Glen Assoun has died. He was 67 years old.
Glen’s story is one of perseverance against all odds.
Glen was discarded as a child, failed at every turn through his teenage years, and then as an adult framed by Halifax police for a murder he did not commit.
He steadfastly maintained his innocence for 16 long years. Eventually, however, some remarkable lawyers attached to Innocence Canada and the broader wrongful conviction community listened to Glen, believed him, and got him released from prison and then fully exonerated.
So yes, perseverance.
I wish I could additionally say that Glen’s story is about justice achieved, but it’s nothing of the sort.
Where’s the justice in an 11-year-old kid dropping out of school in Grade 6 and no authorities care to do anything about it? Where’s the justice in an alcoholic teenager wandering around Sydney Pier and no adults intervene?
Glen somehow ended up in the city, and lived on the sketchiest edges of the underbelly of Dartmouth. I won’t sugarcoat him — Glen was no saint and sometimes resorted to violence, especially when he was drinking, but also when he had emotions he couldn’t control.
Still, he evidently had his charms. Women liked him. In that world, not all of those women would be invited to a church lobster supper. He met Brenda Way at a the courthouse — she was there on prostitution charges, he to pay an instalment on the fine of some crime he had been convicted of. They hit it off.
Who am I to judge Brenda and Glen’s relationship? A sex worker fighting a crack addiction involved with an uneducated, aimless alcoholic; no one would make a romcom out of this. But as I dove into their respective life stories, I saw through the stereotypes and found two distinctive, complex people, each in their way spirited and humorous, both righteous after a fashion. They found love — like everything else in their messed-up lives, it was a rocky, confused, sometimes ridiculous love, but love nonetheless. In each other, they found refuge from a community that was ignoring them when it wasn’t hating on them.
Such was that community that in 1995, when Brenda was murdered behind a North End Dartmouth apartment building, no significant police resources were put into solving the crime. The Dartmouth police found no fewer than four terrible men in Brenda’s circle who were considered capable of the murder — Glen wasn’t one of them — but they failed to properly investigate them. Glen had an airtight alibi, so nothing happened. The investigation went nowhere. Where’s the justice in that?
Only when the newly created Halifax Regional Police force took over the investigation did a false justice arrive on the scene. Witnesses began changing their stories. A knife with no fingerprints or blood on it that wasn’t found by police at the murder scene miraculously showed up after an unnamed psychic envisioned it. Glen was arrested in 1997, and jailed.
If the investigation into Brenda’s murder and Glen’s subsequent arrest were false justice, Glen’s 1999 trial was a farce of justice. I won’t rehash all that here, but in my four decades of reporting I’ve never stumbled on such a mockery of justice — the malevolent kangaroos included two prosecutors and a judge who must have known they were stomping all over any chance of a fair trial. When the jury read its verdict, Glen turned to the judge and said, “it’s official that I am wrongfully imprisoned right now. The jury made a mistake.” He was right — no justice in sight.
While in prison, Glen continued to maintain his innocence — he stitched the words “wrongly convicted” onto his prison hat. And he suffered the consequences for that; he was beaten by prison guards, ridiculed by other prisoners, and otherwise ignored by the outside world. While still imprisoned, the RCMP, the supposed arm of justice, had good evidence that Glen was in fact innocent of the murder, but the very top levels of the RCMP conspired to destroy that evidence, and then lied about destroying it.
I learned about Glen in 2014, when he was scheduled to appear for an extraordinary parole hearing, based on a submission to the court by Innocence Canada that Glen had been wrongly convicted. I went to the hearing. The documents in the case were sealed, but Justice James Chipman read parts of them from the bench. Those included a submission from a Justice Department lawyer who said that based on “new and significant information” there was a “miscarriage of justice” in Glen’s 1999 conviction. In fact, said Chipman, Glen was likely “factually innocent.” Chipman ordered Glen released from prison.
“It’s been a long, terrible journey for me,” Assoun told me in the courthouse lobby, the first time I met him in person, before he was whisked away by his lawyers to begin a new life outside of prison.
Justice achieved? Hardly.
Due to a particularly pugnacious Crown prosecutor who had read all the sealed documents so knew the extent of the police lies and malfeasance that put and kept Glen in prison all those years, but nonetheless apparently felt she needed to uphold some undeserved respect for law and order, Glen was loaded up with a series of onerous conditions. He had to live with a family member in British Columbia. He had to wear and pay for an electronic ankle bracelet. He had to report weekly both to the RCMP and to his parole officer. He was under virtual house arrest, not able to leave the premises in the evening or night. He couldn’t drink alcohol. Should he even talk with a woman, he had to report the interaction to the police.
Perhaps those conditions would have been bearable had the powers that be moved quickly to make things right. But instead, the process grounded to a virtual halt. It took three long years, but in 2017 a committee of lawyers from the federal Criminal Convictions Review Board recommended that Glen be fully exonerated. But that recommendation then sat on Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould’s desk for a year and a half. Wilson-Raybould has never explained why she didn’t take action on Glen’s case, but the wait was too much for Glen.
By that time, Glen was living alone in a basement apartment, still with an overwhelming set of conditions on him, stewing about his life in limbo. He had a mental health crisis. He checked himself into a hospital. With some intervention from his lawyers, he moved back to Dartmouth to live with another relative, but again with so many conditions that he couldn’t even drive across the Macdonald Bridge for court appearances downtown.
Due to unrelated political issues, Wilson-Raybould was removed as Justice minister and replaced by David Lametti. It took Lametti just a month and a half to review Glen’s file and order a new trial in 2019.
Glen’s lawyers invited me to meet Glen a second time the morning of the trial. We talked for a half hour in a hotel room a few blocks from the courthouse. He was overwhelmed with conflicting emotions, but holding his own as a vortex of legaleze whirled around him. The lawyers walked Glen through the scripted hearings that would follow, and then, at the courthouse, it played live — the 1999 conviction was overturned by Justice Chipman, and Glen was again charged with murder. He pleaded not guilty. The Crown offered no evidence, and Chipman found Glen “not guilty.” He was a free man, free to go.
Then, Chipman unsealed all the court files, including the Criminal Conviction Review Board’s damning recitation of all the wrongs done upon Glen by police, and incidentally revealing that Brenda was likely murdered by a serial killer who had flown under the police radar for a decade.
So finally, justice achieved? Alas, no.
Glen was a broken man, broken emotionally and physically. And financially. He hadn’t held a paying job in 17 years, and in his condition, he was unemployable in any event. He couldn’t provide for himself. A preacher who had befriended Glen invited Glen to live in his apartment in one of those towers by the Mic Mac Mall. I visited once. Glen did not look good, and living off the charity of others was obviously adding to his burdens.
Meanwhile, all the people who had wronged Glen — the cops who framed him, the prosecutors and judge in the kangaroo court that convicted him, the cops who destroyed evidence that should have freed him, the prison guards who beat him, the prosecutor who made even his parole so onerous that it put him in the mental health ward, the former Justice minister who refused to act on his case — all and each of them continued to live in relative wealth and comfort, respected in their careers.
Justice? Don’t talk to me about justice.
Recognizing that Glen’s position was untenable, a few months later the Nova Scotia Justice Department provided Glen with $200,000 in “early compensation” as the department and Glen’s lawyers worked out a broader deal to compensate Glen for all his lost years.
Two-hundred-thousand dollars was enough to get Glen on his feet. He didn’t need the charity of others for simple survival any longer. But it wasn’t much for 16 years in prison, and given his increasingly declining health and mental health struggles, the money didn’t go far.
What Glen really needed was an official apology — he said this repeatedly, that he wanted the wrongs done to him acknowledged by government — and meaningful payment. Someone close to Glen once told me that Glen wanted to be able to buy a piece of land out in the country somewhere, have a pickup truck and a dog, maybe find a woman to live out his life with.
But neither apology nor compensation was forthcoming. Another couple of years passed, with no action. At press conferences, I’d ask the Justice minister if he was simply waiting for Glen to die; I got no intelligible response, but neither was it denied.
Finally, in 2021, a deal was struck, but the deal was kept secret. I can tell you this — the deal didn’t include an official apology.
I’m a reporter; I try to find facts. I wanted to report on how much the wrongful conviction of Glen Assoun cost the public, put a dollar figure to the various injustices. But no one would tell me. One lawyer said he feared that if the public knew how much money Glen was awarded, he would be hounded relentlessly, and Glen was in no condition to withstand the pressure.
I filed a Freedom of Information request for the amount, but citing ‘privacy,’ the government refused to provide the information. I could have appealed, and I think I would’ve won that appeal. But I was conflicted. On the one hand, the public interest demanded that the dollar amount be made public. On the other hand, there was a broken, ill man, already saddled with so many troubles; did I really want to be the source of one more? I didn’t appeal. Now that Glen has died, it’s a piece of reporting I’ll return to.
Whatever the final settlement, Glen got to live just a year and a half with financial certainty and if not an official apology, at least the implicit acknowledgement of the wrongs he suffered.
And I sit here wondering about justice.
I’ve told Glen’s story as best I could. We’ve had an impact on each other’s lives, but I know I’ve gotten the better end of that stick. Glen had those decades of, well, everything was terrible. And me, I made a little money off the story, and received some acclaim. Coincidentally, today I’m in Ottawa to receive recognition for telling Glen’s story at the Governor General’s Michener Awards. It doesn’t seem fair.
A man shouldn’t be defined only by the wrongs done to him, so I’ll leave you with one short story Glen once told me.
While in Dorchester penitentiary, Glen had a job as an assistant to an outside contractor working on the prison — someone doing HVAC or plumbing or some such in the basement of the building. The contractor had been provided a set of keys that allowed him to access all the various tunnels and closets in the bowels of the prison, but because Glen could do all the work, every day the contractor just handed the keys over to Glen and fell asleep. So here was Glen, a man screaming his innocence, demanding that he be released from prison, with the actual keys to the prison. But of course he knew escaping from prison would bring its own world of hurt to him, so he just did his job and continued fighting for his freedom through the courts. “I could’ve unlocked the door, and walked down this tunnel, and just walked away from the place,” he told me, and laughed and laughed.
I’ll never forget that laugh.
Rest in peace, Glen.