A survivor of a serial rapist on justice and forgiveness

If there were some sort of heinous leaderboard of New Zealand's most shameful criminals, Malcolm Rewa would sit among our nation's worst.

Until his conviction this year for the 1992 murder of Susan Burdett, never before have we had a serial rapist who's attacked so many women, and also killed.

The path to that position has been interminably long, the levels of destruction caused to the women whose lives he forced his way into, immeasurable.

Malcolm Rewa's ninth rape victim, Rhonda McHardy has reclaimed her power.
ABIGAIL DOUGHERTY/STUFF
Malcolm Rewa's ninth rape victim, Rhonda McHardy has reclaimed her power.

But now this final chapter is over, a murder conviction long sought by so many, one of Rewa's victims is able to reflect on what it all means.

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We first met Rhonda McHardy six years ago.

She was Rewa's ninth victim. Raped, twice, by him, just two weeks before he attacked Burdett in her Papatoetoe flat. So violent was Rewa's onslaught against McHardy, they call it a blitz attack. Her instinct was, literally, to play dead.

When we met McHardy, we were actually focused on the case of Teina Pora: he was still in prison, had been there for nearly 20 years, having been convicted as a 17-year-old of the rape and murder of Burdett.

A team led by private investigator Tim McKinnel was trying to prove the police had got the wrong guy. And we began investigating too, to publicly expose what had gone wrong; the flaws in the police case.

Those flaws were many, and fundamental. For one, there was no physical evidence Pora had ever been at the scene of the crime. All the police really had was Pora's long, ever-changing, palpably untrue story, (clearly wrong even to one of the senior police officers observing the interview, who told his superiors that what Pora was saying was inconsistent with what they knew of the case) which unfolded over five days in a police cell, without a lawyer.

When his legal team went all the way to the Privy Council it was with new evidence from a neuro-psychologist: that when Pora was interviewed by police, went to trial, and was convicted - twice - he had an as-yet undiagnosed condition called Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. The justice system was dealing with someone who had the intellectual capacity of a 9-year-old.

The thing is, you can't properly tell the story of Pora without taking a deviation into the inextricably linked case of Rewa, sentenced in the 1990s to preventive detention for attacks on 25 women (though police think the real number is more likely to be around 50). The cases were so connected because when DNA from the Burdett crime scene was eventually identified as belonging to Rewa, police changed their position about him always being a lone wolf offender: for the attack on Burdett, they alleged, he must have acted with Pora. It seemed implausible, but it was a story they would stand by for almost 20 years.

McHardy watched our investigations as we set out to try to show the police case was wrong and that Pora was an innocent man. And in 2013, we interviewed her for the first time. She knew instinctively that Pora did not kill Burdett, and she wanted to say so. She had no doubt - because of the way she was raped - that when Rewa entered Burdett's bedroom on that night of 25 March, 1992, he did so alone.

"I strongly believed [Teina] was innocent. And so initially I wanted to assist in helping to have him released. And I also, of course, at the same time, believed that Rewa was guilty of the murder."

And so in a silhouetted, anonymous interview, McHardy described what Rewa had done to her, and concluded: "There are so many reasons I can see, based on my experience and what I know of both cases, that make it really impossible to believe that Pora was even there."

And more.

"Given all the evidence I've seen recently about the Pora case and given what I know about Malcolm Rewa, I'd like to see the right person convicted for this crime."

GETTING NAME SUPPRESSION LIFTED

It was two years later, in March, 2015, that the Privy Council quashed all Pora's convictions relating to the death of Burdett, and ordered he not be re-tried.

Pora's legal team sought compensation from the government for his wrongful conviction and imprisonment. Hon Rodney Hansen QC assessed the claim and demolished the Crown case, finding Pora innocent to a higher standard of proof than he needed to.

The facts were bare. McHardy's instinct was right. Pora wasn't there when Burdett was raped and murdered.

Malcolm Rewa during his trial for the murder of Susan Burdett.
CHRIS SKELTON/STUFF
Malcolm Rewa during his trial for the murder of Susan Burdett.

But what then remained was that nobody was convicted of her murder. Rewa had been tried twice, but two juries hadn't been able to reach a verdict. And a stay of proceedings had been ordered, meaning Rewa couldn't face trial on that murder charge a third time.

And the police position? That even though this was now an unsolved crime, they were stymied by that stay of proceedings, but also, the police commissioner said, there was "no new evidence". Nor had they looked for any.

Looking back at that response from the police, McHardy says now, "I think they reacted like a lot of human beings react when they are exposed for having made a mistake. They want to deny it. They don't want to admit it, they would like it to go away. Nobody likes to admit that they've made a mistake and they're wrong."

But that fact that it meant a woman's killer had got away with murder compelled McHardy and another woman, Tracey Kearney - Rewa's 19th victim - to do something.

They wanted to tell their stories, in full daylight, their faces unobscured, their names available for all the world to see. Real people who'd had real, appalling crimes committed against them.

And so they went to court to have their name suppressions lifted for the Stuff Circuit investigation To Catch a Killer, to use their voices to apply pressure on the police to reconsider.

"I wanted to give my voice to a woman that couldn't speak," says McHardy. "And to me, being able to put a name and a face to my voice was far more powerful than just doing it anonymously. Because when the public hear about these types of cases with rape, sexual assault or sexual abuse, the victim almost always has name and identity suppression. It allows people to remain somewhat detached.

"When you put a real person in front of people with a name and an identity, it makes it that much more real. That woman could be their friend, their sister, their daughter, their mother, someone they know. It's a lot harder to ignore. The severity of these crimes becomes much more real."

And so after having had her identity hidden for more than two decades, McHardy told us, "You've got a killer that has never been convicted. You've got an unsolved murder and a family that have never seen justice for their daughter. And I don't believe there's any family in this country that would be satisfied if it was them."

Kearney pulled no punches either.

"He should never come out. Not with the harm that he's caused. The thought of him being out and the general public being exposed to him again, it's unbearable."

'A VERY EMPOWERING EXPERIENCE'

Given who they come from, those comments are pretty hard to ignore. And the police did reconsider: in February this year, Rewa stood trial for a third time for the killing of Burdett.

Twenty-three years after she gave evidence against her rapist, McHardy went to the High Court at Auckland again. Only this time she was in the public gallery.

"I actually just wanted to be able to walk in and sit down in the same room and hopefully catch his eye, because when I testified the first time, I didn't see his face, he was head down the whole time.

When she arrived in court this time, Rewa was about to be cross-examined.

"He was just taking the stand and I caught his eye. And so we locked eyes just for a second. And I just sat down and I was literally just sitting there like an interested, curious observer, like everybody else. And it was a very empowering experience.

"I can look at him and feel nothing."

Rewa tried a string of different defences, but this time, the jury wasn't having it. He was found guilty.

It's now impossible to imagine Rewa will ever set foot outside prison again.

"I think it was just a relief," says McHardy. "I felt like the whole country just breathed a sigh of relief, like finally it's over. It's been a long time coming. Thank goodness the truth prevailed. Eventually."

Teina Pora was wrongly convicted of raping and murdering Susan Burdett.
LAWRENCE SMITH/STUFF
Teina Pora was wrongly convicted of raping and murdering Susan Burdett.

JUSTICE ACHIEVED, FAITH RESTORED

Compassion for Burdett's family has been at the core of what has driven McHardy to fight for justice in this long, interwoven case full of so many sadnesses and wrongs. And that compassion stems in part from her own heartache over the fact that her father, Ian McHardy, never lived to see justice for his daughter. He died, aged only 57, less than three years after she was raped, and before Rewa was caught. That would take another year.

"Obviously, when anybody suffers through this kind of assault, family suffers. It's extremely difficult for parents to have to deal with their daughter being raped and brutally assaulted. [My father] suffered a lot of stress because of what happened to me. He never really got over it. He never had a chance to get over it. He didn't live long enough."

There was so much Ian McHardy didn't get to see: his daughter thrive, and move on with her life.

Including now, with justice finally achieved, having her faith restored in the police.

"We rely on the police and the court system, our justice system, to keep us safe and to make us feel safe as citizens of this country. We need to be able to believe in it.

"And to me, I have a lot more confidence in a police force that are actually able to say, yes, we made some mistakes. We need to fix this and we need to make this right, because that's actually the right thing to do."

TRUE POWER

It seems incredible that McHardy didn't die that night. She's a tiny slip of a thing, a former ballerina. The first blow from a powerful man split her head open, followed by many, many more.

And yet, she has forgiven him.

"I saw a beautiful quote recently from Eckhart Tolle: 'Acceptance of the unacceptable is the greatest source of grace in this world'. And I thought, you know, we don't always have to accept the unacceptable, but rape is one of those situations where you have to.

"And once you get that acceptance is important," she says, "then you come back to forgiveness. It's not about saying 'what you did was okay, I'm okay with what you did'. It's like, I'm forgiving you because I don't want you to have any power over me.

"That's true power."

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