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How sad JJ's battered life ended in murder

07:30 Thu Nov 15 2012
AAP

It was said that two-year-old James Joseph Ruhe Lawrence, known as JJ, was an accident-prone toddler.

But JJ's broken arms, bruises and grazes weren't signs of a happy little boy who had fallen while playing, instead they were ominous signs of what was to come.

He was two years and eight months old when on November 14, 2011, his stepfather, Joel Loffley, who liked to "play rough" with him, punched or kicked him with such force it split his liver and pancreas.

The Crown likened it to a hammer blow.

On Wednesday, a year to the day since JJ's death, a jury at the High Court at Auckland found Loffley guilty of JJ's murder following a trial which ran almost three weeks.

During the defended trial the jury heard that JJ died painfully and within minutes.

His injuries, Crown prosecutor Phil Hamlin also said, were similar to that of someone who had been in a car accident or who had been kicked by a horse.

Instead it was 118kg Loffley, described as a bully, a heavy marijuana smoker and part-time dealer, who struck JJ's tiny body.

"So strong was the force of this hammer effect that the child's liver and pancreas were hammered back against this child's spinal column and split in half," Mr Hamlin told the jury.

The Crown argued that Loffley killed JJ because he was a nuisance and he was jealous of the relationship he had with his mother Josephine Lawrence.

Loffley wanted JJ out of the picture because four days prior to his death Ms Lawrence had told him she was pregnant with his child, Mr Hamlin said.

Soon after Loffley met Ms Lawrence in mid-2011, Loffley moved into the state house in the Auckland suburb of Orakei where Ms Lawrence lived with JJ.

Ms Lawrence says Loffley became violent towards her and she began to fear for JJ.

She wrote in a note titled "Effects of abuse on me" before JJ died that she felt, sad, stupid, shut down and "scared for my son, scared he's going to get hurt and taken away from me".

Loffley told police: "All my ex-girlfriends, I bashed them all up," but, he said, "never against the kids".

He told Ms Lawrence he gave marijuana to JJ a number of times and traces of the drug were found in JJ's system when he died. Mr Hamlin told the court Loffley may have given JJ the drug to calm him down after he abused him.

Once Loffley moved into the house bruises started to appear on JJ and he twice broke his arm.

Loffley's brother Gabriel, who also stayed at the house, says JJ was "sad and gloomy".

Ms Lawrence didn't know how JJ had broken his arms. Loffley, who was physically abused himself as a child, often "played rough" with JJ and he told her JJ may have broken his arm while they played.

JJ, the court heard, was scared of Loffley and was "transfixed" on him when they were in the same room.

On the morning of November 14, 2011 JJ got out of bed, as usual, at some time between 5am and 8am.

The Crown alleged that during the time that Ms Lawrence was at a neighbour's house using the phone, between 9am and 10am, Loffley struck JJ in his upstairs bedroom.

The toddler began screaming and was slouched over, but showed no other physical signs of being hurt other than a graze on his chin.

Loffley showered the boy, tucked him into bed and drove to a store with his brother to buy a soft drink mixer for their vodka.

When he returned to the house he says he heard a loud thud and ran up to JJ's room - he said this was when JJ fell off his bed and was fatally injured.

Ms Lawrence ran to her child and a neighbour heard her yell at Loffley: "What have you done? What have you done? I hate you."

Seven minutes later JJ was pronounced dead.

Ms Lawrence's aunt, Katie Lawrence, told the court that JJ had stayed with her on his own for up to three weeks in Tauranga, months before his death.

She was concerned about his well-being - JJ was clingy, had a broken arm, bruises, worms and was unwell. But she was told that he was an accident-prone child and after a few weeks he began to play with the other children and seemed happy.

Then Ms Lawrence and Loffley arrived unexpectedly and took JJ back to Auckland.

Katie Lawrence knew something wasn't right. She contacted Child, Youth and Family at least twice about JJ and even inquired about getting custody.

When Loffley and Ms Lawrence took JJ away Katie Lawrence said he began to cry and scream. Maybe he knew what was to come.