Tale of intrigue, Greg Newbold

Rough Justice: The Rex Haig Story 
Rex Haig and Rennie Gould
Longacre Press, $34.99,
ISBN 9781877460029

Rough Justice describes one of the most bizarre and perplexing murder cases ever to appear before a New Zealand court. The tale begins on the morning of 13 February 1994 when MV Antares tied up at Jackson Bay, South Westland, after an unproductive, two month-long fishing trip. On board were skipper Rex Haig (47), leading deckhand Mark Roderique with David Hogan (Haig’s nephew) and Tony Sewell as other crew. There was bad blood between Roderique and Hogan, and on the wharf later that afternoon a drunken fight developed with Roderique pulling a knife on Hogan, only to be disarmed by Haig. A few hours later, at about 8.30pm, although the original intention had been to rest in Jackson Bay at least overnight, and the crew had been drinking all afternoon, Haig decided to cast off and go out fishing. The boat returned to shore a few days later, but now with only three men on board. Roderique was never seen again, and in June 1995 a murder investigation began. In October Haig, who by this time was also facing accusations of paua poaching, was arrested and charged with Roderique’s murder. He was convicted in November 1995 and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Haig chose not to testify at his trial but in his book he says that he thought Roderique had left the boat on 13 February and stayed on shore. Hogan swore that he saw Haig murder Roderique on the boat. Sewell said he remembered little, but that Haig ordered them to dump Roderique’s gear at sea. It was primarily on the basis of Hogan’s and Sewell’s evidence that Haig was convicted. However Sewell, killed in 1997 in a motorbike crash, was a convicted perjurer and gave contradictory evidence, while Hogan, an 18-year-old delinquent with a propensity for violence, also gave contradictory testimony and is likewise questionable. Both were granted immunity from prosecution. Moreover, several people have claimed that Hogan boasted of having himself killed Roderique. The most important of these witnesses was Anton Sherlock. But in a bizarre twist, several days before he was due to testify at Haig’s depositions hearing, Sherlock was himself murdered and dumped in the Lumsden River. A man named Nigel Johnstone was convicted of Sherlock’s murder although once again there are allegations that one of Hogan’s friends, Greg Iverson, said he himself had done it. Johnstone, an associate of Iverson, later admitted he was present at the time and swore that Iverson, not he, had killed Sherlock.

Meanwhile in Christchurch Prison, Haig continued to protest his innocence and to gather evidence against his nephew David Hogan. His appeals and petitions failed but in October 1997, with Dean Parata doing 12 years for manslaughter, Haig participated in a mutiny in which prison officers were taken hostage. The mutineers demanded an inquiry into four cases, including Haig’s, and about 24 hours later a deal was signed whereby the hostages were released in return for a promise of an investigation. The rioters themselves were locked in virtual solitary confinement for over a year, and Haig was eventually sentenced to seven years concurrent for his part in the affair.

The promised investigation was long and slow, but it revealed numerous disturbing anomalies in Haig’s case, as well as evidence of police malpractice and evidence favourable to Haig that was not available at his trial. From 1999, as the case gathered weight, several petitions for a judicial review were lodged but progress was glacial. In December 2004, after just over 10 years in prison and with matters still unresolved, Haig attended his first parole board hearing. He was released five days later.

Here lies a further twist in this strangely convoluted story. For a lifer to be awarded parole at his first hearing is almost unheard of in New Zealand; most serve at least 12 years. Immediate releases are never given to lifers. In Haig’s case, his application for review was still undecided. He appeared before the board a convicted killer who, seven years before, had mutinied, taken hostages, and been sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment. The board’s decision to release him immediately at his first hearing is so contrary to established practice I would not have believed it possible. But it certainly happened, even though it was another 20 months before the Court of Appeal finally produced a decision that quashed Haig’s murder conviction. Proceedings then were permanently stayed, and nobody else has been charged in relation to the death of Mark Roderique.

Rough Justice therefore contains the ingredients of a fascinating tale of intrigue and personal tragedy. In the early chapters, Haig talks about his interesting early career as a professional diver, and later he discusses some of the privations and frustrations of prison life. But the book itself is not well written. In parts it lacks clarity and the finesse that a more skilled writer could have provided. From Chapter 11 onwards, it changes tense several times, from the past to the present and back again. Moreover, particularly in the later chapters, Haig has a disconcerting tendency to switch to matters that have nothing to do with what the book is about. Thus he closes one chapter about the progress of his case with a paragraph about Stephen Hawking’s theory of black holes. Elsewhere he throws in equally irrelevant comments about matters as diverse as NZ Army nightclubs in Singapore during WWII, the destruction of the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001, the death of WWI veteran Bright Williams in 2003, and his own growing commitment to Christianity. Half of the four-and-a-half-page epilogue relating to post-release life is devoted to a description of his dog. At times I sat scratching my head.

So Rough Justice tells a story that needs to be told, but it does not tell the story well. Although the book is certainly worth a look, discerning readers will be frustrated by the quality of its presentation and wish that Haig had engaged a professional writer to relate his tale.

 

Greg Newbold is a Christchurch reviewer.   

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction and Review
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