Steve Braunias: Officer’s silence measures cop-killer Eli Epiha as someone absolutely worthless

OPINION:

Friday morning’s sentencing of Eli Bob Sauni Epiha for the murder and attempted murder of two police officers on June 19 last year took up an hour and 44 minutes at the High Court of Auckland, and much of it was a cliffhanger. Everyone knew he was going to go down for a hell of a long time. But the suspense of it was whether Epiha was going to go down for the whole of his life, without parole, without release, without hope.

He surely came very close to that ultimate punishment. Justice Geoffrey Venning spent most of his sentencing remarks examining the issue, holding it up to the light, edging ever closer to slamming the door shut on the 25-year-old who had been variously described in court as a remorseless and arrogant killer.

Epiha shot and killed police officer Matthew Hunt when he fired into his back from a semi-automatic weapon. He also sprayed bullets at police officer David Goldfinch, hitting him four times in the lower body. It happened without warning or reason in the hills of Massey, West Auckland, on a quiet street in that suburb forever watched by police helicopters; Epiha had crashed his car, then leaped out and shot at the unarmed cops.

“Brutal,” said the judge. “Callous.” His tone suggested that here was a case that manifestly justified locking him up and throwing away the key.

Such a sentence had wide support. Victim impact reports were read by videolink and in the courtroom. These reports are a difficult kind of literature. Grief is seldom eloquent. Matthew Hunt’s mother, uncle, and a good mate spoke well and movingly of the man who Epiha had removed from the world. But something more was going on when officer David Goldfinch read his report. It wasn’t in the words; it was in the finish.

During the trial, he had made a point of eyeballing Epiha when he walked past him to give evidence. Sentencing allowed another chance to look at him square in the face, and tell him exactly what he thought of him. He said, “Every move you made that day was that of a coward. Like a coward, you shot two unarmed men. Like a coward, you ran. Like a coward, you tried to hide.” Repetition is often used in victim reports – it narrows down the raw emotion to a salient point, and hammers it home. He continued, “After all that, like a coward, you sat up there and tried to say you didn’t mean to do that. But I stared you in your face. I saw exactly what you were trying to do.”

Goldfinch had moved the story out of Courtroom 11 back to where it really mattered, the scene of the crime at Reynella Drive in Massey. And then he said, “I’m not going to stand here and tell you of the personal and physical has been from what you did to me. You get to know nothing about me. I’m not going to waste any more of my time on you.” And with that he brought it to an end, on a perfect note of contempt. His silence measured Epiha as someone absolutely worthless.

There was a fair bit of supporting evidence for that point of view. The court heard that Epiha’s mates had made admiring TikToks set to I Shot the Sheriff. Signs of remorse were somewhat profoundly absent. One of the few times he’d expressed anything resembling remorse was in a letter he provided to the court, which apologised to the Hunt family for his actions. As Justice Venning said, “It falls considerably short of true remorse. It strikes me as driven by your own personal self-interest.”

True remorse was shown, though, by someone bearing the Epiha name: His uncle, Warren Epiha, who addressed the court on Friday morning not with a prepared statement but with something straight from the heart. He had one theme. That theme was shame. “The shame,” he said, standing in court and speaking not to the judge but directly to Matthew Hunt’s family, “that has been bestowed on the many that carry the name Epiha.”

And then: “I apologise for him. It was not my doing, but I bear the shame. The shame that must be carried because of his actions. I apologise. I bow to you and your family.” He bowed; it was a beautiful gesture, something humble and profound. “Because of this shame, I bow to you.” He bowed again, narrowing down a torment of raw emotion into one salient act.

Justice Venning passed down sentence. He noted, “There are a limited number of factors in your favour.” But the main one was Epiha’s age: He was only 25. To jail him for the whole of his life, ruled Justice Venning, would not be manifestly just. He sentenced him to life for a minimum period of 27 years, without parole, but with, eventually, in 2048, some hope of release.

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