Peter Ellis' appeal to be heard from beyond the grave in landmark case

Author
Vita Molyneux, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Mon, 4 Oct 2021, 9:56AM
Peter Ellis with his lawyer, Judith Ablett-Kerr QC in 2001. Photo / NZ Herald 
Peter Ellis with his lawyer, Judith Ablett-Kerr QC in 2001. Photo / NZ Herald 

Peter Ellis' appeal to be heard from beyond the grave in landmark case

Author
Vita Molyneux, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Mon, 4 Oct 2021, 9:56AM

More than two years after his death and 28 years after being convicted of child sex offences, Peter Ellis' appeal will be heard in the Supreme Court in a posthumous attempt to clear his name. 

Ellis was convicted of 16 charges relating to child sex abuse in 1993 and said he would protest his innocence until the day he died. And he did, successfully winning the right to have his case heard in the Supreme Court, just months before bladder cancer claimed his life in 2019. 

But his death hasn't seen the legal fight end, with the next chapter set to be written over the next fortnight in what has become a landmark case for Aotearoa. 

It is a dense and complex case, revolving around the reliability of child witnesses, what counts as expert evidence, and if your mana continues after you die. 

It began in November of 1991 when a parent purchased a black puppy from Ellis. He showed the woman's 3-year-old son how to distinguish the gender of the puppy, and a few months later the woman told police her toddler told her he didn't like Ellis' "black penis". 

Police investigated briefly and then promptly dropped the case. 

But soon more complaints poured in from concerned parents, who had shared notes among one another and compared stories – and the Specialist Services Unit of the Department of Social Welfare started interviewing children. 

Here, Ellis' defence argues, some of the pivotal issues in his trial began. The appeal hinges on the manner in which these children were interviewed, saying it "fell far short of best practice, even at the time". 

The defence claims children were coerced into giving their parents answers they wanted to hear as an air of "satanic panic" infiltrated Christchurch. Bizarre and frightening accounts of ritualistic abuse surfaced, with children saying they had been made to eat faeces, were hung from the ceiling in cages and had needles stuck in their genitals. 

The Crown argued the children were scared, and could not properly express what had happened to them. Their limited vocabulary meant some things may be misconstrued – but these children were victims. 

But Ellis and his defence argued the allegations were riddled with inconsistencies and could not be relied upon. 

Lawyer Rob Harrison said anxious parents had forced these allegations from their children by sharing information amongst themselves and asked suggestive questions – creating the material the children recounted in court. 

In 1993 a six-week trial found Ellis guilty of 16 charges relating to child sex abuse. He was sentenced to serve 10 years in prison. 

The following year, Ellis' first bid for an appeal was granted – and this appeal led to one child retracting her statement, admitting she made up her allegations. This led to three of Ellis' charges – all of which related to her – being overturned. 

However the overall appeal was dismissed by the Court of Appeal which said it found nothing wrong with the interview processes, nor the evidence presented to the court. 

In 1999 he appealed again – this one was rejected entirely. 

In July 2019 the Supreme Court granted Ellis leave to appeal a third time – but two months later, Ellis died of bladder cancer. 

The following month, lawyers gathered in the Supreme Court to discuss whether Ellis' appeal should still be heard. 

The Supreme Court asked whether tikanga Māori applied in Ellis' case. The concept of tikanga is derived from the Māori word 'tika' - meaning right, or correct – so to act in accordance with tikanga is to behave in a way that is culturally appropriate. 

Lawyer Natalie Coates argued specific aspects of tikanga supported a continuation of the appeal posthumously – particularly the idea that a person's mana continues on after their death. 

Coates argued a wrong had been committed – either against Ellis via a miscarriage of justice, or to the children by Ellis - and tikanga dictates this wrong be corrected. Any wrong would impact the families of either Ellis, or the children, and therefore the issue transcends Ellis' death. 

The appeal was granted by the Supreme Court – but its decision on why has been withheld, to be released alongside the result of the appeal. 

In March of 2021 the Crown attempted to add new evidence to the case after a woman came forward claiming Ellis had abused her while babysitting her in the 1980s. 
However this evidence was ruled inadmissible by the Supreme Court in June and the application was dismissed. 

On Monday, the Supreme Court will start hearing evidence of Ellis' appeal against his convictions. The appeal is set down for a total of two weeks.