Peter Ellis’ appeal from beyond the grave heard at the Supreme Court

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

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

But his death did not see the end of the legal fight, with the next chapter set to be written over the next fifteen weeks in what has become a landmark affair for Aotearoa.

It’s a dense and complex matter, one that revolves around the reliability of child witnesses, what counts as expert evidence, and whether your mana continues after you die.

It all started in November 1991 when a parent bought Ellis a black puppy. He showed the woman’s 3-year-old son how to distinguish the sex of the puppy, and a few months later the woman told police her toddler told her he didn’t like the “black penis.” ‘Ellis.

Police investigated briefly, then quickly dropped the case.

But soon, more and more complaints poured in from worried parents, who had shared notes with each other and compared stories – and the Specialized Services Unit of the Department of Social Welfare began interviewing the children.

Here, Ellis’ defense argues, some of the crucial issues in his trial have begun. The appeal is based on how these children were interviewed, saying it “falls short of best practice even then.”

The defense claims children were forced to give their parents answers they wanted to hear as an air of “satanic panic” crept into Christchurch. Weird and frightening tales of ritual abuse have surfaced, with children claiming they were made to eat feces, hung from the ceiling in cages, and needles stuck in their genitals.

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

But Ellis and his defense argued that the allegations were riddled with inconsistencies and could not be relied on.

Lawyer Rob Harrison said anxious parents forced these allegations on their children by sharing information with each other and asking leading questions – creating the material the children recounted in court.

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

The following year, Ellis’ first appeal was granted – and that appeal led to a child recanting, admitting that she had made up her claims. This led to three of Ellis’ charges being overturned – all of which involved her.

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

In 1999 he appealed again – this was rejected entirely.

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

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

The Supreme Court asked if the tikanga Māori applied in Ellis’ case. The concept of tikanga is derived from the Maori word “tika” – which means just or correct – so to act in accordance with tikanga is to behave in a culturally appropriate way.

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

Coates argued that a wrong had been done – either against Ellis through a miscarriage of justice or against the children by Ellis – and tikanga dictates that this wrong be corrected. Any harm would impact Ellis ‘families or children, and so the issue transcends Ellis’ death.

The appeal was allowed by the Supreme Court – but its decision on the reasons was upheld, to be released with the outcome of the appeal.

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

On Monday, the Supreme Court will begin hearing evidence of Ellis’ appeal against his convictions. The appeal is established for a total of two weeks.

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