Christchurch terror attack: The gunman enters guilty plea to murders

The man accused of the Christchurch terror attack has today made a shock admission that he was the lone gunman who murdered 51 Muslims at two Christchurch mosques on March 15 last year.

The 29-year-old Australian entered the guilty pleas at a special, hastily-arranged High Court hearing in Christchurch this morning.

The gunman, who appeared from prison on a screen via audio-visual link (AVL) wearing a grey prison sweatshirt, pleaded guilty to all 51 murder charges.

He also admitted 40 charges of attempted murder relating to the two attacks at Masjid Al Noor and Linwood Islamic Centre on March 15 last year - and pleaded guilty to one charge of engaging in a terrorist act laid under the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002.

New Zealand's worst-ever act of terrorism was filmed by the shooter and live-streamed on Facebook, leading to gun reforms and a global political summit initiated by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.

Justice Cameron Mander convicted the gunman on all charges today and remanded him in custody to a nominal date of May 1 when it's expected that a sentencing date will be set - once coronavirus-imposed court restrictions are eased.

The city's two imams, Imam Gamal Fouda of Masjid Al Noor and Imam Alabi Lateef from Linwood Islamic Centre, were asked to come to court today to witness proceedings on behalf of their Muslim communities.

But it's understood that even they didn't know what it was going to be about.

Fouda wept while the court registrar took several minutes to read aloud all 51 murder victims named on the Crown charge list, before asking the gunman if he pleaded guilty or not guilty.

After the gunman questioned one of the murder victim's names and it was clarified by the judge, he replied: "Oh OK, yes guilty."

The gunman listened intently while the names were read out. He betrayed no emotion.

The 40 attempted murder charges, which again included the reading aloud of all of the victims, were also put to the gunman. When he was asked his plea, he said: "Guilty."

He also pleaded guilty to one charge of engaging in a terrorist act on March 15 last year.

The Crown's summary of facts, which outlines the offending, will be read out at sentencing.

Justice Mander called for a pre-sentence report and victim impact statements.

At the conclusion of the short hearing, the gunman did not say anything as the AVL link was ended.

The June trial date has been vacated.

How today's hearing came about

Justice Mander then took time to explain to those inside court just how today's hearing came into being.

Earlier this week, the courts – which are deemed an essential service during the lockdown - received an indication from the gunman's Auckland-based defence lawyers Shane Tait and Jonathan Hudson that he may seek to change his plea to the charges.

Yesterday, the lawyers received formal written instructions from the gunman confirming he wanted to change his pleas and court staff started making urgent preparations for the case to be called as soon as possible – while doing so amidst the ramping up of the coronavirus lockdown which came into effect at midnight.

While admitting it was "regrettable" to hold the hearing without any victims or family members being present, Justice Mander felt it could be managed if numbers inside the courtroom were severely limited. He said today signalled a "very significant step" in bringing finality to the proceedings.

In the large Christchurch Justice Precinct courtroom this morning, there were only 17 people.

Five journalists from New Zealand's major media organisations were granted permission to be in court today. They were spread out across the courtroom as part of coronavirus personal distancing guidelines.

The two imams were also there, with a third member of the Muslim community, Detective Inspector Greg Murton, in charge of the investigation, Christchurch Crown Solicitor Mark Zarifeh and Crown prosecutor Barnaby Hawes, a court registrar, court taker, Ministry of Justice media representative, and court security officer.

The contents of today's hearing, which concluded at 10.30am, were subject to a court-imposed one-hour embargo to allow court and police victim support advisors to tell shooting survivors and family members about today's shock guilty pleas.

Justice for victims 377 days after attacks

The gunman was arrested minutes after leaving the Linwood mosque by two police officers scrambled into action from a training day.

He appeared in court the following morning charged with murder.

At this third court appearance at the High Court on June 14, he was deemed fit to stand trial and entered not guilty pleas to all charges.

A jury trial was scheduled to begin at the High Court in Christchurch on June 2 this year.

The trial loomed as one of the largest in New Zealand's criminal justice history.

It was expected to last up to six weeks and, at one point, was thought to call as many as 300 witnesses. Much of the evidence would have been extremely confronting and distressing for the jury members – not to mention the survivors and family members of shooting victims.

This article was originally published on the NZ Herald and is republished here with permission.