Jimel Burns-Wong-Tung is on trial for murder in the High Court at Auckland, accused of killing 22-year-old Rangiwhero Toia Ngaronoa in November 2021. Photo / Michael Craig
A woman who was shown on grainy, partially obstructed CCTV footage attacking a man in the back of an SUV less than a minute-and-a-half before his uncles called 111 to report him gravely injured has been the victim of false assumptions and untrustworthy witnesses, her lawyer argued today as her six-week trial began to wrap up.
Jimel Burns-Wong-Tung, 25, was charged with murder in December 2021, one month after Rangiwhero Toia Ngaronoa, 22, was stabbed to death.
Roughly seven minutes had passed between the first CCTV camera footage, showing the broad daylight attack in a South Auckland cul-de-sac, and a second CCTV reel that showed Ngaronoa’s uncles dragging him into a Takanini medical centre – motionless, covered in blood and with eight wounds.
It’s easy to assume that the filmed attack resulted in the injuries, but “what might appear obvious” at first glance doesn’t hold up on closer scrutiny, defence lawyer Ron Mansfield KC told jurors in the High Court at Auckland.
“Out of anyone, she’s got the least beef in the game,” he said, instead suggesting that one of Ngaronoa’s uncles stabbed him immediately after the attack – in the one minute and 19 seconds before their 111 call – intending to violently teach him a lesson about respect but not meaning to kill him.
But Crown prosecutor Todd Simmonds described the defence theory as incredible, “fanciful” and “totally implausible”. He urged jurors to apply common sense towards what he referred to as a “calculated, pre-meditated, cold-blooded killing”.
“It’s most unusual for a killing to be caught on camera,” he said of the CCTV. “We can see for ourselves exactly what is happening.
“…You have real evidence here – tangible evidence. This is no whodunit. Jimel Burns-Wong-Tung did it, and it’s there for all of us to see.”
The defendant acknowledged in the witness box last month that it was her seen in the CCTV footage and that she went to the cul-de-sac intending to confront Ngaronoa. She had been “furious” over suggestions by the victim a day earlier that a relative of hers had engaged in sexually inappropriate behaviour, Simmonds said, describing Ngaronoa as having been “terrified” as he was brought to the defendant against his will.
Footage shows Burns-Wong-Tung arriving at the Weymouth cul-de-sac first in a Honda Accord driven by her partner, Tago Hemopo, who is on trial beside her accused of conspiracy to injure and being an accessory to murder after the fact. She then went into the boot of the vehicle searching for something – a knife, prosecutors allege, while she insisted in the witness box that she had been looking for shoes.
The SUV with Ngaronoa held captive in the back arrived a short time later, with his uncles – Black Power members Rocky Ngapera and Thomas “BT” Ngapera – in the front seats.
One neighbour would later describe Burns-Wong-Tung’s demeanour as angry as she approached the SUV. Her hands moved like “pistons”, he testified. The same witness and a delivery driver both described shrieks and screaming coming from the SUV.
“She had a beef with him and she was going to deal with him,” Simmonds said.
Some of the most compelling evidence, prosecutors suggested, came from brothers Ford and Robert Stevens, who were in the back seat of the car with Burns-Wong-Tung and Hemopo. In bizarre back-to-back trips to the witness box, they both recanted earlier vivid accounts of what had happened, claiming their brains were too fried by methamphetamine to be relied upon.
But the Crown introduced signed affidavits the brothers had earlier given police in which they described Burns-Wong-Tung as having devised the plan to have Ngaronoa brought to her so she could give him a hiding.
“She said to the dude, ‘You been playing with [her relative]?’” Robert Stevens initially told police. “The dude replied, ‘Yes,’ and then Jimel started stabbing him with a kitchen knife.”
Aside from the witness statements, the timing itself “tells its own story”, Simmonds said, noting that Burns-Wong-Tung insisted in her testimony that Ngaronoa had no stab wounds or major injuries as the vehicles sped away from the cul-de-sac immediately after the confrontation. The idea that his uncles managed to stab him eight times in the one minute and 19 seconds before 111 was called is “complete and utter nonsense”, he said.
“It’s crazy stuff,” he said. “That is what you are being asked to seriously consider.
“Please don’t let Jimel Burns-Wong-Tung treat you like a bunch of fools – you’re not. She thinks she can hoodwink you. See the evidence for what it is.”
Mansfield accused the Crown of “simplistic rhetoric” designed to discourage jurors from carefully examining each aspect of the evidence. He also accused the Crown of glossing over the many overlapping familial relationships in the case, which he described as “pretty damn important”.
He described Ngaronoa as having kicked off the chain of events by talking while “cooked or fried” on meth about his suspicions a toddler girl had been sexually interfered with. He then refused to tell the girl’s mother who he thought had done it, text messages show. It led the child’s extended family to wonder if Ngaronoa had been responsible, Mansfield suggested.
Among those “fearful, angry” and wanting answers were Ngaronoa’s own uncles, he argued.
Both Rocky and Thomas Ngapera pleaded guilty to conspiracy to injure their nephew one day before Burns-Wong-Tung’s murder trial began. Neither man testified.
“If you sexually interfere with a child, people are going to take that very seriously, and if you make a false allegation,” Mansfield said, suggesting that his client’s frustration over the ludicrous claim about her relative paled in comparison at the uncles’ suspicion and anger towards their nephew.
Their anger at their nephew must have grown even stronger after they took him to Burns-Wong-Tung to apologise and he refused to do so, instead getting into a fistfight with her, Mansfield theorised.
Regardless of who jurors ultimately believe stabbed Ngaronoa, it should be viewed as a case of manslaughter rather than murder because no one had a clear intent to kill him, the defence argued.
“Everything was going positive for her,” Mansfeld said of Burns-Wong-Tung, a mother of three who had just hired a bouncy castle a day earlier for her child’s birthday party. “Why would that [allegation against her relative] drive a motive to kill? It’s so simplistic it’s idiotic.”
And if she did want to kill, it makes no sense she would have done so in broad daylight in a small cul-de-sac that Mansfield described as a “grandstand” for nosy neighbours.
“This would be the most unusual place in the entire world you would take someone if you intended them harm,” he said.
As for the Stevens brothers, he urged jurors to place little significance on their police statements or on their testimony in court given their contempt for the justice system, including the earlier police investigation and the trial they tried to derail with their bizarre testimony. He suggested “these two contemptuous young men who couldn’t give a rats” manufactured their earlier police statements in a successful effort to avoid arrest themselves.
Hemopo’s lawyer, Dale Dufty, also encouraged jurors to disregard the Stevens brothers’ police statements. Hemopo was described in their earlier statements as having helped organise the confrontation and as having warned the brothers afterwards not to tell anyone about what had occurred.
But there was no telecommunications data showing he organsied anything, Dufty said, describing his client as a quiet man who was known to just “go with the flow”. Simply having been present during the confrontation isn’t enough to convict, he argued.
The Crown countered with sarcasm.
“He heard nothing,” Simmonds said. “He knew nothing about this plan to give Rangiwhero a hiding – in the wrong place at the wrong time, just going for a Sunday drive… with his partner and his cuzzies. It could have been an icecream trip.
“He’s just a super unlucky guy,” Simmonds added, postulating that perhaps the co-defendant had “a paper bag over his head” as Ngaronoa was attacked.
Both sides ended the trial as they began it: offering interpretations as they played, paused and slowed down the grainy, pixellated CCTV footage over and over again. Prosecutors insisted they could just barely make out a knife. The defence insisted that brief, partial glimpses of Ngaronoa’s green shirt meant it hadn’t yet been saturated in blood so he couldn’t have been fatally injured.
Jurors are expected to begin deliberating tomorrow after Justice Matthew Muir sums up the case. They’ve been encouraged to watch the video as many more times as they want.
Craig Kapitan is an Auckland-based journalist covering courts and justice. He joined the Herald in 2021 and has reported on courts since 2002 in three newsrooms in the US and New Zealand.