Death in a recliner chair: After month of gruesome detail, jury returns verdict

Lanitola Epenisa — a stone-wall builder and “hard man” originally from Tonga who, according to his wife and daughters, prided himself on being the family’s breadwinner — by all accounts died in pathetic circumstances nearly five years ago.

Emaciated, immobilised by two prior strokes and unemployed, the 48-year-old spent most of his final months confined to a recliner chair that he would later be found dead in — emergency responders describing it as encrusted in faeces, soaked with urine and fused to Epenisa due to his multiple pressure sores.

For over a month, jurors at the High Court in Auckland have heard horrific details and viewed graphic photos as they immersed themselves in the circumstances of Epenisa’s death. But they’ve also been told the story of a South Auckland immigrant family, by no means wealthy to begin with, pushed to the fringes of society by a series of medical setbacks.

Was Malia Li, Epenisa’s wife of nearly 20 years, “grossly negligent” in the care of her vulnerable partner to the point it constituted manslaughter? Or was it simply a very sad case of a family made desperate by poverty, doing their best in impossible circumstances, as the defence argued?

Eleven jurors, after roughly eight hours of deliberation over two days, sided with Crown prosecutors, finding Li guilty of manslaughter.

Li’s lip quivered after the sentence was read aloud by the jury foreman. She quietly wiped away tears with her blouse as Justice Edwin Wylie scheduled her sentencing for next month. Previously free on bail, she was taken into custody to await the hearing.

‘A difficult environment’
When paramedics and police arrived at Epenisa’s Māngere home on the morning of October 2, 2016, they were confronted with a scene shocking even to those hardened by frequent exposure to death and poverty.

St John paramedic Karl Ford described the smell as “abnormal”. Sergeant Andrew Joyce recalled seeing large sores on Epenisa after cutting off clothes that appeared “stuck to his body”.

“When we were moving the body and his clothing … it looked like he was stuck to the recliner,” he told jurors.

Detective Michael Abbot, who showed up hours later, described a decrepit home “with various building extensions and lean-tos” — in which there were ants in the kitchen sugar pot, holes in the floors and the ceilings of other rooms and rats scurrying across at least two bedrooms. Others testified the home had no working washing machine, dryer or stove.

Epenisa, Li and their two 16-year-old daughters were confined to one bedroom of the house, which was owned by a relative and shared with 11 other people.

The family had been previously forced from two other Auckland homes — one in Hillsborough, where they could no longer afford the rent due to Epenisa’s post-strokes unemployment, as well as a Tongan community-funded house with links to the Kolomotu’a village. Epenisa helped maintain the village property before he became unwell, but they were told to move on when the place needed renovating.

Inside the Māngere bedroom shared by the family, Abbot described a scene that forced him to take frequent breaks due to the overpowering stench, even though he said he has a “bit of a threshold” for most death scenes due to his profession.

“It was a difficult environment to work in,” he admitted, describing what appeared to be a urine-soaked recliner,a “sodden”, stained rug underneath the recliner and mouse droppings. A black bag next to the recliner contained faeces-laden clothing, as well as maggots, and a bottle next to the chair seemed to contain a mixture of urine and blood.

“As I moved the La-Z-Boy chair, a mouse actually ran out from inside the chair,” he said, adding that when he opened a rubbish-strewn cupboard next to the chair “multiple mice ran in all directions”.

‘Your mother is worried’
Friends and family told jurors during the trial of other disturbing scenes before Epenisa’s death. Li was accused of turning away family members who came to check on her husband or offer help, and of leaving him home alone for long periods of time without food or water.

A visiting friend said she ordered her son to climb through the window of the house when Epenisa was found locked inside without food — his wife nowhere to be seen.Another visitor claimed Li made her husband wait so long to visit the bathroom that “an accident” happened while she eventually led him off his chair to the toilet. One of Epenisa’s daughters was later seen mopping the hallway floor.

An extended family member of Epenisa, visiting New Zealand from Tonga, found him sitting in his own urine in a chair. The room smelt like a dead animal, Maile Havili Kaufusi claimed.

She pulled him to her chest.

“He could not speak but was making a humming noise,” she recalled. “Then I talked to him, telling him, ‘Do you recognise me? Your mother is really worried and loves you.'”

Even Li’s relative who owned and lived in the home where Epenisa died claimed she barely saw him, and was told by Li not to visit his room, despite smelling a strong stench wafting from it.

‘He always refused’
But Li and her daughters accused family of friends of lying. Both of the defendant’s daughters, now 21, tearfully took the witness stand to defend their mother during the trial. Li declined to testify on her own behalf but Crown prosecutors played an interview she gave with police just days after Christmas in 2017, the same day she was arrested.

“They just talk, make me look bad because they don’t like me,” Li told investigators, suggesting relatives were only interested in her husband’s health to see if there was an insurance payout.

As the video was played out, it was paused frequently so that her own broken English could be translated into Tongan for her. The translation was one of the reasons the trial, which started in late May, lasted as long as it did.

“I’m just saying the truth,” Li continued in the police interview. “[His] family, they don’t like me because [he] never contact them.”

Li and her daughters all described Epenisa as a “hard man” to begin with, who would rebuff the defendant’s help and became more verbally abusive towards the family as he got sicker.

“A lot of times I would hear my dad shouting at her, yelling at her to just leave it to us [daughters],” one of the daughters said of his care. “In Tongan, he would say abusive swear words … all the time when my mum offered to help.”

Other times, the daughter recalled, her father would tell her mother: “I don’t want to go and see the doctor. You piss off.”

The daughters both quit school to get jobs at the same factory so they could help support the family after their father fell too ill to work, they said. While their mother had previously worked as a carer for Healthcare NZ, she was burdened with health issues of her own — having endured multiple surgeries and hospital stays for kidney stones — and so the teens did what they could to contribute.

The daughters worked alternating shifts so the other could help their mother care for their father, they said. They helped bathe and take their father to the bathroom, even though it was seen as against Tongan custom by friends who visited.

Epenisa and Li had separately moved to New Zealand for a better life. Epenisa arrived in 1998, two years before his twins were born.

“I just want to say, my mum, she is a good person and we did our best to care for our father,” the other daughter said. “And it was only him who refused our help. We loved our father very much.”

Conflicting theories
Ultimately, it was blood poisoning caused by infected pressure sores that caused Epenisa’s death, both sides agreed at Li’s trial.

Some of the sores were so deep that muscle and bone could be seen, and some as large as 5cm, pathologist Dr Joanna Glengarry reported. A maggot pupae was found on the side of his hip, dirt was encrusted on his skin and his nails were overgrown, she said.

The Herald has chosen not to publish other details of the post-mortem examination because of their graphic nature.

“Mr Epenisa had multiple risk factors due to his previous strokes, diabetes, former obesity and possible malnutrition,” Glengarry testified, adding that she couldn’t say how long it would have taken him to succumb to the infected sores.

But, she added, she believed it would take “a great deal longer than six hours”.

During their closing argument earlier this week, Crown prosecutors Jasper Rhodes and Freddy Faull said Li started out providing adequate care for her husband when he was first discharged from the hospital for his strokes.

But her care for him declined, most dramatically during the final months of his life, they said, pointing out that he didn’t see a doctor at all in the nine months before his death. A sociable man who enjoyed church events and a local men’s group, Epenisa had plenty of friends who could have also stepped in to help had Li allowed it, Rhodes told jurors.

“Even if you accept he didn’t want to see anyone, the point is they were available to help Ms Li if she asked,” Rhodes said, arguing that Li could not defend herself from the manslaughter charge by suggesting Epenisa demanded not to be helped. “Ultimately, he did not have a choice.”

But reconstructive plastic surgeon Bruce Peat, who consulted police on the case before being called as an expert witness for the defence, suggested the onset of the sores could have been so quick they would have been hard for family members to spot — especially on someone with a dark skin tone.

Peat was insistent the sores would not have been there for weeks or months, which he suggested most people would think of when considering neglect. Given Epenisa’s poor health, the timeframe was more likely between 10 hours and three days, and probably closer to the shorter end of that timeframe, he estimated.

But to have developed that rapidly, Epenisa would have needed to be unconscious or unable to move in the final hours of his life, he said. Epenisa’s daughters seemed to contradict that theory, both testifying that their father was alert and talking to them as they said goodnight to him several hours before he was discovered to have died.

Defence counsel Mark Ryan and Nalesoni Tupou theorised during their own closing argument that Epenisa could have been drifting in and out of consciousness as the infection was “bubbling away below the surface”, waking up just long enough to bid his loved ones a final goodnight and for the “hard man” to reassure them he was fine. Prosecutors suggested the daughters were lying.

‘Significant prejudice’
Ryan asked jurors during the defence closing to put themselves in the shoes of the defendant — a member of the “underclass” living in “an impoverished situation” who was trained as a carer but unemployed, with the Government unwilling to pay her for helping her husband.

“The defendant faces significant prejudice in this case” based on testimony about living conditions the entire family endured, he said.

“We’ve heard recently in the press about white privilege. Are these the community standards that should apply?” he said, urging jurors not to view the case through the lens of a chardonnay-sipping Remuera opera fan, and instead someone who struggles on a daily basis to eke out some form of existence. “It’s up to you.”

The defence also used the closing remarks to lash out at Healthcare NZ and Government-funded disability organisation Taikura Trust.

“The failures of the healthcare providers, in this case, are startling and disturbing,” Ryan said, pointing out repeatedly that they weren’t on trial — with the focus instead, he implied, on the easier task of making an example of his powerless and impoverished client.

Ryan told jurors they could take into account the “accepted failures” of the organisations when considering the overall circumstances of Epenisa’s death. And if their failures can be forgiven, perhaps Li should be forgiven as well, the argument followed.

“To err is human,” Ryan said. “But not every mistake someone makes should result in them facing a manslaughter charge.”

Ultimately, the jury disagreed.

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