Man guilty on 33 charges of sexually abusing underage girls

By Contributor

By Ellen Thompson, Open Justice Multimedia Journalist, Tāmaki Makaurau

WARNING: This story discusses sexual abuse and may be upsetting.

An emotional judge has fought back tears as a jury found a man who claimed sex with a 12-year-old girl was consensual guilty of 33 sexual abuse charges.

Tulisi Leiataua abused two girls, aged 8 and 12, over a period of four years, starting in 2010. Throughout the trial he claimed this relationship with the older girl was not only consensual and she initiated it but that it was like a marriage.

He denied all allegations relating to the younger girl.

Today a jury chose to believe the women, who are now aged 19 and 24 and faced a gruelling cross-examination during the two-week trial.

Leiataua stood shaking his head as the verdict was read out.

Afterwards, an emotional Judge Richard Earwaker addressed the jury who spent almost 10 hours deliberating.

"It is always hard to see young people in court who are victims of such crimes and to see them have to relive these events is difficult for everybody," he said.

"If this is any comfort for you, I agree with your verdicts. I have seen you be diligent in your task and I have seen the toll this has had on you all personally," he said.

Judge Earwaker wiped at his eyes as he thanked them for their time.

Three jurors and the court's registrar were also emotional as the judge spoke about the difficulty of sitting through the trial and said assistance can be made available to them if they wanted.

Leiataua was extradited from Samoa in 2020 after the girls went to the police in 2015 about the abuse that occurred when they were living in New Zealand.

He was charged with four counts of sexual violation by rape, three counts of an indecent act with a young person, one count of indecent assault, 10 counts of sexual violation by unlawful sexual connection, seven counts of other sexual violations, two counts of other assault on a child and six charges of an indecent act on a child.

On Monday Judge Earwaker closed the two-week-long trial, urging the jury to stay utterly dispassionate when judging whether the Crown had proved its case or not.

"It is not enough for the Crown to persuade you that he is most likely guilty, it needs to be beyond a reasonable doubt."

Judge Earwaker addressed the issue of consent on a person under 16 years old.

"Legally, a person under 16 cannot give consent for charges of indecent acts, therefore as a jury, all you need to decide is if the indecent acts took place.

"But as for sexual intercourse, a person under 16 can give consent. You need to consider whether or not the consent was given based on the evidence you have. Remember an adult cannot give consent to a minor, in fact, nobody can give consent for somebody else."

Earwaker said Leiataua accepted having a consensual sexual relationship with the first complainant but denied all other allegations of rape, indecent acts and sexual violations.

He denied all allegations related to the second complainant.

The closing statements from counsel

The Crown and defence closed their cases to the jury on Friday.

Defence lawyer Mark Edgar suggested the first complainant regretted being in a "consensual relationship with a man 20 years older than her.

"Has she detached herself from not remembering because she has regret? She was probably too young to appreciate it but that doesn't mean she didn't want to go along with it.

"These events happened years ago and memories fade with time. Memories are sometimes not correct," Edgar said.

"Why did she not just tell someone she was being raped?

"This is not a court of morals it is a court of law. There is no room for sympathy and prejudice," Edgar reminded the jury.

Crown prosecutor Gareth Kayes suggested Leiataua's case rested on his evidence of how a 12-year-old child overpowered him into having a consensual sexual relationship.

"I suggest Leiataua has lied to you over and over again. He helped himself to these women. He degraded them and he abused them.

"If the offending wasn't so serious, his version of evidence could be almost laughable," Kayes said.

"These women tried to speak up. They said in their video interview how if they told people they would be called a liar."

Kayes closed the Crown case by stating there was no consensual relationship between the defendant and a 12-year-old.

"The truth is he raped, sexually abused and performed indecent acts on these two women. He stole their childhoods, the evidence is overwhelming and the defendant is guilty."

Tulisi Leiataua breaks down while giving evidence

Leiataua broke down in tears while giving his evidence last Thursday. He claimed the oldest girl pursued him for sex which he initially did not want to engage in.

But Kayes told Leiataua he was a liar and a rapist.

"You were 20 years older than her [the first victim] but you had sex with her, knowing she couldn't consent.

"You say you refused three times, is that because you knew it was morally wrong?" Kayes asked the defendant.

"I wasn't thinking morally," Leiataua replied. "I was thinking with common sense."

He then admitted to knowing the alleged victim was a minor.

"I know she was a child but the way she came to me was like a mature woman.

"I refused her but she kept coming back to me. She truly wanted to do this," Leiataua said.

"She came into [the] room naked, I was shocked, I chased her out of the room."

The 45-year-old denied any oral sex and claimed his relationship with the girl was like a "married couple".

The complainant's evidence

In the first week of the trial, the older woman told the court she was 12 when Leiataua started bribing her with treats, commenting on her body and telling her he planned to marry her when she was older.

Defence lawyer Panama Le'au'anae put it to the woman that she made it up and was actually having a consensual relationship with Leiataua - which she denied.

"This man made me feel like I was a dog ... what he did to me was never consensual," she said.

The second victim who was abused as an eight-year-old told the court he would threaten her to make sure she didn't tell anyone.

"If you tell anyone about what I do to you, I will beat you until you die," she said.

In a police interview video taken in 2015, she said she couldn't tell anyone because everyone would think she was lying.

"He would laugh and smile, he would say, 'shame on you, no one believes you."

Leiataua left New Zealand for Samoa in May 2014. Six months later the sexual abuse complaints were made against him but it wasn't until March 2020 that a Samoan District Court judge accepted an extradition application so Leiataua could face the allegations.

He was brought back to New Zealand soon after and arrested at Auckland Airport.

Leiataua will appear for sentencing later next month.

Where to get help

If you have concerns or suspicions about someone who may be trading in or producing child sexual abuse images or videos, contact Customs confidentially on 0800 WE PROTECT (0800 937 768) or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.

If you are, or know of, someone who is at risk or being abused, contact the police immediately.