Whenuapai murder trial: Jury returns after month long Covid-19 lockdown pause

Jurors will return to the High Court at Auckland today for the first time since the city went into alert level 4 lockdown over a month ago.

With Auckland just in its second day of less-strict alert level 3 restrictions, Justice Mathew Downs has decided to resume the murder trial of Isaac Allen Harnwell, which was well underway when it was put on indefinite pause on August 18 due to the Delta outbreak.

Harnwell has pleaded not guilty to the murder of Coubin Tamatoa, who had just recently turned 31 when he died in August 2020 of a stab wound at a Whenuapai property on Auckland’s northwestern outskirts where his ex-girlfriend lived.

The two men hated each other and had been itching for a fight over stolen drugs and an incident a month earlier in which Harnwell’s car was shot at while leaving the same property, prosecutor Sam Teppett told jurors during his opening statement on August 10.

Harnwell’s lawyer, Andrew Speed, suggested that the death was the result of either self-defence or the defence of Tamatoa’s ex-girlfriend.

Witnesses described a wild and violent, drug-addled night in which Tamatoa held a handgun to his ex-girlfriend’s throat and said he would kill her, did doughnuts with his car in a paddock and threw a crumpet at a friend who had tried to calm him down, causing the friend to leave.

But when he went into a bedroom where the defendant was, Tamatoa emerged with stab wounds to his chest and eye, witnesses testified.

During an interview with police eight days later, after Harnwell was found by police in a ceiling cavity at a relative’s home, he said Tamatoa fell on the knife in a freak accident, jurors heard. It was Tamatoa who was attacking him, he said.

“Because it’s a wobbly chair, like a La-Z-Boy type thing. When he grabbed me, I grabbed the knife and he fell at the same time,” he said in the recorded interview. “I launched back and that’s when he fell … He’s quite a large boy, you know, and he’s fallen onto the knife.”

Harnwell insisted Tamatoa was only stabbed in the eye during the confrontation, even after the detective interviewing him pointed out that Tamatoa actually died from the wound to his chest. He was being framed for that wound, the defendant suggested.

Jurors and courthouse personnel will return to the courtroom in person as the trial resumes, but family members and media have been given instructions to observe remotely via videolink due to continuing Covid-19 precautions.

A separate jury at the High Court at Auckland had been hearing the criminal trial of a social media influencer when the nation went into lockdown last month. Justice Christine Gordon gave the order to abort that trial a week into the lockdown. The Crown could take the case to trial again, but it will have to start over again before a new jury.

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