15 Aug 2009

Justice system 'struggling with Maori culture'

4:11 pm on 15 August 2009

A Maori educator says the non-custodial sentences imposed for a fatal exorcism attempt in Wainuiomata show the justice system is struggling to deal with traditional practice.

Janet Moses, 22, drowned during a bizarre and prolonged attempt to drive out evil spirits. The family believed she had a makutu, or curse, and poured water into her eyes and down her throat.

Five people were convicted of her manslaughter. Her uncle John Rawiri and aunt Glenys Wright were sentenced to community detention and community work and a night-time curfew was imposed on them.

The victim's aunts Aroha Wharepapa, Tanginoa Apanui and Angela Orupe were also found guilty of her manslaughter and were sentenced to community work and supervision.

Four of the five convicted were ordered by the High Court in Wellington on Friday to attend a Maori tikanga (cultural) course and counselling.

The head of Canterbury University's School of Maori and Indigenous Studies, Rawiri Taonui, says the family did not know what they were doing in attempting exorcism, and applied tikanga or traditional Maori cultural beliefs in a distorted way.

He says the family's beliefs can be held to be genuine but they had no idea what they were doing and were not in line with traditional practices, so in not getting custodial sentences they can be considered to have got off lightly.

Associate Professor Taonui says this and the recent case involving a dispute over the body of Christchurch man James Takamore show judges are struggling to accommodate tikanga in criminal law.

He says two judges may be needed to hear such cases, one Maori and one Pakeha.

Tui Adams, a teacher in Maori culture for the Tainui tribe, gave evidence at the trial and says the concept of a makutu, or curse, is no longer widespread amongst Maori.

Dr Adams says what happened to Janet Moses had nothing to do with any accepted Maori cultural practice.

He says the family had sought advice from a healer who recommended a simple prayer and cleansing ceremony that was nothing like what happened.

Dr Adams says the adviser then had to go to hospital and the family was left without further guidance. He says the family's sole goal was to help Ms Moses, not harm her.