Justice Minister Mark Furey. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

It’s two weeks today since a Nova Scotia court unsealed documents that help explain why Glen Assoun spent 17 years behind bars for a murder he did not commit.

The documents pertain to both the Halifax Regional Police’s initial Halifax police investigation into the 1995 murder of Brenda Way, and to a later RCMP re-investigation of the murder.

The documents show that during the initial investigation, Halifax cops zeroed in one suspect (Assoun) while ignoring or discounting leads pointing to two other suspects, including a serial killer named Michael McGray, who lived 100 metres from the scene of the murder. That investigation led to Assoun’s 1999 conviction.

The RCMP’s involvement with the case started in 2001 with a separate investigation looking for possible unknown victims of McGray. RCMP Constable Dave Moore came upon the Way murder, and suspected that McGray, not Assoun, was the probable killer.

Over several years, Moore made hundreds of entries about McGray into a national RCMP computer database called ViCLAS (Violent Crime Linkage Analysis System) and also collected physical evidence — hundreds of paper documents, which were stored in cardboard boxes in a locked cabinet in his office.

The documents released two weeks ago reveal that while Moore was on vacation in 2004, someone deleted the computer files and broke into the cabinet and removed (and presumably destroyed) the cardboard boxes of evidence. Because that evidence did not exist, it could not be turned over to defence lawyer Jerome Kennedy, who began representing Assoun on appeal in 2003. Without the evidence that could have cleared him, Assoun lost his appeal in 2006. He spent another eight years in prison.

Since this information became public, Assoun’s lawyer Sean MacDonald has been asking the province of Nova Scotia to give Assoun an apology, as well as to provide him some undetermined amount of financial compensation and conduct a public inquiry. Assoun is penniless and living off the kindness of others.

Yesterday, reporters asked Justice Minister Mark Furey for his response to Assoun’s requests and the minister indicated it could be days or even weeks before that will be forthcoming.

“An apology would be premature at this time until I have an opportunity to review the full scope of the file,” said Furey. “It’s a complex file and I  need to understand all of the circumstances.”

Given the botched police investigation and admission by the RCMP there was tampering with evidence, I asked the minister what more he needed to know.

“I think we all recognize that elements of this demonstrate a miscarriage of justice,” said Furey, whose previous career included 32 years as an RCMP officer. “That’s the area we have to focus on.”

Furey told journalists he received his first briefing on the Assoun case Wednesday. The review of Assoun’s case that led to federal Justice Minister David Lametti’s decision to order a new trial (which led directly to Assoun’s exoneration in March) has been in the hands of the provincial Justice Department since May. Furey told reporters yesterday he didn’t want to see the documents until the Conflict-of-Interest Commissioner determined whether he, as a former RCMP officer, could remain fair and impartial to handle the case. Retired Chief Justice Joe Kennedy cleared Furey on Tuesday.

Furey said it’s too soon to say whether he will call a public inquiry to look into what went wrong in this murder investigation and he was quick to deflect some of the heat to his federal counterpart.

“I don’t have oversight of the RCMP as some people believe,” said Furey. “That is federal jurisdiction. The RCMP are the responsibility of the federal Minister of Public Safety. We have a working relationship with the RCMP; they are our provincial policing service.”

Wait a minute: the Police Act of Nova Scotia gives the Justice Minister all the authority he needs to order a review of the Assoun file. Under the Police act of Nova Scotia , section 19 (1) “The Minister may direct the Review Board to investigate, inquire into and report to the Minister upon any matter relating to (a) the extent, investigation or control of crime; (b) the enforcement of law; (c) the operation and administration of a police department, and the Minister shall define the scope of the inquiry in the direction.”

The Review Board is the Police Review Board and the Minister has scads of power. There appear to be no roadblocks preventing Furey or the Review Board from asking a few important questions.

“There’s no amount of money that can adequately compensate Mr. Assoun for what has been done to him,” said NDP leader Gary Burrill. “But here we are in Nova Scotia, a full 30 years after the Marshall Inquiry, and we find ourselves facing a case of wrongful conviction of this proportion. So we need understand how in this world this could possibly have happened. Certainly an inquiry is needed in order to do that.”

Burrill also supports providing some immediate, short-term financial assistance to Assoun to cover living expenses until more permanent compensation gets negotiated. Furey said there have been preliminary conversations  with Ottawa about compensation but it is “premature” to talk about whether a full public inquiry is needed.

“I’m not calling for a public inquiry at this stage,” said PC leader Tim Houston. “But I think certainly as a province we should be bringing in investigators from another jurisdiction to look at the files and find out what went wrong. Is there a pattern here?

“I don’t have access to the information the Minister has,”continued Houston. “I wish he had taken the steps earlier to clear himself of potential conflicts. I’m not sure why he waited so long. But from where I sit, there’s a tragedy here we need to understand.”

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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