Police killer Eli Epiha sentenced to life in prison, with minimum non-parole period of 27 years

Police killer Eli Epiha has been sentenced to life in prison, with minimum non-parole period of 27 years.

After a months-long delay, Epiha was sentenced today for the June 2020 fatal shooting of Constable Matthew Hunt, 28.

He is also ordered to serve 12 years for the attempted murder of Hunt’s partner, Constable David Goldfinch and one year for the injury of the bystander, who was hit by Epiha’s car as he fled the two officers.

Epiha’s sentence is among the longest ever handed down by a New Zealand court.

Matthew Hunt’s mother Diane surrounded by family and friends, addressed the media outside the court. “While today’s resolution brings and end to the court process, it will never end the horrific outcome of that day,” she said.

Famiy friend and National MP Mark Mitchell put his arm around still-grieving mother Diane Hunt as she spoke.

“We will never be the same people we were before this cold and callus murder,” adding that she never imagined her son would be targeted in the line of duty. Her son, she noted, was only 28 years old. “He had his whole life ahead of him.”

She said it is disturbing that police officers are still being shot at on a regular basis. She said she wanted to express solidarity with the three officers who were recently shot at in Glen Eden. She doesn’t want to see another mother go through what she has. “I will continue to work hard in Matthew’s name…to make sure [other officers] have every chance to protect themselves.”

Of Epiha not receiving a sentence of life without parole, Hunt simply noted “it isn’t like that in New Zealand”. “No sentence will bring Matthew back.” But, Mitchell added, everyone was satisfied with Justice Geoffrey Venningordering a minimum sentence of 27 years,

Diane Hunt called Epiha’s apology while testifying during the trial and his letter of remorse “vacuous and self-serving”. Like Justice Venning, she said she doesn’t believe he was sincere.

Diane Hunt also spoke about the defendant’s uncle, Warren Epiha, who told the court today that he will have to bear shame for years to come for having the same name as his nephew.

“I spoke to Warren Epiha after and shook his hand and I said to him it’s not his crime to bear, and that his nephew has to take responsibility.”

When asked if Epiha has any chance of being reformed over the next 27 years he is in prison, Diane Hunt said his actions speak for themselves. He killed her son just seven months after being released from prison on a prior gun offence, she pointed out.

Mitchell, meanwhile, said he saw Epiha flashing gang signs as he was escorted out of the courtroom today. That also speaks for itself, he said.

After sentencing, Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said: “We welcome today’s sentence and we hope it brings some relief for Matt’s friends and family, as well as Constable Goldfinch and Police staff across New Zealand, but it does not change the devastating outcome of what occurred on June 19 2020.”

Chilling testimony

In summarising the facts of the case before sentencing, Justice Venning described Constable Goldfinch’s testimony during trial as “chilling”.

Justice Venning said it is “nonsense” for Epiha to maintain he didn’t mean to kill Constable Hunt. He also said: “Criminals need to know that the use of firearms against police officers will have severe consequences.”

Justice Venning said he rejects Epiha’s suggestion he should get a discount from his sentence for remorse. “Your arrogant attitude throughout the trial … was obvious for all to see.”

“The name Epiha will be remembered for your cowardly killing of an unarmed police officer. That is a shame you and your whānau will bear into the future.”

Justice Venning said a life-without-parole sentence would be manifestly unjust, due in part to Epiha’s age.

Emotional statement

Earlier, while giving an emotional victim impact statement, Diane Hunt said her son was unarmed and running away when Epiha shot him four times in the back.

“You never pointed your gun at any other people on the street that day. Your targets were only the two police officers.

“The jury saw you for what you are – a killer.”

She said Epiha made a decision to murder the two police officers simply because of their uniforms.

Her life would never be the same again.

“I spend time with my son’s ashes, surrounded by pictures, and it’s not enough … I’m struggling to continue.”

Other victim impact statements were read to the court prior to sentencing.

Eleanor Hunt, Matthew Hunt’s sister, said no words could ever describe how painful this was.

“I will never get over how much he didn’t deserve this. Justice for Matt is unobtainable.”

David Goldfinch, the officer who survived the shooting, said Epiha is a coward for not taking responsibility.

“I stared you in the face. I know exactly what you tried to do.

“I’m not going to waste any more of my time on you.”

Epiha’s lawyer, Marcus Edgar, asked to read aloud a letter of remorse from his client. Justice Venning declined the request but the letter will be made available to victims later, adding that he’s already read it.

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said police never expect to be deliberately targeted as they carry out routine police duties.

“More than a year later, not a day goes by without Matthew being in our thoughts.”

The events that day have caused unnecessary anxiety for officers and their families, Coster said.

He acknowledged support from the community.

“It made a real difference to know our community stood by us during this difficult time. His memory will live on and he will never be forgotten.”

Constable Hunt’s uncle Rob Winterbottom spoke via audio-video feed.

He called Epiha’s statement that he didn’t mean to kill the constable “pathetic” and “utterly ridiculous and offensive”.

“Matthew’s killing was abhorred by most of New Zealand.”

“I cry on an almost daily basis and the thought of Matt is almost always on my mind,” he said of his nephew.

He pointed out that New Zealand’s first life-without-parole sentence was handed down in 2020.

“This broke the glass for others to follow. It is no longer an unreasonable sentence.”

Sam Swaffield read a statement on behalf of Constable Hunt’s family and friends.

“This victim impact statement will take me five times longer to read than it took you [to target and kill him].

“It was 34 seconds,” he said, of “unprovoked … inhumane, selfish rage”.

“You left us without our rock. Our mate we’d turn to for anything.”

He criticised Epiha for going to trial, making supporters watch his excuses. “That has had an impact on us.”

He held back tears as he told Epiha: “What gave you the right to take him away from us?”

He said if Epiha had looked beyond the uniform, he probably would have liked Hunt.

“You took him without a second guess or a moment’s notice.”

A jury found Epiha guilty of Goldfinch’s attempted murder in July. Epiha pleaded guilty to dangerous driving causing injury to the bystander and to Hunt’s murder shortly before the trial began, but he contended Hunt’s death was the result of recklessness rather than murderous intent.

In a ruling issued shortly after the jury’s verdict, Justice Geoffrey Venning rejected Epiha’s “reckless murder” claim. Media have been barred from publishing the reasoning behind the judge’s decision until after the sentencing is complete.

Epiha was initially set to be sentenced on October 1, but the proceedings were delayed due to complications of Auckland’s Covid-19 lockdown.

An overflow courtroom was arranged for today’s hearing, both to accommodate the large number of police officers and family members for the defendant and the victims and to ensure social distancing.

Justice Venning acknowledged those watching the hearing. “The sentence in this court today is imposed on behalf of society as a whole. It is not an attempt to measure Constable Hunt’s, Matthew’s life.”

Epiha, who testified on his own behalf during the trial, claimed he had just received a Norinco semi-automatic assault rifle that morning and was en route to his brother’s house to scare off gang members when the police officers decided to pull him over.

Driving fast through Massey’s residential Reynella Drive in an attempt to evade the officers, he ended up swerving to miss hitting a rubbish truck and instead crashed into a parked car, injuring the bystander who was loading his vehicle ahead of a weekend trip to Rotorua.

Witnesses have given slightly varying accounts of the mayhem that followed, but it was uncontested that Epiha is the one who fired 14 shots that day — hitting each officer four times. Constable Goldfinch told jurors he tried to reason with the gunman that day.

“I put up my hands again and went, ‘Just f***ing stop. Just f***ing walk away. I won’t arrest you,'” he testified. “I saw him almost contemplating what I said to him. After a few seconds, he just like made a decision: ‘I’m going to kill you.'”

Epiha didn’t dispute firing at Goldfinch, but maintained he was trying to scare away the constable. Goldfinch adamantly disagreed, and ultimately so did jurors.

It took jurors 11 and a half hours of deliberation over two days to return the verdict, bringing an end to nearly two weeks of testimony.

Co-defendant Natalie Jane Bracken was found guilty of being an accessory after the fact to wounding Hunt with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. A witness filmed her driving Epiha away from the scene.

She was sentenced in October to 12 months’ prison.

During a victim impact statement during Bracken’s hearing, Constable Hunt’s mother, Diane Hunt, described her as an aimless, shameless coward who participated in a “hate crime” murder.

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