Christchurch shootings suspect Brenton Tarrant could avoid terror charges, legal experts warn

The suspect in the Christchurch massacre, Brenton Tarrant (Picture: AP)

The accused Christchurch shooter could avoid facing terrorism charges over fears the trial would give him the platform to promote his ideological views.

Australian Brenton Tarrant, 28, a self-described white supremacist, was charged with one count of murder at the weekend after 50 people were killed in Friday’s shootings at two mosques in New Zealand.

But as the authorities consider the possibility of further charges under the Terrorism Suppression Act, legal experts have warned that Tarrant may instead face multiple murder charges.

There are fears that a trial on terrorism charges would allow Tarrant to espouse his views, as well as posing more of a challenge for prosecutors and causing added trauma for victims’ families.

The shootings in Christchurch claimed the lives of 50 people (Picture: AP)
A woman cries at a memorial site for the victims of Friday’s shooting, outside Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand (Picture: Reuters)

“In my view, the elements are all made out, but to minimise the impact on victims, straight murder is easier to prove,” former crown prosecutor Ross Burns told the Stuff news website.

“And there’s less scope to use a platform to espouse his ideological reasons.

“You’ve got 50 people killed and probably ten times that number directly affected so it will be a long trial and will be unduly traumatic for everyone.”

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Mr Burns led New Zealand’s only case to attempt to use the Terrorism Suppression Act, after police raids in 2007 on an alleged paramilitary training camp near the town of Ruatoki, but the terror charges were later abandoned.

Tarrant wrote a 74-page manifesto filled with his anti-Muslim views.

Mr Burns said: “If he’s denied a platform, he’s failed in his objective.”

Alexander Gillespie, a law professor at Waikato University, told 9news it’s possible that Tarrant will instead face multiple murder charges.

“There’s a lot of debate on whether he should be charged under terrorism legislation or whether he should be charged under the Crimes Act for the simple act of murder – in many ways it’s academic debate,” he said.

People mourn at a makeshift memorial site near the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch (Picture: AP)

In New Zealand, a murder conviction usually comes with a minimum of ten years in prison before possible parole.

But criminal lawyer Simon Cullen told AFP: “He may be sentenced to imprisonment without parole. There is a very significant possibility.

“This would seem to be the type of situation that may well attract consideration of that type of sentence.”

University of Auckland criminal procedure expert Bill Hodge said prosecutors may steer clear of terror charges.

He told the AFP: “We haven’t used our terrorism laws previously and the laws are designed to inhibit or prosecute those involved with groups and financing and publications and the like.”

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