Inquiry could probe police role in Nova Scotia wrongful conviction: justice advocate
December 5, 2023 By The Canadian Press
Dec. 5, 2023, Halifax, N.S. – A public inquiry may be needed to determine whether police in Nova Scotia broke the law when they destroyed evidence in the case of Glen Assoun, who was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1999, a justice advocate says.
Ronald Dalton, co-president of Innocence Canada, reacted Monday to news that an independent investigation into Assoun’s troubling case had been derailed almost three years after it started.
The Serious Incident Response Team, Nova Scotia’s police oversight agency, confirmed Thursday that its counterpart in British Columbia had stopped its investigation of possible police wrongdoing because of its heavy workload. The Nova Scotia agency has been looking for another independent investigator since April.
“If they don’t have the time or the resources to do it, then maybe a federal agency should be doing this,” Dalton said in an interview. “What’s worked effectively in the past has been public inquiries.”
There have been seven public inquiries that have investigated wrongful convictions in Canada. One of them involved Dalton. He was convicted of killing his wife in central Newfoundland in 1988 but acquitted on appeal 12 years later. A public inquiry cleared his name in 2006.
“There’s a role there to play (for a federal inquiry) if the various provincial bodies that are supposed to be supervising police operations don’t have the time and resources to do it,” he said. “Then the minister could appoint a public inquiry.”
Assoun, who died in June, was found guilty by a jury of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in September 1999 for the stabbing death of ex-girlfriend Brenda Lee Anne Way. He had represented himself at his trial after firing his lawyer three days into the court proceedings. His bid to appeal the conviction was rejected in 2006.
Sean MacDonald, Assoun’s long-time lawyer, started the painstaking task of reviewing Assoun’s case in 2006. Eventually, he and lawyer Phil Campbell persuaded the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted – the forerunner to Innocence Canada – to get involved. Their work set the wheels in motion for Assoun’s eventual exoneration.
On Monday, MacDonald said his priority is to ensure that the police involvement in Assoun’s case gets a full, transparent investigation.
“It’s a case of national importance because it is the first time in Canadian history that a miscarriage of justice case has been reviewed independently to determine whether there existed any criminality in the police investigation,” MacDonald said in an interview.
“My priority is not the timing but the substance of the investigation. If B.C. lacks the resources to adequately investigate … then I think that it was an appropriate call.”
In 2014, Assoun was released from prison on strict conditions after the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted persuaded the federal Justice Department to conduct a preliminary assessment of his case. The RCMP had chosen not to disclose an investigator’s theories about other suspects in the murder case, and the Mounties had destroyed most of this potential evidence, the assessment found.
The Mounties later issued a statement saying the files were deleted for “quality control purposes,” but the actions were “contrary to policy and shouldn’t have happened.”
In March 2019, a Nova Scotia Supreme Court decision overturned Assoun’s conviction, and he later agreed to an undisclosed compensation deal with the Nova Scotia and federal governments in March 2021.
Later that month, Assoun told The Canadian Press he wanted a public inquiry to determine what led to his wrongful conviction and imprisonment for almost 17 years.
“I’d like to see accountability,” he said in an interview at the time.
MacDonald said the slow pace of justice has taken its toll.
“No matter what happens, Glen will never see the end of this investigation,” he said. “He’s been deprived of that opportunity to be around for its outcome … The Canadian public, in order to have confidence in the administration of justice, needs to get answers to those questions.”
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