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'A bitter pill to swallow': Anger, pain as killer sentenced to life in prison

Anna Leask,
Publish Date
Wed, 22 May 2024, 1:31pm
Motu Smith on trial at the Christchurch High Court on February 7 for the murder of Daniel Hawkins. Photo / Christ Skelton, The Press
Motu Smith on trial at the Christchurch High Court on February 7 for the murder of Daniel Hawkins. Photo / Christ Skelton, The Press

'A bitter pill to swallow': Anger, pain as killer sentenced to life in prison

Anna Leask,
Publish Date
Wed, 22 May 2024, 1:31pm
  • Murderer Motu Smith sentenced to life in prison for murdering Daniel Hawkins
  • Victim’s family revealed suffering in “powerful” statements in court
  • Smith tells court he has “committed to God” and to becoming a better person
  • Judge says victim was no angel - but Smith was the only aggressor, rejects self-defence claims

The man who murdered former gang member Daniel Hawkins in the bedroom of his unit at a Christchurch housing complex has been sentenced to life in prison and will not be eligible for parole for more than 14 years.

Motu Smith admitted part of the fatal attack saying he “chose to stay alive” when the other man “raged out” at him after taking meth.

But he denied the charge of murder, claiming self-defence.

After a trial in the High Court at Christchurch a jury found him guilty.

He had earlier pleaded guilty to a raft of other violence and dishonesty offences that started 10 days before the murder including assaulting two other men.

The court heard on the day of the murder, Smith beat Hawkins in the bedroom of his Sydenham unit, inflicting severe head injuries then cutting his throat and stabbing his neck.

His was handed down this morning after Hawkins’ family spoke of their shock, grief and ongoing pain; reading emotional statements and addressing the killer directly.

Kenneth Daniel Hawkins - known as Daniel - was allegedly murdered in his Christchurch home.
Kenneth Daniel Hawkins - known as Daniel - was allegedly murdered in his Christchurch home.

He then took off in the victim’s car, leaving him to die on his bed in a pool of his own blood.

Smith’s actions were part of a “spree” of offending during which he violently attacked two other men - also fleeing in their vehicles.

The murderer was sentenced by Justice Jonathan Eaton this morning.

The hearing began with Victim Impact Statements - the first from Hawkins’ daughter.

She said writing her statement had been a “daunting task” and the loss of her father was “profound”, causing a “jumble of mixed emotions”.

She said her relationship with Hawkins was complicated but they were getting to a better place when he died.

Smith’s actions had robbed her of patching things up.

“That chance is gone and it hurts,” she said.

“The pain I’m left with, this overwhelming feeling of loss and regret and knowing he’s gone because of somebody else’s senseless act.

“It’s a bitter pill to swallow.

“As I stand here today, I ask for justice - not just for my dad, but for the closure and healing... it won’t bring him back or erase the pain, but it’s a start.”

She turned to Smith and said his actions were disgusting and had caused unmeasured pain and suffering.

She hoped he found remorse and understanding and became a better person.

Hawkins’ older sister Shelley then spoke.

“No words can explain exactly how I feel. How do you react to devastating news like this? The impact has been mentally and physically life-changing.

“What you did Motu Tipene Smith changed the course of life with every single person involved in your heinous crime spree.”

She said she was a survivor and not a victim.

“Because I will not allow you to take another victim because of your inability to control your life choices and... absolute disregard or respect for anybody’s life,” she said.

“Your actions cause so much grief and shock that the ripple effect of grief and stress forced one of our sisters to go into shock and become seriously unwell. In fact, terminally unwell because she was grieving the loss of her loved brother and she was not strong enough to fight and she succumbed to her illness.”

Shelley said Hawkins was a much-loved member of the family - and had just become a grandfather before he died.

He never got to meet his granddaughter.

He had been working hard to “change his life around for the better” and his whanau were gutted they would see him thrive.

“You took everything and so much more... And I’m sure not just from my family either but from your own,” she said.

“I miss him dearly and life is a struggle on a daily basis without him.”

Motu Smith on trial at the Christchurch High Court on February 7 for the murder of Daniel Hawkins. Photo / Christ Skelton, The Press
Motu Smith on trial at the Christchurch High Court on February 7 for the murder of Daniel Hawkins. Photo / Christ Skelton, The Press

She said no sentence would ever be enough.

“Justice is served in the eyes of the Crown - and think of that sentence however you please,” she said.

“These wrongs you have done will never be unwronged. It’s done.”

Another sister told the court that Hawkins had a good upbringing and was “a happy little boy”.

“Growing up, he didn’t always make good choices,” she said.

“He met dreadful people... these choices lead him down some unsavoury paths. He celebrated his 21st birthday in jail which broke my mum and dad’s heart. This devastated Danny.”

She said the whole family tried to help him - to the point of their own exhaustion.

For a long time he was “extremely angry at everybody in life” but was determined to change.

“I am grappling not only with the profound loss of my brother Danny, but also with the new heavy burden of knowing that our fractured relationship was on the path to healing.

“We didn’t always see eye to eye and his choices in life often caused strife within the family - but in months leading up to this murder, I witnessed the glimmer of hope as he started to reconnect with us.

“It pains me deeply to know that this budding reconciliation was abruptly cut short by you. We were reconnecting, he was finding himself who he was. But this was taken from us in the most unimaginable way.

“He would send me photos of sunrises and sunsets. The last text I received from him was ‘I love you my big sis’... something I’ll treasure.”

She could not comprehend why anyone would act how Smith did.

“Why? Because you got out of the wrong side of the bed and had a bad day?” she said.

“You have no idea what having a bad day is. We are fighting to keep our heads above water here. The loss of Danny has left a mark on our family... the weight of grief is unbearable - made even more unbearable by the knowledge that our sister succumbed to a stress-related cancer trying to deal with the enormity of this.

“This is a stark reminder of the toll that trauma and loss can take on a person’s wellbeing.”

She finished by saying her brother “made mistakes and some poor choices in life”.

“But he was still a beloved member of our family and his absence has left a void that can never be filled.”

A statement was also read from Hawkins’ third sister Nicky, who passed away before she could face Smith in court.

“I will never forget the phone call I received from my sister in the middle of the night... and I was told Danny was found dead in his home.

“I just remember feeling completely numb and going cold right through to my bones... it was the most devastating thing. Knowing someone had chosen to take my brother’s life was so difficult... I experienced every single emotion that a body can go through.”

She said Smith had destroyed Hawkins’ family.

“For me personally, I have spent endless hours crying, so many sleepless nights with horrific nightmares and having to seek my doctor’s support as well as ongoing psychological support.

“The ongoing trauma and stress has also had a significant effect on my physical health. I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer which also spread to my lungs and stomach.

“I was told by my medical professionals that cancer had spread in such a short time due to the significant stress, trauma and big heart grief that I had suffered.

“Even though treatment has been started, chemotherapy is only going to buy me time as this cancer is terminal. One of my biggest life goals is to be able to be here in court to see you be held accountable for what you did to Danny, me and my family.”

When Hawkins died his girlfriend Nyomi Coleman spoke to the Herald, confirming he was an ex-Mongrel Mob member who was trying to turn his life around.

Hawkins was facing family violence charges in relation to an incident involving Coleman.

The pair had not seen each other for about six weeks, a condition of his electronically monitored bail conditions.

Despite the situation, Coleman said she loved Hawkins deeply and said he was a good person.

She told the court today how Hawkins’ death affected her.

“I honestly feel like he could walk back in the door at any time because it’s so hard to believe he is gone,” she said.

“I hate you for what you have done to me, Dan’s family and friends.”

She said her teenage daughter was close to Hawkins and after he died she “turned self-harming to cope with the pain”.

She suffered crippling anxiety and could not get out of bed at times.

“I still have anxiety and need counselling help to get me through that,” she said.

“We can talk, we can all walk freely and live our lives the best we can. I hope that you are not able to do that for a very, very long time.”

The housing complex in Christchurch where Daniel Hawkins died.
The housing complex in Christchurch where Daniel Hawkins died.

Justice Eaton heard submissions from Crown prosecutor Claire Boshier and Smith’s lawyer Kerryn Beaton KC before he turned to the formal sentence.

Boshier said the victim statements were powerful and demonstrated the immense and ongoing impact the offending had.

Beaton said Smith acknowledged that and accepted the jury’s verdict - but still maintained he was acting in self-defence.

She said he had a “profoundly traumatic childhood” which led to significant mental health, addiction and other issues.

She told the court he was “a completely different man now” and was trying to be a better person and make sense of the harm he had caused to Hawkins’ family.

“He was deeply affected by hearing the words of Mr Hawkins’ whanau,” Beaton said regarding the victim statements.

She revealed Smith had written a number of letters to the family after taking time to reflect on their words.

Further, since being in prison his mental health was being managed, he had “committed to God” and religion and reconnected with his family and young child.

“He wants to improve himself and be a better person,” said Beaton.

“He acknowledges that will provide little solace to the family of Mr Hawkins... he acknowledges their loss is the result of his actions.

Justice Eaton accepted that while Hawkins may have seemed threatening to Smith, he had every right to react that way when confronted in his own home by the bigger, stronger man.

While Smith Hawkins’ gang tattoos “triggered” him - Justice Eaton rejected any claims of self-defence.

“Mr Hawkins posed no threat to you at all... you used the knife in uncontrolled rage... I do not accept there was any self-defence... you were always the aggressor,’ he said.

“You could of - and should have left.”

Justice Eaton said Hawkins was no angel but was a completely innocent victim in Smith’s offending.

He said there was a wealth of material relating to Smith’s background, upbringing, struggles, addictions - and “achievements” since his arrest and incarceration.

A pre-sentence report noted Smith claimed he was “psychotic” - paranoid and hallucinating - and having a “breakdown” at the time of offending and lost control.

“It was like a bomb going off in your head, like you were watching events unfold and you were not part of them,” said the judge.

He also noted Smith accepted responsibility for killing Hawkins, knew he would be in prison for a lengthy period and was remorseful.

He had previous convictions for violence - including using a knife.

A cultural report outlined possible causative factors including familial dysfunction, normalisation of violence, drugs and gangs, alcohol and drug addiction, absent parents and abuse.

Justice Eaton said Smith’s life was “very, very sad” and “marred by dysfunction and abuse” that began when he was an infant.

He had “an appalling personal history”.

At 7, Smith stabbed his mother’s boyfriend with a barbecue fork after she had “taken a beating” from the man.

His life after that was transient - he lived between family members, was exposed to antisocial behaviour and began using meth.

“Your mental health had deteriorated drastically... fuelled by your drug and alcohol addictions,” said Justice Eaton.

Smith also said he was “hearing voices” and haunted by demons telling him to hurt people at the time of the murder.

Justice Eaton revealed Smith had also written him a letter ahead of sentencing, had positive references from family members.

Despite the changes Smith claimed to have made and his commitment to be a better man, Justice Eaton had to hold him accountable - and denounce and deter future offending by him and others.

He sentenced Smith to life in prison with a minimum non-parole period of 14 years and six months.

His sentences for the offending - ranging from three to four years - will be served concurrently.

He said it was important to note the MPI was not the time Smith would spend in prison - it was simply the minimum term he had to serve before he could be considered for parole.

Even if granted parole, Smith’s sentence remains and he will be subject to conditions for the rest of his life.

Justice Eaton’s full and extremely extensive sentencing notes will be made public by the Ministry of Justice imminently.

Anna Leask is a Christchurch-based reporter who covers national crime and justice. She joined the Herald in 2008 and has worked as a journalist for 18 years with a particular focus on family violence, child abuse, sexual violence and youth crime. She writes, hosts and produces the award-winning podcast A Moment In Crime, released monthly on nzherald.co.nz

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