Peter Ellis, a former day-care teacher convicted of 16 counts of child sexual abuse in New Zealand in 1993, maintained his innocence until his 2019 death from bladder cancer. Usually one's death marks the end of their criminal appeal. But not in this case. New Zealand's Supreme Court "took the unusual step" of overturning Ellis' conviction on Friday, per the AP. It was the first time a court in the country overturned a conviction posthumously, per the Guardian. "I wish my brother was here, because it was really what he deserved," Mark Ellis told reporters after the ruling. "It's sad that Peter's mother ... died about a month ago because she was an extraordinarily loyal and committed defender of her son," added a family friend, per the New Zealand Herald.
The court found "a substantial miscarriage of justice" in the case, per the AP. It said prosecution witness Karen Zelas, a psychiatrist who supervised the interviews of the young children, downplayed other explanations for their sexualized behavior, bedwetting, and sleep issues, and failed to explain the risk that their testimony might have been contaminated by their parents. The trial followed others in the US centered on allegations of satanic ritual abuse at childcare centers, and that theme continued, with children describing cages attached to the ceiling. One girl recanted her testimony in 1994, saying she'd lied to please her mother, per the Herald. "Some believed the fact [Ellis] was openly gay worked against him," per the AP.
Ellis, who spent seven years in prison, unsuccessfully appealed his conviction twice before the Supreme Court agreed to hear his case in 2019. He died before the hearing at age 61, but the court allowed the appeal to continue, accepting his lawyers' argument that a person's "mana," or honor, is just as important in death as in life under Maori customary law, per the Guardian. Ellis, who wasn't Maori, had wished the legal fight to continue beyond his death. The parents of some children said they were "shocked and saddened" by the court's move. It "ignored the victims," who "suffered terrible abuse," they said in a statement, per the Herald. The court noted "its judgment was not to be read as a criticism of the parents, the complainants, or those involved in the investigation and trial," per the Guardian. (Read more wrongful conviction stories.)