On Monday, 528 days since a terrorist gunman carried out mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, he will come face to face with his victims and their families.
This is the day when sentencing begins for Brenton Harrison Tarrant, 29, on 51 charges of murder, 40 charges of attempted murder and a charge of committing a terrorist act in a hearing due to start at 10am in the city’s High Court.
The Australian national, who entered surprise guilty pleas in late March, could become the first person in New Zealand to be jailed for life without parole.
While details of Operation Curtain, the major security operation surrounding the high-profile, unprecedented sentencing, are a closely guarded secret, Stuff understands law enforcement agencies have been quietly working on it for months.
The gunman, who’s been held in isolation at Auckland Prison, the country’s only specialist maximum security facility, since his arrest, was flown to Christchurch on a New Zealand Defence Force aircraft – a C-130 Hercules – on Sunday afternoon accompanied by a small, hand-picked group of dedicated Corrections staff responsible for his management.
For the duration of the sentencing, he is being held at the Justice and Emergency Services Precinct where he can be escorted from a cell below ground to the courtroom, rather than having to be transported between the court and Christchurch Men’s Prison every day. This is mainly to mitigate the risk of him being attacked while in transit.
The cell, where he’ll be monitored around the clock when not in court, is thought to have been fitted with special screens on the outside to prevent people using the lift to the High Court from seeing him.
When the terrorist walks into court, the level of restraint he’ll be subject to is unclear, but in the past high-risk individuals, such as double killer Russell John Tully, have been manacled to chairs and cuffed to prison officers during court hearings.
On Sunday, security outside the justice precinct, which combines the city’s main police station and court buildings, was tight. Armed police stood guard, surrounding roads – Tuam and Lichfield streets – were blocked and two military all-terrain vehicles were present.
Canterbury district commander Superintendent John Price previously said there would be a heightened police presence in the city prior to and during the sentencing.
It’s understood police have visited a number of high risk individuals, some with known ties to white supremacy, in the city and other parts of the country in recent weeks. They’ve been closely monitoring discussions on online forums and message boards.
Anyone entering the court this week will be subject to rigorous screening.
Only essential court services such as priority proceedings, criminal arrests and urgent Youth Court matters will be running while the sentencing is underway, and court counters have been temporarily closed.
The sentencing, which will take place in front of Justice Cameron Mander, will start with a reading of the summary of facts which could shed light on some of the unanswered questions that still remain after the massacre.
It is then expected that victims will begin reading their statements describing the impact of the terror attack. These will continue on Tuesday and likely through Wednesday with at least 66 victims indicating they would like to read, or have their statements, read in court.
Following the conclusion of the victim impact statements, the shooter will have an opportunity to address the court.
The sentencing hearing is expected to conclude on Thursday. However, if more time is needed the hearing will resume on Monday, as Friday is the Muslim day of prayer.
Significantly fewer people will be able to attend the sentencing due to level 2 coronavirus restrictions meaning fewer victims and their support people will be allowed in the main courtroom. Proceedings will be streamed to seven overflow courtrooms with a total of 230 people able to be present.
While 11 New Zealand news organisations and 18 overseas media organisations have applied to report on the sentencing, live reporting of the proceedings has been prohibited.
News of the hearing will be embargoed until the lunchtime and end-of-day adjournments.
THE KEY NUMBERS
– 35 people allowed in the main courtroom under alert level 2.
– 66 victims have indicated their intention to read victim impact statements.
– 7 courtrooms are reserved for victims not in the main courtroom.
– 47 have entered New Zealand from overseas through a special exemption process for the sentencing.
– 29 local and international media organisations have signalled their intent to report on the sentencing.
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