Manslaughter chair trial: Defense says stroke victim’s death was inevitable

Malia Lee is on trial for causing her husband’s death by failing to provide him with necessities as his legal caregiver. Photo/Michael Craig

Lawyers for a widow on trial for manslaughter after the death of her stroke-stricken husband in dilapidated conditions at their South Oakland home have asked jurors not to look at the case through the lens of a Remoira opera fan sipping wine.

Defense attorney Mark Ryan suggested during his lengthy closing arguments that it was important for jurors to put white privilege aside and try to see it through the eyes of the “lower class” and the “daily-struggling poor”.

Lanitola Epenisa died in October 2016 from septicemia caused by pressure sores – with one on the buttock so deep muscle and bone could be seen. Throughout the month-long trial, witnesses summoned by the Crown described a deadly foul stench in the room he shared with his wife and twin daughters, with rats and larvae near a stool stained with feces and urine where he spent most of his time.

His widow, Malia Lee, a former health care worker in New Zealand, was extremely negligent in her care for him, prosecutors Jasper Rhodes and Freddie Faul said the day before in Auckland High Court.

But in their response, defense attorneys Ryan and Nalisoni Topo urged jurors to be mindful of cultural dynamics and suggested that their client would face “significant prejudice” if jurors allowed her extreme poverty or “state of complete destruction” of the family home to play a role in their deliberations.

“You can’t hold that against her if these are the only facilities you can take,” Ryan said. “There was no washing machine, which meant she had to keep her husband’s soiled clothes in plastic bags. Of course, she would smell them.

“…Put yourself in the defendant’s shoes.”

The defense argued that Ebenissa died quickly, likely within hours of developing severe pressure ulcers, due to his already poor health and his repeated refusal to seek medical help.

“Was that a high degree of negligence? I don’t suggest,” Ryan told the jury. “This is a very sad case of a very sick man…

“Because of the infection that was flowing under the surface at the time… he died quickly. As a result, the defendant before you accused you of unlawfully killing him. That could not be true. In the circumstances at the time… the behavior cannot be categorized Mrs. Lee as being so bad that it could be considered criminal.

Ryan also used the closing remarks to criticize New Zealand Health Care and the government-funded Taikora Disability Trust, suggesting that they were the ones who failed Ebeneza and his family. While the organizations are not on trial, he repeatedly noted, “their acceptable failures may also be taken into account when considering the circumstances.”

“Significant and serious failures have been identified,” Ryan said, explaining that Epenisa had not seen either organization in months. “The failures of health care providers, in this case, are staggering and alarming.”

Last week, the defense called the last two witnesses of the couple’s two daughters, who were 16 at the time of Ebenissa’s death. During extensive questioning, prosecutors pointed out multiple inconsistencies between their statements.

Lanitola Epenisa died in October 2016 of sepsis.  The attached photo
Lanitola Epenisa died in October 2016 of sepsis. The attached photo

Ryan also came to the defense of the now-adult twin during his discussion, noting that “memories and recollection diminish” over the course of five years and that “in stressful situations people get things wrong.” He read aloud the testimony of one of the girls who he said “strikes at the heart of this whole case”.

“I just want to say, Mom, she’s a good person and we did our best to take care of our dad,” the daughter said. “And he was the only one who refused to help us. We loved our father so much. We never left him without pills or without pills.”

The jurors are expected to begin debating the case in the morning.

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