Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil wants police acts in the Glen Assoun wrongful conviction case referred to the Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT) for a possible criminal investigation.
SIRT is the province’s independent police oversight body; its mandate is “to investigate all matters that involve death, serious injury, sexual assault and domestic violence or other matters of significant public interest that may have arisen from the actions of any police officer in Nova Scotia.”
Glen Assoun was convicted of the murder of Brenda Way in 1999, and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 18 and a half years. Assoun steadfastly maintained his innocence.
Court records show that in 2005, some combination of RCMP and/or Halifax Regional Police officers destroyed evidence that may have cleared Assoun of the murder. As a result, Assoun’s appeal was denied, and he spent another nine years in prison.
In 2014, Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice James Chipman freed Assoun on bail, with strict conditions. It wasn’t until March 2019 that Assoun was fully exonerated, after federal Justice Minister David Lametti noted that “relevant and reliable information that was not disclosed to Mr. Glen Assoun during his criminal proceedings” — that is, the evidence destroyed by police in 2005.
The Glen Assoun case was the subject of the Uncover: Dead Wrong podcast series.
It’s been 17 months since Assoun was exonerated, and still he has received no final compensation and no apology, and there has been no inquiry or other investigation into police malfeasance in the case.
At a post-cabinet meeting scrum with reporters today, I had the following exchange with McNeil:
Tim Bousquet (Halifax Examiner): Premier, it’s documented in court records that evidence in the Glen Assoun case was illegally destroyed in the Viclas office in Bedford that was staffed by both RCMP and Halifax police officers, and we know that the RCMP is not being forthcoming about who destroyed the evidence.
Will you call for a criminal investigation of the destruction of evidence by police, and if not, why not?
Premier Stephen McNeil: So I’ve asked the [Justice] minister to refer this file to SIRT, the independent agency in our province. They will assess whether or not this is of a criminal nature, but I’ve asked the minister to do that.
“This is significant,” said Jerome Kennedy in a phone interview. Kennedy is a lawyer with Innocence Canada, the group that works on behalf of the wrongly convicted. Kennedy, who is also the former Justice Minister in Newfoundland and Labrador, has studied every wrongful conviction case in Canada.
“One of the things we’ve been lobbying for is accountability,” said Kennedy. “When people take actions, they need to know that they will be held to account. We’re not asking for a conviction; we don’t know what’s going to happen. We want an honest independent investigation.”
“Nothing like this has ever happened” in a wrongful conviction case, continued Kennedy. “Normally, governments refuse to accept responsibility, and that’s why there are so many lawsuits when there is a wrongful conviction. So this is a significant action. It’s a positive step.”
In a phone interview with the Halifax Examiner, SIRT Director Felix Cacchione said that as of today, he has not been asked by either the premier or Justice Minister Mark Furey to take a look at the Assoun case.
But, said Cacchione, his position all along has not changed: the Assoun case is outside the purview of SIRT, because the alleged police actions happened before SIRT was established in 2012.
“They should know that,” Cacchione said of McNeil and Furey. Cacchione made his position clear in a statement to the Canadian Press just three days after Assoun was exonerated in 2019.
Asked what other agency could investigate possible police misconduct in the Assoun case, Cacchione suggested that one of the other independent police oversight bodies in Canada could investigate. He said Manitoba, Alberta, and Quebec have such agencies, and they predate the establishment of SIRT, but he couldn’t say if they existed at the time of the destruction of evidence in the Assoun case (that is, in 2005).
Kennedy, the lawyer who works for the wrongly convicted, agrees.
“The premier has directed that this be investigated for possible criminality,” said Kennedy. “SIRT can’t say ‘it’s not our mandate,’ and that’s the end of it. That cannot be their excuse. There are outside police agencies that can investigate.”
SIRT’s investigative team comprises two retired RCMP investigators and two seconded police investigators — one from the Nova Scotia RCMP and one from the Halifax Regional Police Department (HRPD). In the Assoun case, the evidence was destroyed by police working in the Bedford Viclas office, which was staffed by officers from both the RCMP and the HRPD.
So I asked Cacchione if conflicts of interest are baked into SIRT’s investigations — because retired and active police investigators are tasked with investigating the very agencies they work(ed) at.
Cacchione said the two retired RCMP investigators did not work in Nova Scotia before joining SIRT. Moreover, he said, “who else is going to do it? There aren’t civilian investigators.”
I pointed out that both crown prosecutors and defence lawyers investigate alleged criminal acts.
“They don’t go out and do it themselves,” responded Cacchione. “Defence lawyers hire investigators, who are usually retired police, and the Crown relies on police agencies to investigate.”
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