Freedom Fighter: Tim McKinnelby North & South
How did ex-cop Tim McKinnel go from dealing with abuse cases in South Auckland to driving the efforts that led to Teina Pora’s convictions for the rape and murder of Susan Burdett being quashed by the Privy Council in London? North&South asked him.
A family friend, who was a senior cop in Masterton, suggested going away and getting some life experience first. So that solved that dilemma. I was finishing my physical education degree at Otago University when I realised it wasn’t what I wanted to do for a career. So, I took the summer off, then went to police college and ended up, at the age of 22, as a cop in South Auckland.
I was that guy people are talking about when they say, “Cops just keep looking younger and younger.” The first time I pulled over a car, the driver was a man my father’s age. He looked at me and I looked at him, and I think we were both bemused by the situation. I tried to fake it, but there was little doubt I felt awkward and he thought it was funny.
After growing up in a fairly conservative Catholic family in Gore, Nelson and Masterton, moving to South Auckland to work on the front lines was an eye opener.
I tired quickly of dealing with drunk, addicted and sometimes violent people who can’t be reasoned with. That’s what many front-line cops have to deal with, day in, day out. That pushed me towards the more inquiring, investigative side of policing, which interested me because in many ways it was a study in human nature and psychology.
The curse and beauty of South Auckland is that you’re thrown in the deep end very quickly. There’s no better way to learn than to end up in court being cross-examined by experienced senior counsel. You quickly find out why the small things at the beginning of an investigation really matter at the business end.
Read more: How justice for Susan Burdett took 27 years
My first trial was a relatively complex fraud case, which involved collecting a lot of documents and interviewing many witnesses and, most importantly, at the end, conducting an interview of the suspect that went on for nearly four hours. It was an exhausting experience, for that person as well as me. I learnt several things from that trial: the most important was it’s unlikely you will ever complete the perfect investigation – there are too many variables, too many independent and moving parts.
One of the other beauties of South Auckland is that you’re quickly running multiple trials with different prosecutors. One of these, early in my career, was Jonathan Krebs. We prosecuted a historical sexual abuse case. He and I immediately got on, and we got a favourable outcome for the victims in that case. Many years later, when we were both in Hawke’s Bay, he seemed like an obvious choice to work on Teina Pora’s case, as his new lawyer.
About a year before I left the police, I was involved in an off-duty incident as a passenger in the car with a fellow cop who was pulled over for a traffic infringement late at night. That was investigated and we were both cleared of doing anything illegal, but it was a difficult experience – being investigated by your own colleagues. Until then, I had had a blemish-free career, and in my view I hadn’t done anything wrong, but one or two senior officers really went after us. It was enlightening.
We went back to work, but it became evident my heart wasn’t in the job. I took leave without pay and eventually resigned a few months later. My wife, Megan, and I went to the UK, which we used as a base to travel the world for two years.
In London, I did contract investigative work that was well paid but, at times, morally troubling. I worked for a corporate investigation company that was heavily involved in Iraq, and some fairly dubious investigative techniques were being used. I found myself trying to justify being involved in what was happening – and failing.
I didn’t stick with it for too long.
After those two years in London, we had our first son, and came home to New Zealand in 2007 when he was a few weeks old. I spent the next two years working commercially for an insurance company and the Ministry of Health on fraud in the health sector.
While I was at the MoH, I was diagnosed with a rare blood condition that some medical professionals call blood cancer and others call a myeloproliferative disorder. I call it my blood disorder. It was a shock. I was in my early 30s. My wife was pregnant with our second child. It took me months to adjust. It wasn’t a death sentence – many people with the disorder live normal lives. But most people get it in their 50s and 60s, not their 30s. Today, I’m doing fine. I take my medication, I’m closely monitored and, as one of the primary symptoms is lethargy and tiredness, I try not to give myself time to be tired or lethargic. But the diagnosis made me want to look for more meaningful work.
At the end of 2008, we moved to Hawke’s Bay, where I set up a North Island branch of Zavest, a private investigation company. Not long after that, I wrote to Teina Pora, then got a call from him in prison.
I’d heard about Teina’s case in 2000, when he had his second trial and I was still a cop. There was a fair bit of internal debate about it in the police, with some uncomfortable about him being prosecuted at all. Most thought he’d be acquitted. So there was angst and surprise when he was convicted, particularly in light of Malcolm Rewa’s conviction for Susan Burdett’s rape and his form as a lone-wolf, serial intruder rapist.
In 2007, I went to an Innocence Project conference in Wellington. It was fascinating listening to these stories about claims of innocence. My mind flicked back to Teina, but I wasn’t in a position to do anything about it then. Two years later, I’d started with Zavest, had some time and had been diagnosed – all of which contributed to the decision to go to see Teina in Spring Hill prison and find out if there was anything worth pursuing.
That first meeting, in September 2009, was all about sizing each other up. My first impression of Teina wasn’t what I expected from someone who’d grown up in South Auckland, had been a young criminal and spent 17 years in prison. I didn’t expect him to be so well spoken or so open to my approach.
When I decided to take things further and begin gathering evidence that could be used in court, I knew it would be a lot of work, but not how much it would be. I naively thought we’d get to a point where there would be some acceptance from the authorities of Teina’s innocence, because even in the first six months of investigation it became clear what had happened. I had difficulty thinking that anyone with objectivity or intelligence could see what we’d seen and not have serious doubts about the safety of his convictions. I thought eventually those in power – Crown Law, the police – would make some concessions and try to find a way to see justice was done. That never happened.
While working on the case, I recognised there was a risk I could lose my objectivity. I leant on Teina’s lawyers, Jonathan Krebs and Ingrid Squire, and some close friends. I would check in with them, ask them to analyse decisions or things I’d written and to make sure subjectivity wasn’t creeping in… I worked hard to make sure my work was objective.
I also didn’t expect the impact it would have on my family. You become obsessed. While that’s not necessarily healthy, it can be helpful because you need a depth of knowledge that almost requires a level of obsession. It takes over your life. It takes over decisions about where you go on holiday. It takes over decisions about what work you do, where you live. How much of your children you see.
People ask when I think it will all be over for me, and for a long time I was looking forward to experiencing a euphoric moment of victory. But now I’m not sure that will ever come.
Having the convictions quashed was a big deal. Having no retrial ordered was an equally big deal. Now there’s the question of factual innocence to be determined; that’s being dealt with by a retired judge who is also a Queen’s Counsel. If it’s decided Teina is innocent, then there’s the question of compensation. If he is awarded compensation, then there’s the question of how it’s managed.
I don’t know if this case will ever disappear. But I need to try to detach myself from it – at least for a while.
In Dark Places: The Confessions of Teina Pora and an Ex-cop’s Fight for Justice by Michael Bennett (Paul Little Books, $34.99)
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