Death in a recliner chair: Crown plays police interview with widow accused of manslaughter

WARNING: DISTURBING CONTENT

A widow on trial for neglecting her feeble, stroke victim husband — leaving him to die on a urine- and faeces-stained La-Z-Boy chair, with pressure wounds so deep authorities reported being able to see his muscle and bone — said she did her best given his stubborn refusal to get outside help.

“If we didn’t do what he want, he yell and scream at us,” Malia Li said in an interview with police shortly after she was arrested in December 2017, a few days after Christmas and about 15 months after her husband’s death.

“It’s a little bit hard and sometimes I just ignore it because I’m sick of him not going to see the doctor. I keep asking what to do — I know what is right but he doesn’t want it.”

Crown prosecutors played the interview for jurors at Li’s Auckland High Court manslaughter trial. Shortly thereafter, the Crown closed its case.

Li agreed in 2017 to speak with Detective Sergeant Timothy Martin without a lawyer or translator, despite now having both in the courtroom — the roughly two-hour DVD being paused every few minutes for her translator to relay her own broken English back to her in Tongan.

She explained how she had worked for several years for Healthcare NZ, caring for an immobilised woman who needed many of the same services that her husband Lanitola Epenisa later would require after strokes in September and December 2014.

It was the second stroke, she said, that made her husband only able to walk, wash or use the toilet with assistance from her or their teen daughters.

“The doctor told him to cut the smoke,” she said with a slight laugh. “That’s what make him have the second one [stroke] because he can’t stop it.

“I work before when he’s not really sick. But last year I didn’t work because I was sick too. I had two kidney stone. They put a tube on me.”

Epenisa is believed to have died as a result of blood poisoning due to untreated pressure sores. As his sole carer, it was Li’s responsibility to make sure he was provided adequate nourishment, hydration, medical care and hygiene, prosecutors have said.

In the hours after his death was reported on October 2, 2016, police described finding a bedroom so filthy that it was even overwhelming to those used to grisly scenes — with faeces staining the recliner, urine soaking through it on to the saturated carpet, rats scurrying about, maggots and a plastic bottle believed to be filled with bloody urine nearby and strips of skin attached to Epenisa’s singlet.

Li told police a year later that her husband had refused help from anyone else and for all of their marriage had been known to avoid doctors.

“He doesn’t like someone to touch him, because he feel shy. He just want us to help him.

“He’s a good guy, but he just want to do what he want. Sometimes he never listen.”

Their daughters would most often take him to the toilet because they fit in there with him, she said, explaining that other times they brought him a plastic bottle so he could remain on the chair.

He only started having accidents in the chair in the week before his death, she said, adding that she cleaned it.

“I asked him for [a] nappy, and he said no, don’t put a nappy. It itchy or what.”

So she put a blanket underneath him instead, she said.

“I yell at him: ‘Why not let me know?’ But he just laughing, say sometimes he didn’t tell me. But I always ask him tell me if he want the bottle or take to toilet.”

Li said she noticed only one sore on her husband, and only in the week before his death, despite having given him a thorough sponge bath. Authorities allege there were many more.

“When I see that I said to him to ring the doctor to come and see him,” she said. “But he doesn’t want to.”

“Why didn’t you ignore him and call?” the detective asked, pointing out that’s what she would have done for a Healthcare NZ client.

“Because if I do it he will be all fighting, and he will be yelling at me all time,” she said with a laugh, describing her husband as “a very hard man”.

Relatives who said the place smelled of urine, faeces and like a “dirty wound” prior to her husband’s death had a grudge against her, she also told the detective.

“Oh, that’s bulls***,” she responded when told of a statement. “They just talk, make me look bad because they don’t like me.”

The defence is set to begin calling witnesses on Monday.

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