A 501 deportee with a violent history overseas who stabbed a South Auckland highrise neighbour nearly 100 times – then claimed in the witness box that it had been in self-defence, citing a nick on her finger – has been sentenced to life imprisonment.
Jurors rejected Susana Leota-Lu’s self-defence claim, finding her guilty of murder in October. As she returned to the High Court at Auckland today for sentencing, Justice Jane Anderson echoed such sentiments.
“The objective forensic evidence tells a shocking story about what happened in your apartment,” the judge said as she ordered a life sentence with a minimum term of imprisonment of 17 years. “I completely reject your narrative that you were acting to defend yourself.”
Police arrived at a bloody scene at Manukau’s Lakewood Plaza building on the morning of September 3 last year after a frantic 111 call by Leota-Lu’s neighbours, who could hear screaming and cries for help coming from her seventh-floor apartment about 4am.
Leota-Lu initially tried to turn police away, but they were persistent.
“I won’t lie to you,” she admitted as officers entered. “There’s a body in there.”
Police found two knives on the defendant and two other knives still in victim Samantha Whitehouse’s body. There was blood in various parts of the apartment, which prosecutors would later argue was a sign it had been a prolonged torture. It appeared a “broken and bloodied” fold-up camping chair had been used to beat the victim, who had bruising all over her body, and screwdrivers on the floor might have been used as stabbing weapons as well.
Of the victim’s 94 wounds, 26 to her hands were later assessed by a medical examiner to have been defensive. She also suffered 15 wounds to her face, eyes and nose; five to her neck, including a long slit; and 27 injuries to her chest. Some of the wounds, the medical examiner testified, appeared to have been inflicted after Whitehouse’s death.
“At some point in the evening, you started accusing Ms Whitehouse of things you had imagined,” Justice Anderson noted of what appeared to prompt the violence. “You became angry with Ms Whitehouse, believing that she had wronged you in a number of ways, including having stolen your phone and been involved with your ex-husband.
“She seemed to you to be finishing stories you were telling about your family and then denying that she knew. You became increasingly frustrated and riled up. Ms Whitehouse tried to leave. You grabbed a knife.”
Defence lawyer Kim Holden sought a minimum term of imprisonment of 10 years for the murder, noting her client’s thinking had been disordered that night and arguing the killing was not especially bad when compared to other cases. Crown prosecutor Anna Devathasan disagreed, seeking a minimum term of 17 to 18 years based on the high level of brutality and callousness.
“I accept the Crown’s submission that focus on Ms Whitehouse’s head, neck and torso as well as the force used, shows the brutality of the attack,” the judge surmised. “The attacks to her face show a high level of cruelty.
“The many defensive injuries suffered by Ms Whitehouse represent your violent persistence in attacking her and that she was unarmed.”
The judge also noted the “dramatic difference in size” that made Whitehouse, who was half the defendant’s weight and 20cm shorter, especially vulnerable.
The judge calculated a one-year uplift to the sentence for Leota-Lu’s “significant criminal history” in Australia, including a hauntingly similar conviction in 2018 that led to her deportation back to New Zealand. She attacked a flatmate with a knife and dragged him back inside when he tried to escape, the judge noted.
But Justice Anderson then effectively cancelled out the one-year uplift with a one-year reduction for Leota-Lu’s background and mental health history.
“Even though you appear to have been having delusional beliefs, your offending here was driven by anger, not fear,” the judge emphasised. “That you were having any delusional or disordered thinking could not and does not justify or mitigate the murderous violence you inflicted on Ms Whitehouse.”
In a series of victim impact statements submitted to the court, Whitehouse was described by family members as a mother who was much loved and still profoundly grieved over.
“Ms Leota-Lu, you have taken Ms Whitehouse away from them in a shocking way and deprived Ms Whitehouse of all the milestones that she will miss in her children’s future,” Justice Anderson said. “The death has devastated the family.”
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.