EXCLUSIVE - A star secret witness who told the Marlborough Sounds double murder trial that Scott Watson confessed to the killings now says his evidence was a lie.
The former Addington Prison inmate alleges police pressured him into giving false testimony about Watson's involvement in the murder of Olivia Hope and Ben Smart.
Witness A, whose name and identifying details were suppressed, shocked the jury when he said Watson demonstrated on him the way he forced Olivia into submission and strangled her.
It will never be known what, if any, part witness A's testimony played in the jury's guilty verdict.
But 13 months after Watson, a Picton boat builder, was convicted of the murders, the witness contacted the Weekend Herald to say those details given under oath were nothing more than an act.
He said he spoke up this week to clear his conscience.
"It's been playing with my head and I just want the truth out."
After making his dramatic confession during a five-hour interview with Herald reporters, the man broke down and spoke of wanting to end his life.
That night, he swallowed several bottles of pills. He is now recovering with the help of professionals and family members.
The man was one of 490 witnesses called during the $5 million 13 week trial in the High Court at Wellington last year.
His evidence, along with that of a second jailmate, was described in a police-authorised book on the murders as the bombshell of the Crown case.
Olivia, aged 17, and Ben, 21, were last seen boarding a yacht in the early hours of New Year's Day, 1998, after partying New Year's Eve away at Furneaux Lodge, Endeavour Inlet. Their bodies have never been found.
Witness A says that despite the evidence he gave on August 20 last year, Watson did not confess to any involvement in the disappearance.
The two shared a cell at Christchurch's Addington Prison for several weeks shortly after Watson's arrest in June, 1998.
Witness A was on remand for driving charges, though in court he admitted to a history of violence and 10 years of psychiatric problems.
They befriended each other after Witness A stood up for Watson during a stand-off with a gang.
After being sentenced, Witness A was moved to Paparua Prison and began receiving visits from police demanding to know what Watson had told him.
Over a 12 month period leading up to the trial, police visited him at least 10 times in prison and at the Christchurch drug rehabilitation centre, Odyssey House.
He revealed certain details to police including that Watson would wake at night screaming.
Watson had also told how he wiped down tapes on his boat after a storm.
But Witness A alleges that when he came to read his statement just before the trial, it contained several crucial inaccuracies.
Elements in the statement which he claims did not come from him were:
Watson's demonstration to him of how he forced Olivia's legs apart and strangled her.
A conversation in which Watson was alleged to have said: "The bitch kept fighting back."
A claim that Watson was "freaked out"by the discovery of blond hairs on his boat, Blade.
Witness A also says that when he read his statement, he found that his version of the conversations had been distorted to imply Watson said his night-time screaming was because he was haunted by the couple.
The reference to the tapes was also changed, he claims, so that Watson's explanation about the storm was deleted.
Part of the Crown case was that Blade's interior was extensively cleaned to remove forensic evidence.
"Yeah, I made statements, I don't know how many, but that final statement, there was a lot of shit in there I didn't say," Witness A told the Weekend Herald.
"I discussed [with the police] what we talked about, how Scott said 'They've got nothing on me,' those tapes, the wiping of the tapes and that.
"He did wake up screaming and that scared the shit out of me. I said 'Did you kill them, are they haunting you or something? Did you kill them?' He didn't say anything.
"That demonstration - that didn't even happen."
He claims when he first read the statement, he told police parts of it were not true.
"I said, 'I didn't say that shit,' and they said 'Yes you did. Look, you even signed it too.'
"When they took a statement from me, I signed papers ... I didn't even get a chance to read them."
The witness says he was put under pressure by police to testify.
"I was getting paroled and they were determined to [affect] my parole. They said I would spend a long time in jail, just threats, eh."
At the same time, he was receiving death threats from a gang which suspected he was a "nark."
Eventually, he chose to help the police in the hope they would be able to save him.
"I sort of looked at it like a protection sort of thing.
"I agreed on the basis that my life was getting threatened."
In the weeks before the trial, he was transferred from Christchurch to a special cell at Wellington police station where he prepared for his day in court.
"It was like I had to get ready for a play, you know perform something that wasn't real.
"I had to make myself believe what was in that statement so I had to train myself to believe that something that wasn't real was real."
Witness A's day in court was one of the most dramatic moments of the trial. Justice Richard Heron gave strict warnings to the media that identifying either of the secret witnesses could endanger their lives.
The public gallery was cleared, except for the families of Olivia, Ben and Watson, and windows at the courthouse were blacked out. TV cameras were banned.
In the book Silent Evidence, author John Goulter described the evidence of Witnesses A and B as a "bombshell."
"As [inquiry head] Pope put it, their appearance in the courtroom created an 'atmosphere you could cut with a knife,"'wrote Goulter.
Witness A says he asked Mr Pope if he could assume a new identity overseas, but was rejected on the basis no country would take him because of his criminal history.
He received no payment from police in return for testifying, but was taken to a small town to resume a new life following the trial.
He fled when the gang tracked him down.
With the pressure of keeping his secret taking its toll on his mental health, he approached the Herald. He said he did not have faith in the justice system.
"I've done my part and that's all I want to do," he said.
The head of the Watson murder inquiry, Detective Inspector Rob Pope was unable to be contacted yesterday but a spokeswoman for the Office of the Police Commissioner said. "The Office of the Police Commissioner indicates that if any witness had given false evidence to the court this would be regarded as a matter of very real seriousness.
Police, however, are unable to comment until such matters are fully placed before us."
Meanwhile, two lawyers confirmed that Witness A also told them that he had given false evidence but they could not take it any further because he refused to sign documents.
A woman who acted for him between January and March this year said she met Witness A several times in a district court and while he was on remand in a North Island prison.
She said he told her his testimony of Watson's confession was not true, and he had come under pressure from the police.
After hearing Witness A's revelations, she asked him to sign two documents.
The first was an acknowledgment that she had warned him of his legal rights, including the risk of perjury. She also wanted him to sign an affidavit outlining exactly what parts of his evidence had been false.
She discussed several options with him, including forwarding the information through Watson's defence team to the Court of Appeal which was due to hear the case in April. (Three judges dismissed an appeal against conviction.)
The woman contacted Watson's lawyers, but the man he would not sign any documents.
She said he was a credible person but had a "general mistrust of anyone and anything of authority."
Before the Court of Appeal hearing, one of Watson's lawyers, Bruce Davidson, and a private investigator met Witness A.
At that meeting, Witness A "indicated the evidence he gave at the Scott Watson trial was untrue", another Watson lawyer, Mike Antunovic, said yesterday.
But it wasn't possible to get sufficient detail at that time, or a retraction or recantation in writing.
Mr Antunovic would not comment further other than to say Watson's legal team had not given up hope of securing a re-trial.