20 Feb 2020

Karen Ruddelle trial: Jury retires to consider verdict

2:06 pm on 20 February 2020

A jury has retired to consider its verdict in the case of a woman accused of murdering her abusive partner in their south Auckland home.

Auckland court coat of arms.

Photo: RNZ / Patrice Allen

At the High Court in Auckland, Justice Palmer this morning delivered his final instructions to the jury of eight women and four men, who are tasked with deciding whether Karen Anne Ruddelle is guilty of murder, manslaughter or not guilty of either.

Ruddelle claims she was acting in self defence when she stabbed her partner Joseph Ngapera in November 2018.

Her lawyers argued she feared for her life and that of her son due to the violence she'd suffered at the hands of Ngapera in the past.

The prosecution claimed she acted deliberately and that the unarmed Ngapera was not posing an immediate threat to them.

Joseph Ngapera's death

The couple had been drinking and socialising at a local bar before a family member dropped them at their home on Thompson Terrace, Manurewa, about 3am on 14 November, 2018.

Despite previously having a protection order against him, Mr Ngapera was living with Ruddelle, her 14-year-old son and her adult son, Poutou Cameron, at the time.

The court was read notes taken by a police officer who'd spoken to the younger boy.

"I woke up. I walked into the kitchen, I saw my mum arguing with Joseph. I think she stabbed him with a kitchen knife. I think she's drunk. She doesn't usually drink," the boy told Constable Wepiha Te Kanawa.

"I think my mum got upset because Joseph was talking about my sibling in a negative way. I wasn't awake when they were fighting. I just woke up from my bed when I heard mum scream.

"I walked into the kitchen. I pushed Joe away because he was arguing with mum, the next thing I know mum had a knife and stabbed Joe."

Constable Sarah Hunter arrested Ruddelle and told the jury that the 58-year-old's demeanour was hysterical.

"Her mood was erratic. She would switch between crying hysterically followed by anger and aggression.

"She asked me, 'Is Joseph gone?' I responded, 'Yes, he is dead'. She kept saying, 'It should have been me'," Hunter said.

Constable Richard Perese drove Ruddelle to the police station with Hunter sitting next to her in the back seat.

"I heard the defendant asking Constable Hunter, 'Is Joseph gone?' Constable Hunter replied, 'Yes'. Then I heard the defendant say, 'Thank you, Jesus'," he said.

Ruddelle's lawyers have questioned whether she actually said this.

Years of abuse

Ngapera was described by various people as a generous, kind and talented.

But the court was told that he'd turn violent when he'd been drinking.

He once told Ruddelle that he'd killed a man in Australia, and that he'd beaten a taxi driver to near death over a fare dispute.

Defence lawyer Shane Cassidy yesterday listed dozens of instances of physical and verbal abuse that Ngapera inflicted on Ruddelle.

This included grabbing her by the neck and strangling her as he pushed her against a wall, as well as numerous threats to kill.

"How many times does someone need to be told that they're going to be killed before you start to believe that that is a very real possibility? Once you've been strangled, held up against the wall with hands around your throat, [you'd] believe that you might die and you'd be pleading for it to stop.

"This is not you, Joe. This is not you," Cassidy said, recounting what Ruddelle once told her partner.

Ruddelle was granted a protection order in July 2016, which Ngapera was convicted of breaching the following year for verbally abusing her, chasing her out of the house and threatening to "bottle" her.

The jury was told about numerous other occasions when Ruddelle called police to her home to report threats, but by September 2018 the protection order had been discharged at her own request.

Ngapera's cousin, Charlotte Howard, said she'd observed them arguing at various times over the years.

She told the jury her cousin would call Ruddelle horrible names, adding: "Karen couldn't do anything because he would give her a hiding."

Giving evidence in her own defence, Ruddelle described a childhood marred by domestic violence and alcoholism.

"Being the oldest, you had to take care of everything and make sure that when your parents went out that the kids were taken care of; fed; house clean; and protecting them when they need you."

Her mother used to send her up the road to phone police for help when she was as young as 8 years old.

Ruddelle said the drinking and violence continued into her adult life where romantic partners threatened and hurt her.

The defence case

Clinical psychologist Dr Alison Towns was called as an expert witness and told the jury that Ruddelle was displaying symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder at the time of the killing.

This, she said, could trigger the primal, fight or flight part of the brain which can lead people to act instinctively and spontaneously.

"What repeated lots of trauma does is it makes it easier, if you feel threatened, to flip into survival mode," she said.

"This is triggered by very old, primitive parts of the brain that work to help you survive."

Ruddelle's lawyer, Shane Cassidy, told the jury that even if someone intended to kill but did so in self-defence, then they had not committed a crime.

Even so, Ruddelle had no such intention, he said.

The only thing going through her mind at the time was an instinctive desire to protect her son.

"What Karen did was driven by that non-rational part of her brain, and that explanation fits perfectly with the force that was used when she stabbed him," he said.

"It was not logical. No thought."

Cassidy banged his fist on the table to highlight the spontaneous nature of her actions.

He said this was exactly the sort of case the government had in mind when it set up the Family Violence Death Review Committee to look at domestic violence.

This resulted in tougher laws for strangulation offences.

"An example of strategic violence is non-fatal strangulation. And this is what we saw time and time in the death review," Cassidy said.

"It effectively lets women know that their partners are capable of killing them and their life is in their hands."

The Crown's case

Prosecutor Yelena Yelavich told the jury that being in an abusive relationship was not a defence to murder.

"Karen Ruddelle was drunk and she was angry. She stabbed a partner in the chest twice using a knife with a 19cm blade," she said.

"One of the stab wounds was inflicted with such force that it passed through her partner's rib, penetrating his heart."

As she held up the kitchen knife before the jury, Yelavich argued that this wasn't the instinctive action of someone fearing for their life, but a deliberate killing.

"The defendant did act quickly. She did so because she wanted to catch Mr Ngapera by surprise, and she was successful," Yelavich said.

"He didn't even get a chance to put his hands up to defend himself, let alone attack or try to attack anyone."

The other Crown prosecutor, Chris Howard, said Ruddelle's assertion that Ngapera had lunged at her was inconsistent with the post mortem, which found two stab wounds which would have required two assaults.

He said one of the police officers had heard Ruddelle say, "I just murdered somebody. Someone I loved so much".

That officer wrote those words down, and Ruddelle signed the page but quickly changed her mind and scribbled out her signature, Howard said.

The trial has taken nine days.

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