Real Life

‘Drug-driving killed our girl’

After the loss of their teenage daughter, a Taupo couple fights to keep repeat offenders behind bars.
Taupo couple Malcolm and Sharlene Barnett

Malcolm and Sharlene Barnett want to set one thing straight – their daughter did not die in a car accident. Although Krystal Bennett (18) was not murdered, the couple says the actions of a disqualified, repeat drink and drug driver under the influence of methamphetamine (commonly known as P) were as lethal as a brutal killing – and is not something that can be described as an accident.

It was seven years ago when Leah Wai Peneha drove down State Highway 2 near Upper Hutt after a P binge. She drove 300m on the wrong side of the road and killed both Krystal and one of Leah’s passengers, Khan Lockwood Edwards – the 12-year-old son of her partner.

Leah was sentenced to six and a half years for manslaughter, with a non-parole period of four years. The judge described her as a “lawless menace”. She used P up to five times a day and had racked up several serious driving convictions, including two for drink driving.

Now that Leah has been released from jail after serving six years, the Barnetts will get some relief from the ongoing stress of the court system and parole hearings. But the Taupo couple are still fighting for the rights of other victims of crime.

They joined the Sensible Sentencing Trust because they had nowhere else to turn. The couple felt almost embarrassed to be facing the families of victims who had been raped and murdered, but they were soon reassured they had every reason to be there.

“We felt like our daughter had ‘only’ been killed by a car,” says Malcolm (56). “There wasn’t any brutality to it, but someone pointed out that it made no difference what the weapon was – someone was in charge of that weapon.”

Along with other families, the Barnetts are particularly keen to speed up the justice system so that criminals are processed faster. “The time it takes between committing the crime and doing the time is too long,” Malcolm says. He adds if Leah had been sentenced for a car crash she was involved in six months earlier, she would have been in prison and unable to kill Krystal in September 2005.

The couple have since found it in their hearts to hope Leah can lead a better life, but admit feeling “overwhelming hatred” for her in the months after the crash. “She has the chance to improve herself and get ahead where Krystal hasn’t. So we would like to see her getting ahead,” says Sharlene (56).

Leah is disqualified from driving until April 2021. Malcolm and Sharlene point out that at least Leah still has her life. The couple will never stop wishing they still had their sparkly-eyed daughter in their lives. “There are no grandkids, there’s no wedding. The day Krystal died, part of me died too,” Sharlene says.

Before Leah served her six-and-a-half-year sentence, the couple attended constant hearings to stop her from being released. Malcolm says this stress contributed to the development of his Parkinson’s disease. Sharlene explains how they were forced to relive the horror of the day when a police officer knocked at their door, over and over again.

“It’s hard work going to all the parole hearings,” says Sharlene. The couple believe there should be no parole for prisoners and that they should serve their full sentence. Both Malcolm and Sharlene have two daughters each from previous relationships.

Krystal was 12 when Malcolm came into their lives and wasted no time forging a strong connection. He treasures a special plaque given to him by his stepdaughter that reads, “Anyone can be a father, but it takes a special person to be a dad.”

In the months after Krystal’s death, Sharlene would break down in tears every time she heard an emergency siren – and today she still shudders. “I know exactly what families are going through,” she says. “If someone has an illness and they die, as sad as it is, it’s all over with,” Malcolm explains.

“You don’t have to go through the court proceedings, the depositions hearing, the sentencing and all these parole board hearings. “You’ve got to go through all this crap on top of the fact you’ve lost your daughter.”

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