This article contains graphic details of violence and sexual violence.
Glen Assoun walked out of the Law Courts building in downtown Halifax Monday, not exactly a free man, but finally, after nearly 17 years, no longer imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.
Assoun’s wrongful conviction is not just a miscarriage of justice, but an indictment of police investigators and the courts. It’s important that we know exactly what happened. The evidence that led to his release is still sealed by the court, but there is much information in other court files, and that I’ve otherwise collected, to give a broad outline of the story. I’ve omitted many of the names below, but only for the purposes of this story. I’ll eventually publish them all. Some of the information below comes directly from previous Examiner posts.
November 12, 1995
Brenda Way’s badly mutilated body is discovered next to a dumpster behind an apartment building she had lived in with her father, at 109 Albro Lake road in Dartmouth. Way was 28 years old, and a mother of two. She had a strong personality that earned her the nickname “Pit Bull.” Her boyfriend was Glen Asssoun, a diminutive man, maybe 5’4″, with a sixth grade education who worked on and off again on oil platforms. There’s evidence in the court file that suggests Way sometimes worked as a sex worker, and many of her friends were sex workers.
Years later, Justice Suzanne Hood would describe Way’s murder as follows:
It is difficult to imagine any murder not being described as brutal but this one was particularly so. The photographs in evidence, the autopsy report and the evidence of the doctor who performed the autopsy tell of the severe beating Glen Assoun inflicted upon Brenda Way. He struck her many times, he kicked or otherwise delivered blows to her torso, including one which ruptured her liver. As well, he stabbed and/or slit her throat and killed her with one of these throat wounds which pierced a vein. This caused her to slowly bleed to death after he left her lying, partially clothed, on the ground in a parking lot in the early morning hours of a cold November morning four years ago.
When Assoun heard of Way’s murder he went to her father’s apartment and called the police to be of assistance. That night, he and a friend “roamed the streets” looking for information about the murder. The friend would later testify against Assoun.
Assoun was no angel. He had beaten a previous girlfriend and served time for assault. But he has steadfastly maintained he did not kill Way. One thing that is perhaps overlooked in this story is that Assoun’s girlfriend, someone he cared for, was horribly murdered. It affected him deeply, and a year and a half later, in 1997, he moved to British Columbia, to be with family and to try to start his life over.
Way was murdered just seven months after the amalgamation of the former cities of Halifax and Dartmouth, the town of Bedford, and the county of Halifax into the newly created Halifax Regional Municipality. The Halifax Regional Police Department was also brand new, and no doubt was experiencing growing pains as the previous police forces were merged under new management. The lead investigator for the investigation into Way’s murder was a former Halifax detective. The Way investigation would be his last investigation before retiring.
The investigation went nowhere until 1997. That year, Halifax police investigators went to BC to question Assoun, and he willingly went to a RCMP detachment office. From the time Way was murdered right up to the present day, Assoun has fully cooperated with the police, showing up for every requested interview and answering questions truthfully.
There was never any physical evidence connecting Assoun to the murder. Rather, the crown would at trial present five witnesses, all of whom said that Assoun confessed to murdering Way. One of those witnesses was a “jailhouse snitch.” “Every court acknowledges that testimony from a jailhouse snitch is completely worthless,” Assoun’s lawyer, Phillip Campbell, said in court Monday.
A second witness was a sex worker who testified that a few weeks after Way’s murder she was working along Lake Banook late one night, and that Assoun picked her up. She testified that Assoun held a knife to her neck and forced her to perform oral sex on him. She said that Assoun said he was going to kill her, just as he had killed Way.
The court transcript for this witness’ testimony is horrific, and compelling. But, we learned Monday from Campbell that the woman’s attacker “was someone else,” not Assoun. It was clear from Campbell’s statement that he had presented the court evidence proving that the woman’s attacker was not Assoun. Moreover, the crown prosecutor, Marion Fortune-Stone, did not object to Campbell’s statement.
We also learned for the first time Monday that the other three witnesses “had colluded” before coming to the police with their stories of Assoun’s confession. Again, Campbell made clear that he had presented evidence to prove that collusion, and again Fortune-Stone did not object to the assertion.
Assoun had a court-appointed lawyer for the trial. Midway through the trial Assoun wanted his lawyer to call a certain witness, but the lawyer refused to. Assoun fired his lawyer, but the court wouldn’t appoint a replacement. Assoun, a man with a sixth grade education, represented himself for the rest of the trial. At one point he complained to the judge that a set of documents contained too much legal language for him to understand. “All lawyers have their first murder trial,” said the judge. “This is yours.”
September 17, 1999
A jury convicts Glen Assoun of second degree murder. He immediately yells out that “it’s official that I’m wrongfully imprisoned right now.”
From that day to the present, Assoun has steadfastly maintained his innocence. He has refused to take part in prison programs because he views such programs as being for criminals and not innocent men like himself. From the day he arrived in prison nearly 17 years ago, he has refused to unpack his luggage, a symbolic statement that he should be leaving.
December 17, 1999
Assoun is sentenced to life in prison without eligibility of parole for eighteen and a half years. He immediately files for appeal.
Soon after, Jerome Kennedy, a Newfoundland lawyer who works with the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC), took up Assoun’s case. AIDWYC itself was not involved with the case, because the organization does not get involved until a convicted person has exhausted all appeals.
At the appeal trial, Kennedy submitted an affidavit signed by Fred Fitzsimmons, a former RCMP homicide investigator who worked as a private investigator. “In my opinion,” wrote Fitzsimmons in the affidavit, “as a result of my investigation and the information contained in the police memo of May 19, 2005 Michael McGray is a possible suspect in the murder of Brenda Way. I base my opinion upon the following: Michael McGray is a serial killer; he lived in the immediate area of where Brenda Way’s body was found; McGray admitted to knowing Brenda Way; the method of killing involved a knife, which was apparently McGray’s weapon of choice.”
Fitzsimmons’ affidavit claims that in 1995 McGray had been released from prison and took up residence with his girlfriend, who was then working at the Future Inn on Highfield Park Drive (now the Days Inn). According to the affidavit, the couple shared an apartment across the street, at 25 Highfield Park Drive. Over the next few months, wrote Fitzsimmons, the couple lived in two other north end Dartmouth apartments—37 Brule Street and 48 Jackson Road. All of the residences are within a few blocks of Way’s Albro Lake apartment. The Jackson Road apartment is less than 300 meters from Way’s apartment.
In the affidavit, Fitzsimmons expresses frustration with the Halifax Regional Police. With his new-found knowledge of McGray’s residences, on February 3, 2005 Fitzsimmons met for two hours with Sgt. Wayne McNeil, Sgt. Mike Worrell, and Sgt. Mike Spur. At the meeting, Fitzsimmons “reviewed the case in detail” and suggested that both McGray and another man could be suspects in Way’s murder.
“I was not provided with any answers to any of my questions,” wrote Fitzsimmons. “I was attempting to convince the HRP to review the case but I was told that the right man had been convicted and the case would remain closed.”
In fact, in the affidavit Fitzsimmons wrote that the investigation into McGray’s murderous spree was interfering with his own investigation trying to link McGray to Way’s murder.
“I attempted to obtain information by telephone from Mr. McGray’s parole officer,” wrote Fitzsimmons. “I was trying to confirm information from a source as to when Mr. McGray had worked at various establishments in the Halifax and Dartmouth area. However, I was told by parole services that if Mr. McGray’s name was entered into the computer this would immediately result in inquiries as to why someone was looking for information on McGray. Therefore, the parole officer could offer me no assistance.”
Fitzsimmons continued: “As a result of the ongoing police investigation into Michael McGray I have not been able to access information that is highly sensitive and which could assist me in establishing either McGray’s involvement in Brenda Way’s murder or eliminating him as a suspect. To the best of my knowledge the police have not taken such steps.”
The court rejected Fitzsimmons affidavit as hearsay.
April 20, 2006
The NS Court of Appeal dismisses Asson’s appeal.
September 14, 2006
Assoun’s application for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada is dismissed.
Almost immediately after Assoun lost his appeal, AIDWYC took up his case. Lawyer Sean MacDonald was the lead investigator. Philip Campbell led the presentation at court. And James Lockyer was AIDWYC’s manager for Assoun’s case.
It took AIDWYC seven years to fully investigation the case, compile the evidence, and write the court briefs.
April 18, 2013
AIDWYC files an application for Ministerial Review of his conviction. Assoun’s file is assigned to the Criminal Conviction Review Group (CCRG) of the federal Department of Justice. Department lawyer Mark Green is assigned as investigator.
August 29, 2014
Mark Green submits the results of his review of Assoun’s case.
The CCRB is charged with reviewing criminal convictions and determining if the cases merit a full investigation by the Justice Department. Typically, the CCRB issues a “Preliminary Assessment,” PA for short, which according to Campbell, “are just one line: Yes, this merits an investigation, or no further action is required.” If the report says there should be further investigation, then a formal investigation is undertaken, which may at a later date result in a hearing to overturn or stay the conviction.
Green’s PA of Assoun’s case, however, is a big exception to the rule. The report itself is 86 pages long, and then there are 131 appendixes. In the PA, Green concludes that there ““may be a reasonable basis to conclude that a miscarriage of justice likely occurred” in the conviction of Assoun.
The PA is sealed by the court, but Campbell told me he expects it to be made public “in months, not years.” At that point we’ll know all the details of Assoun’s case, including how it was that Halifax police fingered the wrong man, and how the courts neglected to take seriously the issues raised at appeal.
For now, what we know is this: Whatever evidence AIDWYC uncovered—and there appears to be many, many pieces of evidence—it was so overwhelming that Green felt compelled to explore it in great detail, and the crown prosecution agreed that Assoun should be released from prison. AIDWYC and the crown negotiated a joint submission to the court, outlining the terms of Assoun’s probation.
November 24, 2014
Justice James Chipman orders that Assoun be released on probation.
A small man, at 59 years old, Assoun now appears frail. I’m told he had a difficult time dealing with other prisoners, and court documents say that he has spent the last two years in the prison hospital, suffering from anxiety attacks. During the hearing Monday, Assoun was trembling, but steadfast. He rose to hear Chipman read out the ridiculous terms of his probation—despite being clearly innocent of any crime, Assoun must still wear an electronic bracelet, must report to police, even to the point of reporting every woman he meets, and can not leave his home at night.
The terms of Assoun’s probation also required his family to sign a surety note for $200,000, which presumably was backed by the title to their house. Assoun was ordered released at about 1pm, but it took nearly four hours to process the paperwork for his release. But finally, he walked out into a courthouse hallway, and hugged his family, meeting two grandchildren for the first time.
He very briefly spoke to reporters, and seemed like a man returning from war.
Justice Minister Peter MacKay now has Assoun’s file, and the department will conduct a full investigation. Much of that work has already been done, and there is quite obviously some very compelling evidence of Assoun’s innocence, so Campbell expects the case to move quickly. Eventually, MacKay will order the Nova Scotia Supreme Court to revisit the case. It’s unclear exactly how that will unfold, and whether Assoun’s conviction will be simply overturned or if instead a declaration of innocence made.
Beyond his short remarks Monday, Assoun isn’t talking to the press, so we don’t know if he intends to sue the Halifax police for his wrongful conviction. But if he does, he has a strong case.