On the day Alan Hall was convicted of murdering a man in an Auckland home, Hall’s family got into their car and drove away from court in silence.
“It was traumatic,” Geoff Hall, Alan’s younger brother, told the Guardian 36 years after the event. “It was like a white shock — the blood has left your body, you have tunnel vision, everything around you blurs.”
It was 1986, and Hall, then 23, had just been convicted of stabbing Arthur Easton to death at the 52-year-old’s Papakura home. He spent 19 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
The portrait painted by the police of Hall as the killer was nothing to do with the brother Geoff knew – the brother who would save all his money to buy his family a plastic pool for their back garden or a brand new microwave for his mother make life easier. Geoff recalls thinking, “What are you seeing that I’m not seeing?”
It was this feeling – that the police were so wrong – that forced Hall’s family to fight the conviction. It was a fight they had been committed to for 36 years, until last week when New Zealand’s highest court – the Supreme Court – overturned Hall’s conviction on the grounds that there had been a “serious miscarriage of justice”. Chief Justice Helen Winkelmann told the court that the Crown’s deviation from accepted standards must be “either the result of extreme incompetence or a deliberate and incorrect strategy to obtain a conviction”.
The fight to save Hall’s name comes at a significant cost to Hall and his family — emotionally, psychologically, and economically. Hall’s mother, Shirley, spent the rest of her life defending her son’s innocence, selling the family home in Papakura to pay the investigators who will clear his name. She died in 2012.
Last week, when the Crown delivered its verdict, barring any appeal against the decision, the Hall family’s reaction was the complete opposite of that shocked drive in 1986. “We all stood up and applauded,” says Geoff, and while they held back Serenity; on the inside “Roman candles went out”. “It was monumental and it was really important for the whole family to be there.”
At one point, as people left the court, Geoff went looking for his brother, but he had disappeared from the room. “Alan was gone. He got his freedom and here we go,” he laughs. That evening, on the flight home from Wellington to Auckland, Alan celebrated with a glass of wine – his second glass in 12 years, on his second flight in 40 years.
Geoff says Alan can be difficult to read, which he attributes to his autism diagnosis. “He doesn’t have high or low emotions … that way other people can show when they’re crying or laughing,” he says. “He cared about that, but he wasn’t running around shouting, ‘I’m free! I am free!’. He just got back into his routine.”
But along with the family’s relief, there was sadness at what could never be fixed and the enduring trauma that the justice system had placed on Hall and his family.
“If exoneration had come within the first 10 years of Alan’s conviction, we would have absolutely jumped around,” says Geoff. However, after several setbacks, “the mindset changes and you learn to accept it and you become desensitized to the horror of what happened to him”.
Still, the nearly four-decade struggle Geoff gave his days meaning: “You wake up in the morning and it’s like, ‘Right, oh, we have something really valuable, something that really matters.'”
“Intentional” errors during the process
So egregious was the miscarriage of justice that Crown prosecutors submitted an Extraordinary Bill to the Supreme Court that Hall’s convictions should be overturned and that he would not seek a retrial. It cited the “unacceptable truth” that an “unanswerable cause of miscarriage” took place.
Key evidence was not disclosed at the original trial, and police interrogation tactics used on Hall, who was later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, were deemed suppressive, unfair and conducted without the presence of an attorney.
On the night of the murder and in subsequent interviews, a key police witness said the man he saw running from the property was “definitely black, he wasn’t white.” He said the man was Māori, and even after Hall, who is Pākehā – or of European descent – became the object of police attention, the witness maintained his observation. This description was echoed by other witnesses, who also described the perpetrator as a tall, right-handed man, in contrast to Hall, who was left-handed and of slight build.
According to the Crown, the reference to the description of the key witness was removed from his testimony without his knowledge.
After his conviction, Hall served nearly nine years in prison and was released on parole in the mid-1990s. He violated his parole terms in 2012 and was sent back to prison for an additional 10 years until his release in March this year.
New search for the truth
The struggle to uncover the truth is over. With Hall exonerated, Geoff thinks, “Now what?”
A new fight begins for the Halls. “We are shifting our focus to why did this happen and who [committed the murder],” he says.
The Attorney General has asked for an inquiry into the Crown’s role in what is now considered one of New Zealand’s most significant miscarriages of justice – the first time in the country’s history that Crown Law has turned investigators against itself. Alan Hall, meanwhile, is preparing to seek damages that, if successful, could “far exceed” other cases, Hall’s attorney Nick Chisnall said after the court ruling.
The highest ever compensation payment in New Zealand legal history was awarded to Teina Pora after the Privy Council overturned his rape-murder conviction in 2015. £1.8m).
Geoff praises the Crown’s quick decision to investigate and hopes it will result in those involved – the police and prosecutors – being questioned under oath, “because from what I saw it was obvious and in wrong in every way.” he says.
Alan doesn’t want an apology, says Geoff. “What would mean something to him would be to reopen the investigation into the murder and also to investigate the officers who did this.
Easton’s family also suffered because they didn’t see justice done, says Geoff. “They are all victims of this too and unfortunately they had to suffer while we were in our trial because they believed in the justice system, they believed in the police and then they found out that belief was wrong. ”