'Heavenly Creatures' found guilty of murder

28 August 1954

Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme (Awa Press)

The fact that Pauline Parker and her friend Juliet Hulme had killed Pauline’s mother Honora on 22 June – a sensational crime later dramatised in Peter Jackson’s film Heavenly Creatures – was never disputed. In finding the two teenagers guilty of murder, the jury rejected the defence’s assertion that the girls were insane.

Pauline was aged 16 and Juliet 15. Because they were both under 18, neither could be sentenced to death. Their punishment was instead ‘detention during Her Majesty’s pleasure’.

Pauline’s lawyer, Alec Haslam, said in his final address to the jury that the two girls had seen Pauline’s mother as a threat to their remaining together, a threat they felt they had to remove. ‘We have these girls planning their dreadful act, carrying it out so clumsily, and then, after it was over, not showing any remorse.’

In the opinion of psychiatrists Reginald Medlicott and Francis Bennett, the girls’ contempt for the Bible and belief in a ‘fourth world’ paradise were evidence of insanity. The jury were told that the pair thought they were morally right in killing Honora. The girls suffered from ‘paranoia, delusions of grandeur and delusions of ecstasy. Each affects the other and aggravates the process of the disease.’

The Crown prosecutor maintained that the psychiatrists had contradicted their own evidence under cross-examination. This ‘plainly was a cold, callously committed and premeditated murder, committed by two highly intelligent and perfectly sane girls … They are not incurably insane. My submission is they are incurably bad.’

Included in the girls’ sentence was the provision that they were never to contact each other again. This made it difficult to find appropriate places of detention, especially as imprisonment in an adult institution was thought to be too severe for such young women - there was only one borstal (correctional facility) for young women in the country.

In the end both girls served around five years in prison: Pauline at Paparua prison, near Christchurch, and Juliet initially at Mt Eden prison and then at Arohata in Tawa, near Wellington.

See the trailer for Heavenly Creatures, 1994  (NZ On Screen):