Whanganui Black Power president Damien Shane Kuru is challenging his manslaughter conviction for the death of a rival on the grounds the evidence didn’t support the jury’s findings. Photo / NZME
As the crack of gunfire resonated around residential streets Black Power president Damien Kuru remained calm and composed – but was he aware of his gang’s murderous intent?
The Crown contended Kuru authorised the hit on a member of a rival gang – and a jury agreed, finding him guilty of manslaughter after a six-week trial in the High Court at Wellington in 2021.
Kuru, however, claims he played no part in planning the attack, didn’t sanction it and wasn’t at the scene. He is challenging his conviction in court.
About 9.30am on August 21, 2018, Kuru was leaving his Matipo St home, which was also the headquarters of the gang’s Whanganui chapter, for an interview with the principal at his son’s nearby school when armed Black Power members gathered near the property.
The group then left to confront and scare off a member of a rival gang who had moved into the area.
The Black Power members arrived at nearby Puriri St, some wearing patches, face coverings and hoodies, and angrily demanded Mongrel Mob member Kevin Neihana Ratana leave their Castlecliff turf.
As some of the gangsters attacked Ratana’s car, their target stepped out of the house carrying a firearm and was immediately shot in the neck with a solid slug. He died instantly.
Hearing the melee, Kuru, who had not accompanied the group to the scene, veered up Tiki St to see what was going on. He commented “strange, eh” to a witness as Ratana lay dead on the front lawn. Kuru, 42, was charged with murder, along with other members of the gang, but was found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter.
During the trial, the Crown alleged Kuru must have at least sanctioned the hit, because he was the boss.
The prosecution case relied heavily on evidence given by police gang expert Detective Inspector Craig Scott who claimed he would have expected the killing could have only been carried out under the orders of the gang president.
Kuru was sentenced to five years and two months’ imprisonment for Ratana’s death by Justice Rebecca Ellis in the High Court at Whanganui in February.
Justice Ellis noted there was no evidence of Kuru’s direct involvement in either the formation of the plan or its execution.
Recently Kuru challenged his conviction before Justices David Collins, Matthew Muir and Helen Cull in the Court of Appeal in Wellington on three grounds, including the evidence given by Scott about the role of a gang president should not have gone before a jury, because any probative value was outweighed by the potential unfair prejudice.
Represented by Christopher Stevenson and Jamie Waugh, Kuru also claimed the conviction was not supported by the evidence at trial and the trial judge misdirected the jury.
Stevenson argued although the president’s presence so close to the scene of the fatal attack on a rival could be seen as sinister, Kuru lived nearby and was entitled to the presumption of innocence.
Only a few relevant facts about Kuru’s involvement were largely not in dispute.
“The question is, were they good enough to establish guilt beyond reasonable doubt?”
Stevenson detailed Kuru’s involvement in many pro-social initiatives trying to break down the intergenerational hatred between the gangs. Justice Ellis had previously described his mahi as impressive.
Kuru also lacked a history of serious convictions, disapproved of drugs and had been a positive influence in the lives of many young men, he said.
“It’s almost inconceivable that he would have sanctioned or involved himself in a gang hit just around the corner from his home.”
A witness at the trial also described seeing Kuru raging at his members the following day demanding answers about the killing.
Stevenson said the gang’s sergeant-at-arms Gordon Anthony Runga, had rallied the troops to attack and intimidate Ratana.
“Can one be sure that Kuru, just because he was president, was involved in what they were up to?”
There was no evidence to substantiate the police gang expert’s opinion, which the Crown used in its opening address to the jury and then as the centrepiece of its closing, and Stevenson believed it had been overvalued by the jury.
It was dangerous territory having a police expert describe to the jury what Kuru’s intention or knowledge was without evidence and the testimony should have been excluded, he argued.
Simon Barr, appearing for the Crown, submitted the jury were entitled to infer the group gathered outside Kuru’s home because it was a Black Power Whanganui operation and his sanction would have been sought.
Members returning to the house after Ratana’s shooting was consistent with them believing they had his authority “to do what they had just done, even though it went wrong”, Barr claimed.
Kuru was not as alarmed as a member of the public would have been expected to be after hearing shots because he knew what was happening, he argued.
He also said Kuru’s angry behaviour towards the members involved in the attack the next day, demanding answers about what had happened involved an element of self-preservation.
Scott’s expert opinion was of a general nature about how gangs operated and were likely to behave and the prosecution was entitled to put weight on it as it was the evidence available to the jury, Barr said.
Justice Collins questioned the claim, noting the Crown’s closing described it as an undisputed reality of what gangs are like in New Zealand.
“This isn’t general evidence, this is very specific,” Justice Collins said.
Justice Cull said it appeared the Crown needed Scott’s evidence to bring in Kuru.
In response to the claim the group gathered outside Kuru’s house before the attack, Whanganui lawyer Jamie Waugh detailed how a number of Black Power members lived in close proximity.
Stevenson said Scott’s opinion was not founded on any knowledge of the Whanganui gang scene and had been calibrated to obtain a conviction.
The court reserved its decision, which could take some time as the justices also requested a report detailing why Justice Ellis rejected a request during the trial to dismiss the murder charge against Kuru.
“What evidence was there that a properly directed jury could convict on?” Justice Cull questioned.