Death in a recliner chair: Defence closes case at month-long manslaughter trial

The defence has finished presenting evidence in the manslaughter trial of a widow accused of neglecting her stroke victim husband to the point he died fused to his recliner chair, nearly bringing an end to testimony in the unusually lengthy trial exactly one month after the first witness was called.

Jurors are expected to hear arguments for the case and begin deliberating next week. But first Crown prosecutors, who closed their case at the end of last week, will have an opportunity to briefly recall witnesses.

Former Healthcare NZ worker Malia Unalotokipea Li was arrested in December 2017, 14 months after husband Lanitola Epenisa died in a bedroom the couple shared with their 16-year-old daughters at a decrepit, rat-infested South Auckland home. He died from blood poisoning due to infected pressure sores deep enough to see his muscle and bone.

Although the final week of testimony involved witnesses called by the defence, it was Crown prosecutors who dominated questioning in the final day as they cross-examined the second daughter to have taken the witness stand.

The 21-year-old — who described herself as her father’s main carer, with help from her mother and sister — repeatedly rebuffed Crown prosecutor Jasper Rhodes’ suggestions she was lying as he spent hours pointing to discrepancies between her testimony and that of others, as well as variances from her own earlier statements to police.

She said she didn’t notice a “rotting meat-type smell” before her father’s death, which Rhodes pointed out that others had testified to.

She also insisted the recliner her father was in and the carpeting underneath it were dry when she went to bed that night. It contradicts testimony from a relative who dropped in for a visit and said her socks got wet as she walked up to the recliner, as well as testimony from police who examined the scene after his death — describing a wet, faeces-stained chair atop a carpet “sodden” with what appeared to be urine.

“She’s lying,” the daughter said of the relative’s account. “It was checked before he went to bed.”

Rhodes fired back: “It’s just a coincidence, I suppose, her lie describes exactly how the room was found the next day by the police? Everybody’s lying but you?”

She insisted again the chair was dry and added that the room also did not smell of urine, despite contradictory accounts.

Rhodes also took issue with the daughter’s description of Epenisa’s behavior in the months before he died. She described him as “very angry and abusive”, sometimes grabbing a crutch next to his recliner to use as a weapon.

“He tried to whack us when he was angry but he didn’t hit us with it,” the daughter said, explaining that she was able to dodge it.

“Given he had no need for his crutches apart from to whack you with, why didn’t you take them away?” Rhodes asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied.

“Because you’re making it up?” Rhodes asked.

“No, I’m not,” she insisted.

Epenisa didn’t see a doctor in the 10 months before he died, Rhodes pointed out. When he asked the daughter why she didn’t report the mood swings to a doctor, she reminded him she was only 16 at the time.

“So did you trust your mum, who has training in this sort of thing, to deal with it appropriately?” he asked.

She agreed she did.

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