A man labelled one of New Zealand's most notorious killers has lodged an appeal against his murder convictions, which his team of high profile justice campaigners claim are a gross miscarriage of justice.
Lawyers and private investigators working for Stephen Stone confirmed to RNZ that they have filed papers in the Court of Appeal against his convictions for the murders of Deane Fuller-Sandys and Leah Stephens.
Deane Fuller-Sandys went missing on 21 August,1989 after setting off to go fishing at the rough West Auckland beach Whatipu and for nearly a decade he was presumed drowned.
But in February 1997, police began investigating tips which led them to charge Stone with murder.
The Crown case was that Stone was asked to do a "hit" on Fuller-Sandys by West Auckland woman Gail Maney, who was angry that he had stolen money, drugs and leather goods from her flat in Larnoch Road, Henderson.
The Crown claimed that Stone shot Fuller-Sandys in an open garage late on a weekday afternoon at Larnoch Road and then passed the gun to four other men to shoot him so they would be implicated in the crime.
There was no forensic evidence presented and the body of Fuller-Sandys, a West Auckland tyre fitter, was never found.
The police then linked Stone to the murder of Leah Stephens, an Auckland sex worker, who went missing from Upper Queen Street on 26 August, 1989.
The Crown case was that Stephens was one of a group of up to 10 people who were standing in the small, suburban garage at Larnoch Road and witnessed the murder of Fuller-Sandys.
The Crown claimed that a few days after Fuller-Sandys was murdered, Stone feared Stephens may speak out so he slit her throat with a knife.
Police claimed that, as with the murder of Fuller-Sandys, the crime had taken place at Maney's flat in Larnoch Road. Stephens' body was found in Woodhill Forest, northwest of Auckland, in June 1992.
Maney, recently released from prison after serving 15 years, has always denied any role in the murders and in the 2018 RNZ-Stuff podcast Gone Fishing, she said she had never even met Fuller-Sandys.
Private investigator Tim McKinnel has been working on Maney's appeal and is now also working with Stone's defence team on his appeal.
The team also includes human rights advocate Meg de Ronde, the executive director of Amnesty International, who has called the case "one of New Zealand's most bizarre and egregious miscarriages of justice".
McKinnel, who helped overturn Teina Pora's conviction for the rape and murder of Susan Burdett, said two women, who were key Crown witnesses, had retracted their evidence since Stone and Maney were convicted.
Both women claimed they felt pressured by police and had fabricated their evidence to fit with what they believed the police wanted to hear.
McKinnel said that meant the Crown case now rested on two men with name suppression who were granted immunity from prosecution and had changed their stories multiple times.
"Between these two witnesses there are between 15 and 20 different versions of events about what happened."
Stone's appeal was lodged by his new lawyer Annabel Maxwell-Scott on 10 August, a few weeks after she visited him in Whanganui Prison, where he is serving his time as a minimum security inmate.
"He's incredibly clear and adamant that he didn't do it," she told RNZ. "He's denying it and he is going to carry on denying it."
Maxwell-Scott said she had appealed on the grounds that Stone had suffered a miscarriage of justice. She wanted to move swiftly on the appeal and hoped it could be heard next year. "It's full steam ahead. I want to ramp it up as soon as I can."
According to a Parole Board report from 2017, Stone "initially acknowledged his offending but now denies all elements of the two murders and the rape". The report shows Stone has a history of 70 convictions, starting from when he was 14 years old.
"I don't think even Stephen would claim to have been an angel or to be the perfect citizen. That's not what this is about. This is about somebody who is heading towards a quarter of a century in prison for some crimes that he very clearly states he had nothing to do with. Not only did he not have anything to do with them, he didn't know and had never met the victims. So it's a pretty strident position he's taking," McKinnel said.
Stone's wife Toni told RNZ she was "rapt" about the appeal and saw it as light at the end of the tunnel for him. "He's a hard man but he's not a murderer."
Mark Franklin, the detective who led the police investigation into both murders, has defended his work, telling the the Gone Fishing podcast that although he was not 100 percent sure police got everything right, he rejected allegations that police pressured witnesses to back up their case.
Franklin, who retired in 2005 and moved to the Cook Islands, told Gone Fishing he was proud of leading the investigation, which resulted in guilty verdicts that held despite subsequent appeals.
"At the end of the day, we're not out to convict innocent people."
Franklin was convicted of selling a small amount of cannabis to an undercover police officer in Rarotonga in 2011, serving his sentence at Arorangi prison.