Lips twitching when he’s not busy talking, the killer’s right arm rests across his left thigh. Above the modesty screen which keeps jurors from seeing his toenails and jandals, and his one leg twisted over the other, his left hand points ahead, palm facing up. His limp right hand dangles as he rests one wrist on his knee.
These hands last winter grabbed his ex-wife Jennifer Yang beside a West Auckland street, and stuck a $65 pig-hunting knife into her twelve times in less than a minute.
These hands now gesture in supplication, imploring the Crown prosecutor to see why Manchao Li is right and everyone else is wrong, and to see why there is little point arguing.
Li, 65, is trying to persuade the Auckland High Court jury he was insane, or at least unable to form murderous intent when he stalked and pounced on Yang in suburban Massey one Monday morning last July.
It’s a strategy he wasn’t shy about forecasting, if one murder trial witness is to be believed.
“I heard Li saying that if he ever gets caught doing anything … he’s just going to say he’s insane,” former flatmate Chloe Joyce told the jury.
Twenty-three years earlier, Li and Yang married in China. A few more years and the couple emigrate in 2001, Yang citing New Zealand’s environment and a desire to learn English as reasons to move.
Li says unemployed youths burgled him in about 2004 and the Youth Court bungled the case. The jury hears Li becomes increasingly fixated on crime and justice issues.
He nurses resentments, writes dozens of letters to voice his indignance, teams up with an Act party MP to present a law-and-order petition to Parliament.
But while he railed against criminals, Li himself crossed the line, his increasingly scary behaviour prompting Yang to seek a protection order against him as their marriage unravelled.
Li is vague when asked about major life events. In about 2005, the couple start separating, he says. About this or that year, he moves to Australia, then quickly moves back, he says. In about 2007, the serious financial dispute starts, he says.
What’s clear is that as the years pass, Li and Yang’s legal and financial arguments continue, and as the ex-husband’s fortunes decline, his hatred metastasises, consuming him.
He is persuaded Yang has wronged him, robbed him, prospered from the marital break-up while he suffers and drifts and declines financially and physically and spiritually, at one point simultaneously poor, glum and cold, living in a car near Queenstown after he loses his job as a tour bus driver.
His cynicism is palpable when he takes the stand.
“The things she had done were normal. There’s nothing wrong with this. Thieves like to steal money. It’s a very normal social phenomenon,” he tells the court.
A sparse beard grows on Li’s face where spots of Yang’s blood were spattered fifteen months earlier.
Li’s asked about claims he threatened to dismember Yang. He’s asked about claims he spoke of chopping up a lawyer linked to the long, bitter postmarital legal dispute.
But Li is not so good at directly answering questions, preferring instead to pose questions of his own.
When asked about alleged dismemberment threats, he replies through a Mandarin interpreter: “How come Maggie didn’t tell you that I planned to be a sea turtle?”
Li lifts his right arm now, presses his palms together, encourages prosecutor Nick Webby to stop arguing.
“Maggie knew that I was joking. If you’re continuously quoting what a sick person said, at a serious place like this court, it’s not very good.”
The Maggie in question is Weimiao (Maggie) Tang, a mental health support worker who was so disturbed at some of Li’s menacing remarks about harming people, she threatened to alert police.
The sea turtle, not so much in any question but volunteered by Li in his answers, is a reference to the killer’s ambition to emulate the aquatic reptile and live a very long time.
Li suggests he and Yang shared this ambition, and he enjoyed this longevity challenge, so had no reason to cut the contest short by killing Yang when she was only 56.
As Li portrays himself spending years drowning in depression and rootlessness, the sea turtle surfaces in his responses under cross-examination.
But so do other animals, notably a dead pigeon and a dead rat. The corpses of these creatures were stuffed into Yang’s son’s letterbox a few weeks before the murder.
Defence counsel Ron Mansfield says Li was a sad man – confused, unwell, and just looking for attention when he spoke of dismembering people.
“I’m not going to suggest to you, folks, that Mr Li did not have an issue with Miss Yang.”
But he was too depressed and suicidal and generally mentally ill to form an intention to murder, Mansfield tells jurors.
Webby the prosecutor says Li was an angry man – fixated, vengeful, and looking to kill when he stalked Yang and pounced on her on July 29 last year as she waited for a bus.
Li sits in the dock, as the competing barristers work to persuade the jury. Sometimes Li tears bits of paper. He writes in Chinese and hands the note to an interpreter, who translates it into English, then hands it to a guard who hands it to the defence team.
Li seems to have shaved since he took the stand and spoke of sea turtles. He doesn’t twitch his lips as he did when hearing the questions directed at him a few days earlier. Mostly he just looks ahead.
It’s murder, the jury finds after nearly a day deliberating. It’s one of the most brazen murders in recent memory – a frenzied daylight attack in full view of witnesses.
Yang waits for a bus in the dismal winter streets of suburbia. Li stalks her like an animal, then pounces with his hunting knife, stabbing and stabbing, some witnesses in the distance thinking they’re seeing a punching attack.
In the aftermath, as Yang lies dying in the grass, witness Peter Simpson sees Li leaving in his car and thinks a hit-and-run just happened. Simpson gives chase and cops hone in, hovering above in the Eagle helicopter from where you can see a man walking slowly on a patch of lawn beside bushes.
Just seven minutes pass between the onslaught and Li’s subdued arrest on a lawn. It is the act of a madman, the defence will say, to attack in daytime here, where no serious escape is possible or even attempted.
But it was a calculated attack, foreshadowed long ago in violent threats and boasts, in stalking and harassment, in ominous and graphic fantasies Li disgorged to associates.
Li got the knife for $65 after haggling down from $80 at the same place where he tried haggling for a machete.
No suggestions of insanity or invocations of the sea turtle could save Li.
“You had won hadn’t you, now that she was dead? There was no-one to compete with,”says Webby, standing barely a metre from Li at the front of the courtroom.
“You stabbed her twelve times while she lay on the ground screaming for help. This woman you say you had no animosity towards, you intended she would die, didn’t you?”
“If there’s no-one to compete with me in my life, there’s no meaning in my life,” Li replies.
Whatever the meaning of life is, Li will have to figure it out behind bars for the foreseeable future.
He will be sentenced on December 18.
ANATOMY OF HATRED
Years before murder:
1997: Yang and Li are married in China.
2001: Yang and Li migrate to New Zealand and together, buy a house in Blockhouse Bay.
2005: The couple separate in August. Yang moves to Avondale. In December, a protection order for Yang is granted.
2007: Li is convicted for breaching a protection order.
2009: Yang and Li are finally divorced.
2014: Li is again convicted for breaching a protection order.
Days before murder:
June 23: An epithet-laced letter is sent around this time to Yang’s son, warning the recipient to leave New Zealand or be “exterminated”.
July 18: Li buys a knife at Mitre 10 Westgate.
July 22: Li buys a tactical folding knife on eBay, asking it be delivered to his Matisse Drive address in West Harbour.
July 28: Li enters Hunting & Fishing, Constellation Drive. He haggles before buying a hunting knife, and shows interest in buying a machete.
JULY 29, 2019:
7.16am: Somebody using a video camera found in Li’s car starts recording Yang as she leaves her Granville Drive property.
7.59am: Footage from a Pavlovich bus shows Li’s car parked on Granville Drive.
8.03am: Li, or the person using the video camera found in his car, stops recording Yang.
8.07am: A security camera on White Heron Drive, Massey, shows Yang walking past.
8.20am: Witness Casey Armstrong notices a silver Honda Airwave station wagon driving very slowly near her on Westgate Drive. Armstrong is spooked and takes a photo of the car.
8.30am: Pavlovich bus footage shows Yang waiting at a bus stop.
8.33am: Yang is approached and stabbed multiple times beside Westgate Drive.
8.34am: Witness Daniel Harvey follows Li on foot, but Li enters his Honda before Harvey can grab him.
8.38am: Witness Peter Simpson calls 111 and says he has used his ute to stop the silver Honda.
8.40am: The police Eagle helicopter sees Li around some nearby bushes. He’s arrested without incident.
Domestic violence – do you need help?
If you’re in danger now:
• Phone the police on 111 or ask neighbours of friends to ring for you.
• Run outside and head for where there are other people.
• Scream for help so that your neighbours can hear you.
• Take the children with you.
• Don’t stop to get anything else.
• If you are being abused, remember it’s not your fault. Violence is never okay
Where to go for help or more information:
• Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day – 0508 744 633 www.2shine.org.nz
• Women’s Refuge: Free national crisis line operates 24/7 – 0800 refuge or 0800 733 843 www.womensrefuge.org.nz
• Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and middle eastern women and their children. Crisis line 24/7 0800 742 584
• It’s Not Ok: Information line 0800 456 450 www.areyouok.org.nz
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