Michelle NICHOLSON - 26/04/2016
Under section 21(2) of the Parole Act 2002
Michelle Elizabeth Ann NICHOLSON
Hearing: 26 April 2016 via AVL from NZPB Head Office, (withheld) to (withheld) Prison
Members of the Board:
Hon. M A Frater – Panel Convenor
Dr J Skipworth
Dr P Taylor
Ms S Pakura
Date of Reserved Decision: 4 May 2016
RESERVED DECISION OF THE BOARD
1. Michelle Elizabeth Nicholson is serving a life sentence of imprisonment for a murder committed 19 years ago.
2. She was sentenced on 24 July 1997 and since then has been released and recalled twice.
3. She was first released on parole on 3 December 2007 and recalled the following year. An interim recall order was made on 20 June 2008, followed by a final order on 14 July 2008.
4. Ms Nicholson was released for a second time on 30 May 2011 and brought back to prison pursuant to an interim recall order made on 9 December 2015. This order was made final on 5 February last, without contest, but on the basis that the allegations of breach which led to the recall would be defended in Court.
5. We saw Ms Nicholson last week, in accordance with the Board’s policy, to consider whether she can safely be re-released. Having heard from Ms Nicholson, her counsel, and her supporters, and having read and considered the addendum psychological report prepared for the Board dated 30 March 2016, the latest Parole Assessment Report, the letter of support submitted by (withheld) from the Institute of Criminology at (withheld) University, and Ms Nicholson’s detailed release plan, we reserved our decision to give further time to reflect.
6. At the outset, (withheld), for Ms Nicholson, submitted that Ms Nicholson would not pose an undue risk to the safety of the community if released at this time. She also submitted that following the withdrawal of charges by both the Police and Community Probation, she could not have been classified an undue risk at the time of her recall.
7. In determining the issue of risk we have carefully reviewed not only the circumstances surrounding Ms Nicholson’s index offending but, also, her previous history of dishonest and drug-related offending, the circumstances giving rise to both the earlier and the current recall applications and the strength of her release plan.
8. Ms Nicholson committed her index offence when she was 34 years old. The victim was her 60 year old male partner. She pursued her relationship with him to finance her drug habit and drug debts. He was killed by her 18 year old lover. She denied responsibility and went to trial. The murder was described as “cold and calculated”.
9. Ms Nicholson’s first release in November 2007 followed a long period of individual therapy during which she appeared to have turned her life around. She had a great deal of positive support. However, by June 2008 the relationship with her sponsors was no longer tenable. She was said to have made “extremely poor decisions”. Her relationship with her Probation Officer deteriorated. It is reported that “she has a tendency to make her own decisions in a wilful way and then expect others to accommodate them”.
10. When she was recalled in 2008 she was pursuing an unhealthy relationship with another life sentenced prisoner whom she met when they were both [Withheld]. In the time leading up to the recall she supplied him with a cellphone and engaged in other inappropriate rule breaking behaviour.
11. Having completed the DTU in 2010 Ms Nicholson was re-released in 2011 but was recalled last year in the context of multiple stressors leading to emotional, financial and physical hardship. She lost 12 kilograms in weight and said she did not have enough money to eat properly. She let the garage on her property to a person referred to her through [Withheld] who had dependency issues. She also took in a female boarder into her home who she knew had drug problems and was serving a sentence of supervision. She did not discuss either decision with her Probation Officer or any of her other supporters beforehand. Nor did she contact any of them when she suspected her boarder had been taking drugs.
12. Matters came to a head on 8 December when the Police executed a search warrant at Ms Nicholson’s home at (withheld). The person of interest to the Police was the man to whom Ms Nicholson had let her garage.
13. On entering the home they discovered a large amount of drug paraphernalia including syringes, needles and spoons, in Ms Nicholson’s bedroom and around her home, including in the room occupied by (withheld), and in the fridge. The drugs were identified as Class A drugs.
14. Ms Nicholson told us that the day before the Police raid she had gone into her boarder’s room, looking for decorating material. In the room she had found various utensils for using drugs. In her boarder’s absence, she took them into her own bedroom and placed on her bedside table, with a view to confronting her boarder about them when she next saw her.
15. Ms Nicholson emphatically denied that any of the drugs or utensils found in her home were hers, or that she had resumed using drugs. She also denied being in relationship or even really knowing of the man to whom she had let the garage.
16. She acknowledged that she had been under considerable stress leading up to these events. She had lost her (withheld). She lost her job and, as a result, was suffering considerable financial hardship and could not meet the outgoings on her home.
17. She submitted that the financial issues had now been resolved. Her friend and neighbour, (withheld), has found suitable tenants for her property, with the result that the mortgage and other outgoings on the home are now covered. He has also offered to have her as a boarder in his home. He said that this could continue on as long as she wanted.
18. While she does not have employment lined up, Ms Nicholson is hopeful of obtaining it. Alternatively, she will seek funding to undertake her PhD in Criminology.
19. As well as (withheld), Ms Nicholson has the ongoing support of (withheld) who, with (withheld), was present at the hearing, (withheld), (withheld) from the University, and (withheld) and others from (withheld).
20. Ms Nicholson says that she is willing to engage with a psychologist in the community and to undertake any interventions recommended. She is also committed to working closely with her Probation Officer.
21. In the event, we are not satisfied that this is enough. In our view, Ms Nicholson has not reached the point where she can safely be re-released on parole. Without further treatment, and evidence of change, and without a stronger release plan, she continues to pose an undue risk.
22. From our perspective, the critical issues leading to the latest recall included:
• Not providing her Probation Officer with important information (an issue identified at the time of her first recall).
• Not changing her behaviour despite concerns expressed by her Probation Officer (also an issue identified at the time of the first recall).
• The possibility of opiate use. While we acknowledge Ms Nicholson’s emphatic denial of using drugs, we note:
(i) That there were opiates in her home.
(ii) The discovery of drug taking utensils in her bedroom and throughout her house.
(iii) Her unlikely alternative explanations for the discovery of the drugs, especially having regard to her conviction history, including fraud, her previous denials of proven offending, her deceptive behaviour while on parole last time, and the psychological report which describes her as heavily invested in “impression management”.
(iv) At the very least, it was her decisions, and her failure to take the advice of her supervising Probation Officer, which directly led to opiates being found in her house and therefore being in a high-risk situation.
23. Ms Nicholson is assessed as posing a low-moderate risk of violent or general reoffending. High risk situations are likely to involve an individual with whom she has a close relationship, when under stress, engaging in breach and deceptive behaviour associated with drug use, withdrawing from appropriate supports, and impression managing.
24. However, although the assessed risk is low-moderate, we are concerned that:
• Despite previous periods of good behaviour with extensive pro-social support, as shown by her first recall, Ms Nicholson’s circumstances can deteriorate quickly into a high risk situation.
• The second recall occurred in the context of a range of emerging risk factors which she still resists or denies.
• And, of most concern, we note, the pattern of disengagement with her supervising Probation Officer at precisely the time that direction and advice was needed to keep her situation safe.
25. Ms Nicholson has not undertaken any treatment during this incarceration. Her previous treatment (individual sessions between 2003-2006 and the DTU in 2010), from which she is said to have developed an “intellectual understanding of her risks”, does not appear to have translated into appropriate behaviour when stressful and high-risk situations arose.
26. Further psychological work is recommended. The writer of the latest psychological report said that this could be undertaken in custody or in the community. We do not agree. Although Ms Nicholson has shown a level of ability to reflect on what led to her recall and how she could manage any such situations in the future differently, it is not clear that this is a sufficient basis to conclude that her risk can be safely managed in the community at this time.
27. We need to be clear that she properly understands the reasons underpinning both her recalls, so that the next relationship she develops with a supervising Probation Officer starts on an entirely different footing. This will be a significant challenge for Ms Nicholson. But until she is able to do so, her risk of reoffending for the balance of her sentence will remain undue.
28. Parole is declined. Ms Nicholson’s next hearing will be in November 2016. This will enable her to undertake a series of individual treatment session focussed on the events leading to her last recall. Given her history of manipulative and deceptive behaviour, we do not believe that this work can be completed appropriately in a group setting.
29. An updated psychological report is required for that hearing, commenting on the results of treatment, Ms Nicholson’s ongoing risk, and the strength of her release plan.
30. At least one reintegration meeting with Ms Nicholson and all her supporters, both personal and professional, should be held prior to the next hearing, so that all supporters are aware of her high risk situations, and can formulate a plan to work together to support her, and each other, especially when she is under stress.
Hon. M A Frater