12 Oct 2017

Life imprisonment for woman who killed grandson

6:32 pm on 12 October 2017

A grandmother who murdered her two-year-old grandson has been sentenced to life in prison with a minimum non-parole period of 14 and a half years.

Kathleen Elizabeth Cooper, 65, was sentenced this morning at the High Court in Auckland after being found guilty of murder on August 15.

Justice Katz said it will never be known exactly what Cooper did to Jermain Ngawhau but it's likely she threw him down a hallway at their Manurewa home in December 2015 and he died of his injuries five days later.

Exterior of the High Court in Auckland

Kathleen Elizabeth Cooper has been sentenced to life in prison. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Cooper took on the care of her four grand children because she did not want them split up and put in foster care.

But the stress on the 66-year-old was too much.

The High Court in Auckland heard how she would smack the four children under five, particularly two-year-old Jermain, who had a rare disorder and special needs.

Justice Katz said it was likely after another toilet accident in December 2015 that Cooper picked up the boy and threw him against a wall in the hallway of her Manurewa home.

He died of head injuries five days later in hospital.

The Crown prosecutor Aaron Perkins QC told the court Cooper initially denied any involvement in the fatal assault. The Court heard how she went so far as to blame a five year-old, also in her care, saying the girl had used an iPad to hit Jermain over the head.

He asked the court to impose a life sentence with a minimum non-parole period of 17 years.

Cooper's lawyer Paul Dacre QC said his client was in her 60s and living in a retirement village when she took on the care of her four grandchildren.

"The parents of the children could no longer care for them and, as a result, there was an intervention by CYFs [Child Youth and Family], there were family group conferences and in the end, it would appear the only available accommodation for the children to be together was with Mrs Cooper."

He said Child Youth and Family - now known as Oranga Tamariki - rightly or wrongly saw her as an appropriate parent and put the children in her care.

"Again, without going into details, she did not have adequate parenting skills, she did not have appropriate parenting skills."

Mr Dacre said the house had furniture and while the children were smacked, they were also provided for.

"She took on that task. It was an onerous task but she took it on, in my submission, with a desire to fulfill the obligations and a desire to help the children."

Cooper had little support but Justice Katz said witnesses at trial had described the children as being well fed and clothed.

"Their rooms were nicely decorated, they had lots of toys and clothes and a trampoline in the yard. Beneath the surface, however, all was not well. You were a harsh disciplinarian who appears to have smacked the children frequently, with considerable force, despite their young age."

Mr Perkins told the jury this year that Ms Cooper would discipline the children by "smacking them in various different ways".

"A number of witnesses, particularly staff at daycare centres, noted quite regular and often quite significant bruising on the children," he said.

The judge said in the week before the murder, Cooper had extended family staying. Some slept in tents on the back lawn and Cooper joined them in the garage to smoke methamphetamine. Traces of the class A drug were later found in the children's hair.

"It is incomprehensible that, as a grandmother with responsibility for four young children, you would think it was in any way acceptable to spend your evening smoking methamphetamine."

The night before the murder, she had been up all night with a baby who had a stomach ache.

The children's mother had promised to come and help but never showed up and was not answering her phone.

That afternoon she fatally assaulted Jermain out of stress, anger and frustration. She then called an adult grandson.

"He described you as being distraught. You told him that you had fallen asleep and then awoke to find Jermain unconscious in the hallway. Your grandson told you to call an ambulance. You told him one of the other children had admitted hurting Jermain by hitting him over the head with an ipad."

She repeated the lie to police, ambulance, family, friends and only admitted throwing Jermain in the hallway shortly before her trial.

Justice Katz said medical evidence showed Cooper used extreme force, comparable to a major car crash or a fall from a multi-storey building.

"The loss of yet another young life, at the hands of the very person entrusted to care for them is rightly a matter for public outrage and deep community concern."

Cooper will be 80 before she is released from prison.