Murder Convict David Tamihere Not Surprised by Appeal Court Ruling

David Tamihere in the High Court in Auckland.

David Tamihere.
Photo: RNZ

Double murderer David Tamihere has indicated he will likely continue to challenge his conviction for the murders of two Swedish backpackers 35 years ago.

An appeals court ruling on Thursday dismissed Tamihere’s claim that he was wrongly convicted of the murders of Heidi Paakkonen and Sven Urban Höglin, who disappeared in 1989 while walking in dense bushland on the Coromandel Peninsula.

Tamihere told RNZ he was disappointed “but not surprised” by the result.

“From what I have read so far, the Court of Appeal seems to think that its primary role is to protect the Crown’s case.”

The three judges ruled that the controversial “prison bug” evidence at Tamihere’s original trial in 1990 – and evidence about a watch that was later found to be false – constituted “a miscarriage of justice”.

However, they concluded that other evidence was sufficient to prove his guilt “beyond reasonable doubt.”

This evidence included eyewitness reports from vagrants (who identified Tamihere as the man they had met at Crosbies Clearing with a young blonde woman on 8 April 1989), Swedes’ personal effects found at his home, his lies about his whereabouts and the discovery and break-in of their car, and his actions after their disappearance.

“We recognise that it remains impossible to know the precise movements of the couple after they were seen in the Thames on 7 April and why they were killed,” the judges wrote.

“But we do not accept that it is impossible to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Mr Tamihere killed them.”

Tamihere’s lawyer, Murray Gibson, who has represented him for three decades, remains convinced of his innocence.

“The latest explanation put forward by the Crown in this case is the third scenario it has put forward as to what happened.”

The false testimony of Tamihere’s cellmate, Roberto Conchie Harris, was the keystone of the Crown’s initial case because it corroborated two vagrants’ identification of Tamihere as the man seen with Paakkonen, he said.

“Conchie Harris was convicted in 2017 of eight counts of perjury. The trial judge said his testimony at Tamihere’s trial was egregious conduct, and he was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison.

“But there is no doubt that he was a central witness in the trial.”

Harris’s claim – that Tamihere killed Höglin with a piece of wood and threw the bodies into the sea – was proven false in 1991, when Höglin’s skeletal remains were found near Whangamatā, more than 70km from where the Crown says the murders took place.

He was still wearing the watch that police said Tamihere had stolen and given to his son, and his clothes and vertebrae showed signs of stab wounds.

Gibson said the hikers claimed Tamihere was not the man they saw and did not identify him from photo montages.

“About four months later, after being with the police for the whole time, the hikers finally said, ‘Oh, we think the person up there was David Tamihere.’

The Court of Appeal judges said the hikers’ identification was reliable because it was supported by their descriptions of camping equipment later found at Tamihere’s home.

However, Gibson said he would recommend his client appeal.

“I think it is appropriate, given the good reasons that exist, to bring the matter before a higher court, that it may be heard there.”

Assistant Commissioner Paul Basham, the country’s chief investigator, said the Court of Appeal’s judgment was “hugely validating” for all the staff who worked on Operation Stockholm over the years.

Police remain committed to getting answers for the families and finding Heidi Paakonen’s body – and Tamihere was “the only person” who could help her family get closure, he said.

“Our message to him has remained the same for more than two decades:

“You know where Heidi’s body lies and her family has suffered enough.

“Tell us where to find Heidi and help her family get closure.”

However, Tamihere said the police were lying to the victims’ families.

“They’re full of lies too. What else could they say? Because they would have shit themselves if there was a retrial or something.”

To allow an appeal, the Supreme Court must be satisfied that a substantial miscarriage of justice may have occurred.