This is where it all started, this patch of grass in Grey Lynn.
This is where Teina Pora retreated from the crowd when he was waiting to hear if 23 years of misery and confusion — of police interviews, trials and wrongful imprisonment — would finally end.
It is where his new life began.
The garden sits behind writer and filmmaker Michael Bennett’s fabulous art-filled shambles of a home, where two cats, a small dog, assorted children and friends are congregated, waiting to share a dinner of KFC — Pora’s choice.
On March 3, 2015, Pora celebrated here with supporters when the Privy Council quashed his convictions for raping and murdering 39-year-old Susan Burdett in her Papatoetoe flat back in March 1992. It is a happy and comfortable place for him, a sanctuary.
But tonight Pora, 40, is uneasy, hiding his face beneath the brim of his Brooklyn Nets cap, kicking the grass. He doesn’t seem to know what to do with his arms.
“Don’t mind Teina,” says Tim McKinnel, the private investigator who dedicated six years to getting Pora out of prison, looking out the glass doors towards his friend. “Give him a bit of time.”
McKinnel, just back from a course in Switzerland — and zonked — sinks into a sofa with a cup of strong coffee. He explains that Pora is shy around new people. He doesn’t seek attention, or welcome it. So the release of a new book about his case, and the lengths to which McKinnel went to free him, presents something of a burden.
Dark Places: The Confessions of Teina Pora and an Ex-Cop’s Fight for Justice , written by Bennett (who also made a documentary about the Pora case, Confessions of Prisoner T ), is a hell of a read. It pulls together all the slippery strands of Pora’s story, from the day he told the police what he thought they wanted to hear about a stranger’s death, to his eventual release from prison following a tortuous campaign waged by private individuals who thought the justice system had got things terribly wrong.
It is hoped the book will force the issue of compensation for those years Pora lost in prison, shine a light on the issue of false confessions, and bring Burdett’s killer to justice.
“I thought it was just a small little thing when I was in prison, when everything was happening,” Pora says gently, once he has got his bearings. He is a quiet speaker, you have to lean forward, give him your full attention. “I’m just a little boy from South Auckland, you know.”
He soon discovered what a big deal his case was when, upon release from Paremoremo, he was recognised everywhere he went. One day he ran into a school mate who asked, “What you been up to, bro?” No one was sure if the man knew about Pora’s imprisonment or not, but everyone in Bennett’s lounge hoots with laughter at the memory.
Fete Taito, Pora’s Samoan “minder”, an enormous man with a sharp sense of humour, helps him navigate life outside prison. Now that there is a book to support, Taito — himself inside for 15 years, in several stints — makes sure Pora gets to his appointments, and gets enough rest.
“I think it’s fair to say [life outside prison] has overwhelmed him and taken its toll a little bit,” says Taito, who sits beside Pora on a too-small chair while he is being interviewed, a steadying presence. “People keep inviting him to things, inviting him to parties — that sort of catches up with him.”
“[There are] so many things that I get distracted by, you know,” says Pora. “What do people expect? I’ve been in jail for 22 years, you know. What’s he going to do, sit there and wait for the walls to go grey, you know. I’m going to go out there and have fun — what makes me happy, not what makes other people happy — but at the same time I have to understand, I’ve got to make sure it’s not too much fun .”
It has been a challenging year for Pora, as much as he is overjoyed to be reunited with his family. He is battling on several fronts. Having been imprisoned for such a long time, he has been institutionalised. He is not accustomed to making decisions, or to keeping commitments. Upon his release he worked as a builder on Waiheke Island for nine months, but now he says, “I’d rather be sleeping.”
Tucking into a heaping plate of chicken, chips, coleslaw and mashed potato, he acknowledges, “you’ve got to work to put bread and butter on the table,” but he seems unsure of precisely what this means.
The bigger hurdle is Pora’s FASD (foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, diagnosed in 2013), a form of brain damage that affects his ability to remember things, articulate his thoughts, understand questions and think through the consequences of his actions.
Pora will never be free of it and, while he is good at appearing to follow the nuances of conversation, his comprehension is that of a 10 year old. McKinnel is sombre when he recalls the many parole board hearings Pora attended, ill-equipped to present himself as someone who should be granted release from prison, who posed no threat to anyone.
“Year in, year out he would front up to parole boards and he would do his best but he’s just not well-suited to that type of environment, and that type of cross-examination, and those types of questions, for a variety of reasons,” says McKinnel. “And every year he did his best, and every year except the last one, he’d get knocked down.”
Now that he’s out, Pora is both heavily reliant on his support team and eager to push against his boundaries. “I do have great people who are there to take care of things even though I don’t understand that properly sometimes,” Pora says. “Sometimes I want to get far away from it. Being out here is hard.”
Pora’s biggest dream is to travel — around the world, to every far-flung, colourful place he has imagined seeing, starting with the islands. “I want to go to Raro with my grandson [Benson]. Just him and me, leave everyone else behind.”
He wants, as much as possible, to lead an unremarkable life, doing “a lot of things that a man should do some days, like make loves and that sort of stuff, going out with friends, to pubs and beach parties and all these things I didn’t expect would happen. Just normal things in life. I see them and think, actually, I might give that a go.”
A romantic relationship with a woman is still a far-off wish, although he definitely wants one. “At this stage, no, I’d rather just wait for the right one. You just don’t know the other person’s morals and agenda. I guess when it does connect, it must come from the heart,” he muses. “You must feel that. Otherwise, on to the next one.”
More immediate is building his relationship with his daughter, Chanelle, who was a baby when he was imprisoned. Without much help at all, she has managed to become a solid citizen, a good mother and a professional chef who put herself through Manukau Institute of Technology. Pora sees Chanelle and six-year-old Benson a couple of times a week, and is clearly proud of her achievements.
“She is strong and independent,” he says. “I tell you how I knew that: I turned up at her door thinking I was going to get a free feed and she said, ‘No you’ve got to pay for that.’ I said, ‘I’m your dad!'”
He laughs, but later he says, “[she’s] too strong sometimes … we’re both developing as a father and daughter. It’s going to take time.”
Pora is heading to Taranaki soon, to spend an extended period with whanau there. Life is calmer down south, and after a year of partying and exploring — he attended the Ragamuffin Festival and an ACDC concert, took part in a boxing fight, and flew from Wellington to Auckland alone, sitting “right by the window” — he needs to take some time out.
A gifted athlete, he’d like to play for the Coastal Cobras league club in Opunake. When he was in prison, he played brilliantly for the Pare Raiders, the highlight being a game at Mt Smart Stadium, attended by Bennett and other members of his adopted family. As a kid he played alongside Pita Alatini. You can’t help wondering, what if?
But Pora won’t be wasting time on regret or anger, nor has he in the past year. Amazingly, Pora doesn’t appear to bear any ill will towards the people who put him in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and determinedly kept him there for two decades.
“It blows my mind,” says Bennett. “If any of us had been through what he has been through, I think we’d be punching the walls every morning, and he’s not that way.”
Instead, Pora is focused on simple pleasures: the beach, fresh air, planting his feet in the sand. When he was first released from prison he swam in the ocean every day. “I love the ocean, I love nature. It helps [me] heal.”
It’s time for another plate of chicken, but first, he has something he wants to say. He goes very still, all shyness and embarrassed shuffling quelled for a moment.
“Freedom. It’s priceless, eh. All that tension inside me, it just went out through the soles of my feet. I didn’t have to look at four walls anymore… Just knowing that I was free.”
In Dark Places: The confessions of Teina Pora and an ex-cop’s fight for justice , by Michael Bennett, $34.99. Paul Little Books. Available from most bookstores or paullittlebooks.co.nz
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