WELLINGTON • A convicted murderer and child molester in New Zealand won a lawsuit yesterday arguing that the prison authorities breached his rights by confiscating a toupee he used to disguise himself when fleeing the country.
Phillip John Smith fled to Brazil in November 2014 while on temporary release from Auckland Prison. At the time, he was sporting a hairpiece he had been given permission to wear two years earlier, "to improve his self-esteem".
When Smith was recaptured and returned to New Zealand three weeks later, the wig was confiscated and images of his bald pate were splashed across the media when he appeared in court.
"I felt totally belittled, degraded and humiliated," he told the High Court earlier this month.
Smith was sentenced to life in 1996 for sexually abusing a boy over a three-year period, then tracking down his victim after his family fled to another city. Smith broke into the family's house and fatally stabbed the boy's father as he tried to protect his son.
BARING HIS HEART
I felt totally belittled, degraded and humiliated.
PHILLIP JOHN SMITH, on losing his toupee.
The 42-year-old told the court that the toupee was important to his ongoing rehabilitation as he was extremely sensitive about his baldness.
Judge Edwin Wylie accepted Smith's argument. "I have concluded that Mr Smith's fundamental right to freedom of expression was ignored," he said in a written judgment delivered yesterday. "An important right has been breached and the breach may be material."
The judge added: "He also stated that there were other benefits - namely the protection of his scalp from sun exposure and the prevention of heat loss through his head in winter."
Victims' advocate Ruth Money said that the Smith case was "embarrassing for New Zealand". "I have absolutely zero sympathy; he showed no sympathy for any of his victims," she told Prime News.
Judge Wylie said that freedom of expression could include a physical act, such as wearing a wig, and Smith did not lose his fundamental rights when he became a prisoner.