days following his death, National MP Mark Mitchell, a friend of the family, recounted a telling previous encounter during which Hunt was threatened with a knife. The officer would have been justified in using force, but he instead used his words and calm demeanour to convince the person to put down the weapon, Mitchell said.

On June 19, it appears Hunt didn’t have a chance to use his words and demeanour on Epiha.

“Constable Hunt, perhaps courageously, gets out of that vehicle — no doubt to see if he can assist his colleague,” prosecutor Brian Dickey said. “Effectively, he must have met him head-on.”

The officer was gunned down before he could say anything, according to witness accounts.

Intent to kill

Several references were made during the trial, either direct or oblique, to other armed confrontations with police that have made headlines in recent weeks.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon these days, Epiha’s own lawyer conceded. He didn’t get into specifics, though, avoiding outlining how one officer was shot in the shoulder the weekend before jury selection began or how police shot another man alleged to have put a gun to the heads of two motorists days later as prosecutors were still presenting their case.

Epiha’s lawyer pleaded with jurors during his closing argument to erect mental walls separating Constable Goldfinch’s injuries, current events and Constable Hunt’s death, for which he pointed out his client had already apologised while on the witness stand.

The entire trial boiled down to the 10 shots that were fired over the course of 16 seconds during the confrontation with Goldfinch, and the four obvious “kill shot” opportunities that Epiha declined to take, he said.

Marcus Edgar also suggested to jurors that they had been under “unconscious pressure” to find Epiha guilty due to the large crowd of supporters for the two officers that showed up to watch court proceedings every day.

“The world in which he lived may be a far cry from ours,” Edgar said of his client, emphasising that his intention that day — however misguided — was initially to use the gun to protect his family. When the crash altered those plans, his intent was only to scare Goldfinch away so he also could run, the lawyer argued.

“As horrible as it may sound, it actually worked,” Edgar said. “He had that officer on the run. [Goldfinch] may have believed that he was running for his life, but…it’s about what Mr Epiha was thinking when he pulled the trigger. He wasn’t hunting the officer. He wasn’t trying to make each shot a potential kill shot.

“He wanted to make it loud and clear: Let me go. Let me get away.”

Unsurprisingly, Crown prosecutors had a quite different take on events. Epiha’s callous murder of Hunt — seeming to walk with a “swagger to his gait” afterwards — showed exactly what was in his mind as he also shot at Goldfinch, Dickey argued.

Referring to Hunt’s four wounds, he asked jurors: “In what construction of reality would it be in which that is not demonstrative of an intent to kill?”

It’s clear Epiha’s ambition that day was to kill a cop, and when he failed with Goldfinch he turned his gun to Hunt, Dickey said.

For the Crown, it could be argued, the case boiled down to a brief but tense exchange during Epiha’s cross-examination during which Dickey reminded the defendant Hunt had been shot from behind.

“Did that make you feel good?” the prosecutor asked.

“Absolutely not,” Epiha responded, his head held high as he stared down the lawyer.

“Then why did you pull the trigger the next time?” Dickey shot back.

“Do you remember the fourth shot you fired into his back?” the prosecutor continued. “Did that make you feel good?”

Epiha responded: “There was nothing good about anything that happened that day.”

But Dickey didn’t accept the answer.

“Every shot you fired at police could have been your last shot … but you kept pulling the trigger because it felt good.”

Epiha adamantly disagreed, his voice taking on a tone as if he was offended by the suggestion. It didn’t sway jurors, though.

Unique strategy

Hodge, the legal academic who has written several textbooks over his nearly 50 years at the University of Auckland, said Epiha’s case is strange on several levels.

First of all, it’s somewhat unusual for defendants to plead guilty to murder in New Zealand. It’s also unusual for a defendant in such a high-stakes case to take the witness stand, opening him or herself up to cross-examination. But in all his decades studying law in New Zealand, he doesn’t recall a defendant pleading guilty to murder and simultaneously not guilty to attempted murder.

“I think it’s unique,” he said. “I haven’t seen one like it.”

Epiha has strong, experienced lawyers who’ve advocated for him well, Hodge said. But if he’s aiming to spit hairs so he can convince the judge to give him a lesser non-parole period at sentencing, he’s going to have an uphill battle, the expert said.

“I don’t think it’s going to be successful myself,” he said, explaining that if he was the judge he’d give a pretty substantial minimum sentence on the agreed facts alone, regardless of intent. “He’s rolling the dice.”

But Epiha’s decisions to enter disparate pleas and to testify might not be rooted entirely in legal strategy, Hodge said.

“He may be doing it for his own sense of justice,” he said. “Is it a really crafty but flawed legal strategy, or is he driven by his own perception that murder doesn’t fit him?

“It may be that Eli Epiha is driven by wanting to prove a point.”

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