A botched police investigation and a probable wrongful conviction shed light on the murders of dozens of women in Nova Scotia.
On November 12, 1995, a 28-year-old woman named Brenda Way was brutally murdered behind an apartment building in Dartmouth’s North End. Four years later, Way’s former boyfriend Glen Assoun was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 18 and a half years.
Assoun steadfastly maintained his innocence and fought to have his conviction overturned. He took his case to the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal, which rejected his appeal in 2006. Then Assoun convinced a group of Canadian lawyers and activists called the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted to take up his cause. Eight more years would pass as AIDWYC conducted its own investigation of the case and then filed an application with the court, seeking to have Assoun’s conviction overturned.
Last year, a Justice Department lawyer named Mark Green reviewed AIDWYC’s submission and came to a startling conclusion: “I am of the view,” wrote Green to Assoun, “that on the basis of all this information, including the new and significant information that has been submitted with your application, there may be a reasonable basis to conclude that a miscarriage of justice likely occurred in your case.”
With Green’s opinion in hand, on November 24, 2014 — 19 years after Brenda Way was murdered and 15 years after Glen Assoun was found guilty — Justice James Chipman ordered that Assoun be released from prison.
Assoun hasn’t yet been fully exonerated — his file is now with the federal Criminal Conviction Review Group, which will soon decide either to reject Assoun’s appeal and return him to prison, to order a new trial, or to send the matter back to the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal. So while Assoun is out of prison, he is not a free man. He wears an electronic ankle bracelet, abides by strict conditions, including house arrest, and is in a sort of judicial limbo, awaiting his fate.
Still, Assoun saw his release as vindication. “It’s been a long, terrible journey for me,” he told reporters outside the courtroom. “I’m an innocent man. I’ve always been innocent, and I always will be innocent.”
How is it possible that a man spent 16 years in prison for a murder he may not have committed?
To answer that question, I’ve spent the last year reviewing tens of thousands of pages of court documents and tracking down dozens of people involved in Assoun’s case. Over the coming weeks I’ll be publishing the results of that investigation.
The investigation details, in a word, injustice. It reveals how Glen Assoun was likely wrongfully convicted.
But additionally, the investigation shows that the likely now-unsolved murder of Brenda Way is not a unique event. Indeed, over the past decades, dozens of women and girls have been murdered in the Halifax area, and due in part to botched and incompetent police investigations, many of those murders remain unsolved.
And Assoun’s conviction raises a disturbing question: Has anyone else been wrongfully convicted? This investigation will show that, yes, more wrongful convictions may have occurred.
Lastly, the investigation sheds light on the desperation and violence that characterize life for those on the margins of society, and shows how indifference to the fate of murdered women and girls is the ultimate injustice, leading to still more death.
The series starts tomorrow, Saturday, with DEAD WRONG, Part 1: The War of the Roses. I’ll be publishing the article at noon.
This series will be behind the Examiner’s paywall and so available only to paid subscribers. Click here to purchase a subscription.
1. One man dead, one man arrested
From a police email to reporters this morning:
At about 10:13 pm on January 21st Halifax Regional Police responded to an unknown trouble call in an apartment building in the 0-100 block of Harlington Crescent in Halifax. Officers located a deceased male in a hall way. A short time later a young male was taken into custody near a Halifax Transit bus stop on Willett Street with regards to the Investigation. The male is presently at the QE2 Health Science Center being treated for a serious injury. Members of the Integrated Major Crime Section, Integrated General Investigation Section and Forensic Identification Section are currently continuing the investigation.
2. Yarmouth ferry
Bay Ferries was supposed to obtain a boat for the Yarmouth–Portland ferry route by mid-December, but here we are six weeks later and still no boat. This is starting to worry people:
In a media release issued by the PC caucus, Brian Reynolds, owner of B. Reynolds Trucking in Port Latour, Shelburne County, says the trucking industry can’t keep waiting.
“We want some idea of where we stand this summer,” he says.
Reynolds’ company had used the Nova Star service during the past two sailing seasons. He says the industry will face problems if trucks can’t use the international run.
The trucking industry recently raised concerns about ferry service out of Digby where the Fundy Rose, which replaced the Princess of Acadia, doesn’t have the same capacity for tractor trailers as its predecessor did. Truckers were being faced with waiting lists or having to make to long drive to market — causing delays, added expenses and more wear and tear on their vehicles. After meeting with the trucking and seafood industries, Bay Ferries adjusted its schedule for January to add second crossings several times a week.
3. Deficit spending
The Federal Liberals get it, reports the Canadian Press:
Canada’s plea to its international counterparts to open their wallets and spend their way out of a worsening global economic slump is resonating among the world’s economic power brokers.
At a time when some countries are looking at austerity to help them pull through a shaky economy, Canadian cabinet ministers have been telling anyone they meet at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum that deficits are the way out of the downturn.
“Interest rates are at historic lows. We can make significant investments because we have that, plus an opportunity with our low amount of debt, especially in comparison with other countries,” Finance Minister Bill Morneau said Thursday.
“What I hear from other people in my position around the world is this is the right initiative at this time, and we know it will make a difference for Canadians.”
Morneau and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are saying all the right things. By all appearances, they know that continuing austerity policies will lead to economic mayhem, and increasingly the world agrees with them.
Good on them. Trudeau and Morneau are a breath of fresh air in terms of their understanding of the economy and the problems plaguing it. If only their Liberal Nova Scotia counterparts would listen. Someone should call up Stephen McNeil.
(As an aside, Halifax MP Andy Filmore has twice stood me up for an interview for the Examineradio podcast. Should he ever actually appear on the show, my main topic of conversation will be the disconnect between the federal and provincial Liberal parties’ on austerity policies.)
And no, it’s simply not true that Nova Scotia’s debt is unmanageably high, dragging us down, and preventing any form of provincial stimulus.
We can afford deficit-driven increase in public works projects like water and sewage systems, rail projects, highway replacement, high-speed internet and the like. In fact, we can’t not afford them.
Let’s put people to work building things that will make our future lives better. Just doing so will in itself make our future lives better.
4. Legacy media
In which I babble on in grammatically incorrect sentences and could use a comb.
Graham Steele outlines changes in the Seniors’ Pharmacare Program announced by the province last week, calling it “a textbook example of how to direct, or misdirect, public attention.”
Steele explains that before the changes, seniors paid a maximum premium of $424 and a 30 per cent co-pay on drugs up to a maximum of $382. After the changes, the maximum premium goes up to $1,200, and the co-pay goes down to 20 per cent, although the maximum co-pay is still set at $382.
The problem is there are a lot of moving balls, so it’s hard to calculate the real effect of the change. As Steele notes, “about half of the seniors enrolled in the program pay no premium because of their modest income.”
But it’s clear that, no matter what the premium, the co-pay reduction from 30 percent to 20 per cent benefits only those seniors who are not hitting the $382 maximum. Under the old system that kicked in at $1,273; under the new system, that kicks in at $1,910. So the new announcement benefits those who are using less than $1,910 in drugs, and (depending on their income) especially those who use between $1,273 and $1,190 worth of drugs.
Even then, after you factor in the premium, the savings are minimal. For people paying no premium — about half the people in the program — those using less than $1.273 worth of drugs benefit the most — a senior with a $1,000 annual prescription will see their portion of the bill decline from $300 to $200. But those who have prescriptions totalling more than $1,190 — and I’d wager that’s the majority of people in the program — don’t benefit at all, and in fact have to pay more. And a lot more if they are paying the maximum premium.
Let’s use a theoretical case of Old Man MacDonald, who has enough income such that he has to pay the highest annual premium. Old Man MacDonald has an annual drug need priced at $5,000.
Under the old system, Old Man MacDonald would have to pay the annual premium of $424, plus $382 (30 per cent of the first $1,273 worth of drugs), and the province covered all other costs. Old Man MacDonald paid $806. The province paid $4,681.
Under the new system, Old Man MacDonald will pay the annual premium of $1,200, plus $382 (20 per cent of $1,910), and the province will cover all other costs. Old Man MacDonald will pay $1,582. The province will pay $4,618.
The province reduces it drug costs by $63, at a cost to Old Man MacDonald of $776.
But Old Man MacDonald is doing OK financially, so maybe we shouldn’t care about him. Maybe we should think about the Widow O’Malley, living in poverty, who will pay no premium. Under old system or new, she’ll pay just $382.
Basically the changes in Pharmacare are a way to increase the weighting of means testing in pricing: those with some money in their pensions or a little cash on hand will pay more.
Steele doesn’t have a philosophical problem with this:
This is, by any measure, a major policy change.
Frankly, the changes strike me as reasonable, or at least defensible. A more rigourously income-tested approach to an important, expensive program like Seniors’ Pharmacare is good public policy.
I entirely disagree.
Unfortunately, in today’s world it makes rhetorical sense to means test social programs. The thinking goes like this: Why shouldn’t someone with money pay for their own prescriptions? We should give a break on recreation fees for poor families, but middle class and rich families should pay their fair share. Students from rich families should pay higher university tuition than students from poor families. And so on.
But this way of thinking turns all government programs into social programs for the poor, as opposed to entitlement programs for all citizens. Once we’ve made that change in thinking (and, alas, we’re way past making that change, but still), there’s no middle-class buy in and it’s only a matter of time before the programs are defunded and eliminated completely.
Here’s how we pay for universal benefit programs: we tax people. And here’s how we means test: we tax rich people and rich corporations more, and we tax poor people less.
It’s important that rich kids get low-cost tuition, because that’s what guarantees that middle-class kids get low-cost tuition that doesn’t send them into a lifetime of debt. It’s important that middle-class and rich families have free access to city recreation facilities, because that’s what guarantees that poor families will have good recreation facilities too (if you have to pay a lot for rec facilities, then you may as well join the private club and stay away from the riff raff; once you do, you are no longer politically supportive of taxpayer-funded rec centres). And it’s important that comparatively well-off seniors get the same drug discounts as their poorer neighbours because that’s what keeps the system affordable for all.
The neoliberal agenda is to pit us against each other, and means testing the delivery of services is just another route to that end. It makes us think of each other as atomized individuals, and not as part of a collective society. We have nothing in common with each other. You don’t have anything to do with me, and crucially, I don’t have anything to do with you. With that mindset, government becomes a burden, just a tax hole that we could all do without. And that’s entirely the point: to kill government.
Regardless, even though I disagree with him, Steele should be commended for his broader point:
The news release on Seniors’ Pharmacare is a carefully-crafted and highly political document.
There is not one sentence in it that is untrue, and yet the overall impression is, in my view, misleading.
The headline is “Lower Seniors’ Pharmacare Co-pays Begin April 1,” followed by a lead paragraph saying “Nova Scotians enrolled in the program will soon pay less each time they pick up a prescription.”
That sentence is true, but it leaves out two important qualifications [the $382 cap and the increase in premiums].
We’re told that 47,500 seniors will be exempt from premium; 12,000 seniors will see their premium drop to zero for the first time; 29,000 seniors will qualify for a reduced annual premium. Good news.
But nowhere is it stated how many will pay more.
The answer, which I obtained only by inquiring at the Department of Health and Wellness, is 33 per cent. In other words, 40,000 seniors will pay a higher premium, starting April 1.
I asked the Department of Health and Wellness twice for the expected budgetary impact. The department declined twice to provide a figure.
It is inconceivable that the government would undertake a major overhaul of a sensitive program without having a very good idea of the dollars involved.
Their refusal to provide a figure only reinforces my suspicion that the changes are a net revenue generator for the government.
Thanks, Old Man MacDonald, you’re helping to lower taxes on Laurel Broten.
2. Free advertising
Tomorrow, Chronicle Herald newsroom reporters will be locked out, largely because advertising revenues at the paper are plummeting. Meanwhile, Chronicle Herald columnist Lezlie Lowe is giving away free advertising.
2. Cranky letter of the day
Ah yes, do you remember the 1960s? Remember in the 1960s, when the provincial government changed, many government employees lost their jobs and new ones were hired who were known to have voted for the winning party.
The Department of Highways garage employees were gone and a whole new lot, from the supervisor to the grader operator, were hired. Gravel pits, where gravel was extracted to cover back roads, were closed down and the one next door, whose owner was of the winning party’s persuasion was opened.
I was sure this kind of party politics was a thing of the past in Nova Scotia, but I guess not.
Here in Pictou County, where we elected all three Conservative MLAs, we seem to be being punished by the Liberal Government in Halifax.
First our Tourist Bureau was closed down. A Tourist Bureau within a few minutes driving distance from the Nova Scotia-Prince Edward Island ferry terminal. A terminal which is a vital link in our spring, summer and fall tourist season. This tourist traffic benefits all Nova Scotians.
Next the Land Registry office, which was housed in the Municipality of Pictou County office building in recent years and for many years before that at the provincial courthouse in Pictou, was moved to Amherst. This decision makes no sense at all as Pictou is far more central to northern Nova Scotia than is Amherst. Perhaps it could be because there is a Liberal MLA in Amherst. Just saying.
Now the mental health care facility at the Aberdeen Hospital in New Glasgow is closed. It is said it will be opened again when staff is trained. Don’t hold your breath on that one.
What is the cost of keeping these facilities open? Not $40 million which it cost to keep the Yarmouth to Maine ferry going. Oh yes Yarmouth also has a Liberal MLA.
It certainly appears to me that good old party politics is alive and well and living in Nova Scotia in 2016. I thought this kind of politics died many years ago.
Tell me it ain’t so Mr. Premier.
Ted MacNaughton, RR2 Pictou
No public meetings.
Thesis defence, Engineering (10am, Room 3107, Mona Campbell Building) — PhD candidate Mohammed Shamsuzzaman will defend his thesis, “Gaussian Process Proxy Models for Porous Media Flows.”
The machines are taking over the world (1:30pm, Chemistry Room 226 ) — or at least part of it. Christopher D. Brown, from 908 Devices Inc. in Boston, will speak on “The new world of microscale analytical instruments and their autonomous operations in the wild.” Dude’s got a blog on Wired.
Talking dirty (3:30pm, Marion McCain Building, room 1170) — Kris Archibald, from Concordia University, will speak on “‘ Do you want me to…just talk about the dirt or what?’: Conceptualizing Industrial Landscapes Within Sydney, Nova Scotia, 1950s-1970s.”
This date in history
I’ve been having great fun putting together the “This date in history” segment. However, I expect that the “DEAD WRONG” project is about to consume every minute of my time, and so I’m going to reluctantly suspend this segment for the next few weeks. I’ll bring it back as soon as I can.
In the harbour
No arrivals today.
The next Examineradio podcast will be published this afternoon.