An Auckland man who tearfully admitted on the witness stand to having fatally shot an intended robbery victim in the head at close range during a days-long methamphetamine binge has been found guilty of manslaughter.
Jurors at the High Court in Auckland, however, did not agree with prosecutors that the shooting was intentional and execution-like. They declined to find Dylan Harris, 36, guilty of murder following roughly four hours of deliberation that started yesterday afternoon.
Co-defendants Adam North, 33, and his partner Jasmine Murray, 21, were also found guilty of manslaughter but not murder today for having aided Harris in the fatal robbery.
Justice Paul Davison ordered all three to return to court in June for sentencing.
Father-of-two Robert “Robbie” Hart, 40, was found dead on top of his motorbike, with a single gunshot wound that had travelled through his helmet and into his temple, on the morning of November 5, 2021, during one of Auckland’s extended Covid-19 lockdowns.
Phone records later recovered by police showed he had arrived at the New Lynn driveway after arranging to sell 14g of methamphetamine for $3000 to a woman he knew through Facebook whose profile name was Sativa AK, referring to a strain of cannabis.
What he didn’t realise, prosecutors have said, was that Sativa AK’s phone had been stolen just days earlier by North and Murray and was being used by the couple to lure Hart to the fake drug deal, otherwise known as a “standover”.
The lengths the couple went to in an attempt to make Hart think he was dealing with Sativa AK “demonstrates that something very sinister was going on here”, Crown prosecutor Robin McCoubrey said during his closing address earlier this week, arguing that the intention all along was to kill Hart.
“There is far too much planning and this is far too organised just for this to be a casual standover,” he said, acknowledging that police don’t know what the motive would have been or if Hart and the trio had some sort of pre-existing “beef”.
“We may never know every detail of what was behind this … but that doesn’t mean this isn’t what this looks like.”
Harris, however, told jurors this week that the shooting was an accident. He had intended to use the gun to intimidate and rob Hart of his drugs, but the shoddy sawn-off rifle with no trigger guard appears to have gone off on its own after he tapped the barrel against Hart’s helmet, he said. It’s also possible that his finger might have accidentally hit the trigger but he has no memory of it doing so, Harris testified.
Defence lawyer Ron Mansfield KC urged jurors to find his client guilty of manslaughter but spare his client a murder conviction.
Manslaughter occurs when an unintentional homicide is committed in the course of committing another offence, such as threatening with a gun, Justice Davison explained to jurors during his summing up. To reach a murder verdict, jurors would have to believe Harris had murderous intent, the judge said.
Mansfield dismissed the Crown’s characterisation of Hart’s death as an “execution” as something belonging in a crime thriller novel rather than in a New Zealand courtroom.
The idea of a well-planned hit doesn’t tally with the “absolute sloppiness” in which the defendants approached the confrontation with Hart, he argued, pointing out that it was in broad daylight, Harris was wearing a facemask but not a substantive disguise, they were seen on CCTV pulling up to the scene and Harris wasn’t wearing gloves.
Those are all the hallmarks of a non-fatal standover, where there’s no risk of police involvement because no drug dealer is going to call for help, Mansfield suggested. If the plan was to shoot someone, there’s no doubt police were going to be involved immediately and it makes sense they would have taken better precautions to avoid detection, he said.
“You need to guard against being attracted to a theory where there really is no evidence … jumping to the most serious or outrageous cause for that death,” Mansfield said.
It defies common sense, Mansfield argued, that someone would be willing to commit murder for $3000 worth of drugs, which would have then been split 50/50.
“Do you think logically if you were a paid hitman that $1500 would be enough for your services?” he asked jurors. “Are we serious?”
Mansfield was followed at the lectern during closing addresses by lawyer Sam Wimsett, who represents North and who agreed the group’s actions that morning were more suggestive of a group reacting in panic to a plan that had blown up in their face.
“If it was planned, if you’re devious enough to plan a murder, you’re sure as eggs going to plan a getaway,” he said.
He asked jurors not to pre-judge his client based on his appearance, his facial tattoos or his lifestyle. While North didn’t testify during the trial, Wimsett reminded jurors of what his client told a police officer upon his arrest five days after Hart’s death.
“I’m not a killer, bro,” an officer recalled him saying. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life but I’m not a killer.”
Wimsett also denied his client provided the gun to Harris, which Harris suggested during his testimony. Harris brought the gun himself, Wimsett said.
Lawyer Philip Hamlin, acting on behalf of Murray, took it a step further, arguing that there was no evidence his client even knew there was a gun involved.
From the time Harris got in the car, Murray was in the back seat, literally and figuratively, Hamlin said.
“She was really a spare wheel,” he said, adding that her “limited role” in the standover was to impersonate Sativa AK if Hart called.
Murray had turned 20 years old three weeks before the shooting and she was dating a man 11 years her senior, Hamlin noted.
“She well may have been duped,” Hamlin suggested. “She doesn’t know the full extent of what is going on. In a way, she is some sort of innocent agent – she is being used. She is helping without knowledge of a critical feature: the firearm.”
Anticipating such an argument earlier, prosecutors noted the size of the stolen Suzuki Swift the three defendants were in immediately before and after the shooting. It’s highly unlikely anything, much less a loaded firearm that is being cocked, could be kept much of a secret in such a compact car, McCoubrey said.
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