Revisiting the Wainuiomata Exorcism Case

In October 2007, Janet Moses, a 22-year-old mother of two children, died of drowning after a three-day "cleansing ceremony" conducted by family members trying to free her from the effects of a curse.   The family became concerned after Moses began "acting strangely" and a visiting Maori elder, Timi Rahi, told the Wellington, New Zealand family that she was the victim of a "makutu" or a traditional Maori curse.  According to the elder, the curse was due to Moses' sister who had stolen a stone lion from a local pub and which needed to be returned.    Despite the lion being returned and apparent restitution being made, Janet Moses continued acting strangely and the family decided to take stronger action.  Timi Rahi had left by this time and was apparently not asked for his help in lifting the curse.

Belief in "makutu" or witchcraft remains strong in parts of New Zealand, especially in Maori communities, and "cleansing rituals" intended to help victims of witchcraft continue to be practiced.  In Moses' case, the ceremony involved forcibly restraining her on the floor of the family's Wellington house while family members stood in a circle chanting incantations known as "karakia" to drive out evil spirits.   According to later testimony, family members then began shouting at Janet and looking into her eyes while "saying things like 'Get out', 'Leave her alone' and 'You're not going to have her."   She was then held down on the floor while her eyelids were forced open and water was poured down her face and in her eyes in an attempt to get rid of the makutu.

Several people also "leant over Janet, put their mouths over her eyeballs, and tried to suck at her eyes in an attempt, again, to remove the curse."  They poured so much water down her face and eyes that the house itself was flooded.  As the prosecutor in the case later stated, "At the time, Janet was restrained while the water was poured over her. If she called out or tried to push those pouring the water away, the restraining simply increased,"   She eventually died of drowning on October 12 after a full night of this kind of water torture.   Her father and grandfather, who had opposed the exorcism, were not present and only learned what was happening after her death.

When family members realized that she ha died, they attempted to revive her but did not call emergency services.    Several members of the family then turned their attention to a fourteen-year-old girl who had been present at the scene because they believed the evil spirit had moved into her after Janet Moses died.   The girl's eyes were reportedly gouged though she was not blinded.   Police were finally called nine hours later.   Eight family members were charged with manslaughter and assault.

The trial lasted for twenty-nine days with over a hundred witnesses being called, many of them being family members and neighbours.   According to testimony, Janet Moses had developed psychiatric problems that apparently led to her "acting like a lion" and experiencing relationship problems with her common-law husband and their two children.   Despite suggestions that she was suffering from psychiatric problems , the exorcism carried out at the local flat once owned by her deceased grandmother, apparently with Janet's full consent.   Virtually all family members who participated in the ritual came from the maternal side of her family.  Several of the accused, including aunts and cousins of Janet Moses, testified that the maternal side of the family was deeply spiritual and that cleansing houses of makutu influences was part of family tradition dating back for generations.  

Despite their beliefs, all of the family members who participated in the exorcism admitted that their actions were largely improvised since none of them really knew how to lift a makutu from a possessed person.   While the ritual is supposed to be carried out by a Maori tohunga trained in lifting makutu, the practice became illegal with the passing of the Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907 which was only repealed in 1962.   Though Maori tribal elders also testified during the trial about the rituals associated with lifting makutu curses as well as the spiritual practices associated with Maori cultural beliefs, none of them had been consulted on how to remove the makutu from the deceased.

After the lengthy trial, it took twenty hours for jurors to convict five of the eight family members guilty.    None of the convicted were given prison sentences but were instead received community sentences.    The judge also ordered that all of the convicted take part in  programs to become more educated in Maori cultural matters.    Janet's paternal grandfather, Charlie Moses, who had been one of the family members to oppose the exorcism, expressed satisfaction with the sentences.  "We've made our peace with them," he said.  "They didn't know what they were doing, even though I told them not to go down that road. They chose to do it anyway. For that mistake ... they're going to pay for the rest of their lives. I wish them well all the same." 

The trial and its outcome also meant major publicity over Maori spiritual rituals, especially  concerning the lifting of curses.   Many New Zealanders had never heard of makutu before the trial began but  the conviction of the "Wainuiomata five" sparked a renewed interest in Maori traditions.   A coroner's inquest was eventually held  in 2010 which recommended that families considering exorcism rituals for the lifting of makutu consult tribal elders before doing anything potentially dangerous.   While makutu lifting continues to be part of Maori cultural practices,  the legacy of the Janet Moses' death still remains.

Postscript:  This year, a new feature film titled, Belief:  The Possession of Janet Moses, has been scheduled for release at the New Zealand International Film Festival.   Intended as a feature-length documentary, the new film is intended to shed light on the circumstances that led to Janet's death and includes witness interviews an re-enactments to show viewers how such a tragedy could occur.  The film's director, Emmy-award winning director David Stubbs, describes the film as an "extraordinary true story of how both love and fear could drive a kiwi family to unwittingly kill one of their own.”    Janet Moses' extended family did not participate in the making of the film.




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