Death in a recliner chair: Daughter tearfully testifies at mum’s manslaughter trial
During a tense cross-examination, the daughter of an Auckland man described as having died fused to his filthy recliner chair frequently broke down in tears as Crown prosecutors pointed to inconsistencies between her testimony and that of others.
“I don’t remember anything,” the woman, who was 16 when her father died in October 2016, told jurors shortly before Justice Edwin Wylie ordered a short break for her to gather her composure. “I was too busy working at that time. I don’t know anything else more than that.”
She was called by the defence to testify on behalf of her mother, Malia Li, who is on trial for manslaughter — accused of neglecting her stroke-victim husband, Lanitola Epenisa, to the point he died of blood poisoning from pressure sores so severe his muscle and bone were visible.
Police and paramedics have recalled finding Epenisa’s body in a rat-infested room, on a recliner chair stained with faeces and soaked in urine — the smell in the room so bad that one veteran detective said even he needed frequent breaks despite being used to grisly scenes.
The daughter, now 21, spent a day and a half on the witness stand. While questioned by defence counsel Nalesoni Tupou, she stated, among other things, that her father was verbally abusive towards her mother and frequently refused her help, despite her mother’s training as a former Healthcare NZ worker; that the room he died in was clean before emergency responders arrived; and that he was talkative and in good spirits about his own health in the hours before his death.
But other witnesses said Epenisa was unable to communicate in the weeks before his death, Crown prosecutor Jasper Rhodes suggested as he later questioned the daughter. An extended family member who made an unannounced visit the night before Epenisa died testified that he could only grunt.
“He was not able to shout at your mother and say the words you described in the months before his death, was he?” Rhodes asked.
She insisted he was.
The daughter also recounted conversations with her father in the final hours of his life, including him telling her goodnight around 11pm and telling her around 6pm — roughly eight hours before he was found dead — that he didn’t want to see his relatives for their drop-in visit.
“They have been in New Zealand for so long and we have never met,” she recalled her father telling her in Tongan. “They have just shown up. I don’t want to see them.”
A plastic surgeon called by the defence earlier in the week said the infected pressure sores would have started developing at a minimum of 10 hours before Epenisa died. But for that short of a timeframe to be feasible, the surgeon surmised, Epenisa would have been unable to move at all — perhaps from another stroke.
“I suggest that’s not true,” Rhodes said of the daughter’s account of Epenisa’s final hours. “Because on anyone’s assessment of the case — most importantly, your mother’s expert witness — at 11pm that night, two to three hours before his death, he would have been burning up with infection; a high degree of pain, we can assume, from the injuries he had.
“I’m sorry for putting it like that … but he was not talking to you that night and telling you everything was fine, was he?”
The daughter, crying again, disagreed.
“He just said he had an ulcer and I just kissed him and said goodnight, and that was it.”
The defence later called the daughter’s twin sister to the witness stand. Both lived in the South Auckland home with their parents.
“We asked the doctor if he should go to a rest home and the doctor said it was alright for him to go home with us,” she said, explaining that after her father’s second stroke the family was concerned about leaving him alone while they went to work or school. “The doctor said that as long as we gave him food in the morning and a drink bottle and his bottle to pee in, he should be alright.”
The twin’s testimony mirrored in parts her sister’s account, as well as a 2017 police interview with her mother that was played in court earlier.
“My father, he was a very hard man,” she told the jury. “He always wanted us to do what he says. If we gave him a good input or something that would have helped him, he wouldn’t accept it.”
Her father would call their mother an “a******” and other foul words on a daily basis, she said.
“My mother just ignored it — just tried to make him happy and calm,” she said.
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