Real Life

Teina Pora to receive millions in compensation

Teina is set to receive a payout of more than $2 million from the government, after spending over 20 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit

Justice Minister Amy Adams confirmed today that Teina has been awarded $2.5 million in compensation for the time he spent imprisoned, a record payout from the Crown. She also revealed she had written an apology to Teina for the wrongful conviction and its “devastating impact” on his life.

Teina was just 17 years old when he was convicted of the rape and murder of Auckland woman Susan Burdett. He would go on to spend an unimaginable 21 years behind bars, before the Privy Council quashed his convictions in London in March 2015.

Teina’s legal team made a formal claim for compensation for his wrongful conviction in April that same year.

Earlier this year, Woman’s Day spoke to Teina at home with his family. Read on below to see what he had to say about reconnecting with his beloved daughter Channelle, meeting his grandson Benson and how he came to forgive those who had sent him to jail.

Original story continues below

“Come on, Papa!” Six-year-old Benson looks up at his granddad, flashing a gappy grin, a mischievous glint in his eye. “OK, let’s go, dude,” says the older man. “Time to get our photo taken.”

Benson flings himself on Papa while he’s sitting on the edge of the deck, landing on his shoulders with a neck-crunching wallop. Patiently, his koro reaches around and pulls the boy onto his knee, where he proceeds to tickle him wildly.

Benson’s eyes pop with the glorious, delicious unbearable-ness of it all. But he’s not going anywhere. Why would he? He and his granddad have nothing but unbridled enthusiasm for each other’s company.

Teina with his grandson, Benson.

Just a few short years ago, this scene was unimaginable to Benson’s koro, Teina Pora. For 21 years, Teina rotted in prison for the 1992 rape and murder of South Auckland accounts clerk Susan Burdett – a brutal crime he had told police he was present at but in reality had nothing to do with. As the years rolled by, it seemed everything was lost to him – his hope, his freedom, his future and most heartbreaking of all, his young daughter Channelle, who was just two when he was put away.

Help finally came in the form of former police officer- turned-private investigator Tim McKinnel, who over five years took it upon himself to put the pieces of Teina’s puzzle together and prove the man’s innocence.

He found vital evidence that categorically flew in the face of the prosecution’s case and, most importantly, he pinpointed the reason why Teina had so inexplicably confessed to being in on the crime that gripped the nation – he was the victim of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, caused by his mother drinking while she was pregnant.

Teina might have seemed normal to the untrained eye, but the damage to his brain in utero made him suggestible, easily led and eager to please the police with answers he thought they wanted to hear. In March last year, the Privy Council in London quashed the case against Teina, and an inquiry into his claim for compensation for wrongful conviction and imprisonment is currently underway.

While he yet again waits for the wheels of justice to turn, Teina – who was just 17 when he was imprisoned – knows he will never get back those precious and formative years he lost. His focus now, he tells Woman’s Day, is the family he feels doubly blessed to have by his side.

When Teina, now 40, and his daughter Channelle, 25, arrive for our shoot, the family resemblance is impossible to miss. Both instantly warm and quick to meet your eye, but quietly spoken, they share the same 100-watt smile that lights up the room – and their cheeky banter goes back and forth like a game of ping-pong.

The South Aucklander spent 21 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.

Shaky start

To an outsider, it seems they have been kidding around with each other their whole lives, but nothing could be further from the truth. Family, for this pair, has mingled with tragedy from way back. One of four kids, Teina lost his mum Rita to cancer when he was just four. His father left soon afterwards and the children grew up being passed around various family members. By age 15, Teina was suffering from “damaged self-esteem”, he was a petty car thief with his eye on joining a gang – and he was a teen dad. He was in a youth detention centre when his then-girlfriend Fiona gave birth to Channelle.

“I wasn’t ready for fatherhood,” admits Teina. “But her mum brought her to the boys’ home to see me and she was the best thing I had ever seen. I was excited.” After he was released from borstal, Teina bonded with his little girl, eagerly buying her toys and clothes, and when the police took him to the station one day in 1993 to question him about some stolen cars, he kissed her goodbye on the forehead, imagining he would be home again before too long.

Instead, over the course of four days, he found himself falsely confessing that he took several Mongrel Mob members to Susan Burdett’s Papatoetoe flat a year earlier and that he had held her down during the vicious attack that followed. None of it was true. He just wanted the questioning to stop and perhaps gain a financial reward for providing useful information to the police. Instead, by placing himself at the scene of the crime, he was convicted for both rape and murder. He saw his daughter just a handful of times over the next 16 years. Throughout his long years inside, says Teina, “I used to wonder if I’d ever get the chance to see Channelle again. I was aware she was growing up without me.”

For Channelle, who was raised “knowing my dad was in jail but not much else”, the separation was just as painful. She didn’t know that every day Teina was thinking of her –and that she was one of the only things keeping him going in prison.“We had so little contact,” recalls Channelle. “When I was sad, I remember just wishing that I had my dad.” It wasn’t until Channelle was 18 years old and six months pregnant with Benson that a merging of events gave her the chance to renew their relationship. Now with her own car, she had the means to visit Teina in prison and at the same time, Tim McKinnel came knocking, explaining that he was working on clearing Teina’s name.

Teina at around 15 (left) and on the first day of his questioning (right).

Father and daughter re-established contact and Teina was thrilled to learn he was about to be a grandfather. When one of his sisters told him Channelle had gone into labour, he couldn’t wait. He called her at the hospital.

Teina grins and gives a thumbs-up. “It was exciting. It was a boy! I just couldn’t believe I was a grandfather.” When Channelle brought baby Benson to Spring Hill Prison in the Waikato for a visit, the proud grandfather took him in his arms and didn’t let go until it was time to leave.

“I was over the moon,” he confesses. At last, his life was turning around. In the five years between Channelle and Teina reuniting and the historic Privy Council decision in March last year, the two made up for lost time. Channelle smiles as she recalls taking Benson, as he grew, to visit his granddad at “The Castle”. “When he’s old enough to understand, we’ll tell him the truth,” she says. “We don’t need to hide anything from him.” Father and daughter are close and these days, Otara-born Teina divides his time between spending weeks or even months living with Channelle and “chilling out” away from the city.

‘I forgive you’

But the transition from prisoner to free man hasn’t been easy. Teina talks candidly about the difficulties of settling back into the real world, like how uncomfortable he felt when strangers approached him on the street to shake his hand like he was a celebrity. Channelle, who juggles motherhood with a busy career as a chef in South Auckland, has a theory that Teina’s development came to a grinding halt when he was imprisoned at 17 and he’s only now picking up the strands.

“He’s like a teenager,” she says matter-of-factly. “He’s pretty fast – travelling around, going clubbing, going to concerts … But on the inside, there’s lots he needs to work on in terms of his stability.

“It makes me angry that he was locked away for those years when he should have been developing into an adult. I hate having to see him coming to this world as if he’s blind and he’s got to find everything.” Teina nods in agreement. “I guess the reality for me is that I found out who I was in prison. I knew how to survive. But out here in the wider world, it’s totally different. I’m still learning how to be normal.”

Eleven years ago, Teina found Christianity in prison. It changed his life. “Up until then, I hated the system. I hated pretty much anyone wearing a Corrections uniform,” he says quietly. “Then I started to find out who I was. It was like being born again in the spiritual sense. It made a huge difference in my life.”

His conversion helped him to forgive the family members who had testified against him all those years ago. “I don’t hold any grudges. I saw them at a birthday party when I got out and I just walked up to them and said, ‘I forgive you and I love you.’ It made me feel at peace and set me free. I don’t hold anything against anybody and that’s the best way to be in life.” Teina also learned a lot from another good book during his time inside – the Edmonds Cookery Book.

What’s his favourite thing to cook? “Banana cake,” interjects Channelle. “And roast lamb with honey glaze,” continues Teina, “with vegetables done nice and crisp, not boiled until all the vitamins are gone.”

An 11-year-old Teina (left, in the red cap) and precious time with Benson and Channelle in August 2012, on his first home leave in nearly 20 years (right).

Throughout the interview, Teina and Channelle fling good-humoured cheek at each other, both pleased at the perfectly placed jokes that only close friends and family can get away with. It’s a strange twist of fate that being a teen dad turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to Teina. Channelle and her little family form the bedrock of his new life as a free man.

He shares a story about taking Benson to the mall and losing him. “I just turned my eyes and he was gone. I looked all around, came back into the shop and heard this funny laugh. He was hiding in the changing rooms! It just broke my heart. I said to him, ‘Don’t ever do that again. What if someone really had taken you? How would we live with that?’”

It’s spoken like a man who knows what it’s like to lose everything and has no intention of letting that happen again. “No matter what I’m still going through, I know that the important parts are my daughter and grandson. “Channelle is strong and independent. I’m so proud of her. And Benson’s just a bubbly and excited young fella. I know he has a huge future ahead of him. I know that for sure.

“Wherever I take him, people go, ‘Where did you get this little kid from?’ I say, ‘He popped out of my daughter and look at him!’” “I’m proud of my dad too,” says Channelle. “Everything he’s been through, it’s not easy. Sometimes I have to step back from it. I don’t want to think about what he had to go through. It’s too sad.”

“But I always knew I had a daughter out there,” adds Teina, catching Channelle’s eye.“And I always knew I had my dad,” Channelle grins back. While Teina and Channelle are shy of the media attention that has followed them over the years, this week they’re stepping up to the plate again, publicising author Michael Bennett’s new book, In Dark Places, which tells the story of how Teina ended up in prison and the fight for his freedom.

“It’s all in a good cause,” tells Teina. “I want people to know what really happened. I hope a system is put into place that serves and protects the public properly. I don’t ever want another person to go through the same thing that I went through.”

A family reunited! Channelle is overjoyed to finally have Teina home. “We had so little contact,” she says. “When I was sad, I remember just wishing I had my dad.”

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