Trial of accused Christchurch mosque shooter may be delayed

By NICK PERRY | Thu, August 15, 2019 12:02 EDT

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The trial of the man accused of killing 51 people at two New Zealand mosques could be delayed by several weeks to avoid clashing with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

The trial had been scheduled to begin on May 3 in the city of Christchurch, where the Muslim worshippers were killed five months ago during Friday prayers. But prosecutors said during a hearing Thursday they were working with court officials to see if they could fulfil the wishes of survivors and victims' families by delaying the trial until after Ramadan ends in late May, Radio New Zealand reported.

Also during the hearing, lawyers for accused gunman Brenton Tarrant asked if the venue for the trial could be changed to Auckland, where Tarrant is being held at a maximum security prison, RNZ reported. Judge Cameron Mander plans to hear arguments for the venue change during the next hearing on Oct. 3.

Mander had earlier issued a written note saying that Tarrant could skip Thursday's hearing because his lawyers didn't require him to be there and he hadn't sought to attend in person or by video. The 28-year-old Australian white supremacist has been charged with terrorism, murder and attempted murder.

On Wednesday, prison officials admitted making a mistake by allowing Tarrant to send a six-page letter from his jail cell to a supporter. The letter was then posted on the 4chan website, which has become notorious as a place for white supremacists to post their views.

Corrections Department Chief Executive Christine Stevenson apologized for the distress the letter may have caused to victims of the March 15 attacks and said Tarrant had been stopped from sending or receiving any more letters until the department had processes in place to ensure the safety of the public.

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis told RNZ that Tarrant had sent seven letters since he'd been in jail and had written two more letters that prison staff had withheld. Davis said Tarrant sent two of the letters to his mother but didn't know who had received the other five letters.

The online posting of the letter came at a sensitive time, with other alleged killers from El Paso, Texas, to Norway citing Tarrant as an inspiration.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has vowed never to utter Tarrant's name in order to deny him the publicity she says he craves, making Tarrant's letter even more of an embarrassment for the government.

"I think every New Zealander would have an expectation that this individual should not be able to share his hateful message from behind bars," she told media on the island nation of Tuvalu, where she is traveling to attend a meeting of Pacific leaders.

Tarrant's lawyers could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday on why they wanted to change the trial venue.

University of Otago law professor Andrew Geddis, who is not involved in the case, said there were precedents in New Zealand for changing venue when it could be successfully argued that a jury pool in a town where an alleged crime took place was so tainted it couldn't be relied upon to deliver a fair verdict.

But Geddis said that, although he didn't know the specific arguments for changing venue in the Tarrant case, he would be surprised if the application was successful. He said the Christchurch shootings were notorious enough that everybody in New Zealand knew about them, and a change in venue would also seriously inconvenience the dozens of survivors and family members who continue to live in Christchurch.

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