November subscription drive

A 1996 Halifax police photo of the knife that was presented at Glen Assoun’s 1999 trial for the murder of Brenda Way. (Fisher Scientific was the lab company that tested the knife for blood, fingerprints, DNA, or other evidence that might connect it to the murder; it found none.)

When I learned about the Glen Assoun case in 2014, I sat down and read the 1999 court transcript, something like 10,000 pages. I soon realized that if I was going to properly report on the story, I needed to see that evidence that was presented at trial — there are all sorts of things I was interested in: the videotaped interviews with Robin Hartrick, in which she claimed Assoun said he knew Brenda Way was dead hours before Way’s brutally murdered body was discovered. There’s the police interview of “Roberta,” the sex worker who said Assoun attacked her and said he killed Way.

There’s other stuff too — photos of the crime scene, police investigative notes, and a video of Way and Assoun playing with her child.

And that knife. I’ll explain the knife momentarily.

Actually seeing all this would better help me understand the case against Assoun.

In Canada, court evidence is public. That’s because we don’t convict people on secret evidence. Anyone can go to the courthouse and see the evidence. Reporting on other cases, I’ve called up the the court and simply asked to see the evidence, and they’ve brought me into a room with all the evidence laid out on a table. I’ve looked at murder weapons and blood samples, crime scene photos, listened to 911 calls, you name it.

So, that’s what I did in the Assoun case: I called the court and asked to see the evidence that was presented at court.

But I was denied access to the evidence used against Assoun. See, back in 1999, after Assoun was convicted, the court gave the evidence back to the police, so I had to ask the police for it. And that’s what I did, in 2015. But by then Assoun’s case was being reviewed by the federal Justice Department, and the police said there was a court order prohibiting them from discussing it until the review was complete.

I didn’t think that order applied to the 1999 evidence, and my lawyer agreed with me. We could’ve sued the police to get access to the evidence in 2015, but my lawyer said the police would just appeal a court decision — the whole thing would’ve been tied up in court for years, and it would cost me something like $50,000 in legal fees. So, I decided to wait it out.

Four years would pass. Then, finally, in March of 2019 Assoun was fully exonerated. The Justice Department’s review was over, so I asked for the evidence again. We had a lot of back and forth, and the police said I should file a Freedom of Information request for the evidence. I did. And along the way, last summer I received an email from a city lawyer saying the city would not contest my right to see the evidence. I thought, great, about time.

But then another two months went by, and last month I got a response to my Freedom of Information request from the police department: despite the city’s lawyer’s statement to the contrary, they were denying my request to obtain the evidence.

So once again I got my lawyer involved. He went to work to get a court order to get the evidence returned to the court, so it would be part of the public court record again.

I’m not sure what happened next, but last week I got a call from Jennifer Stairs, the court information officer. She said she got the police to agree to grant me access to the evidence without a court order.

But without the court order, I’ll have access to the evidence but it won’t be part of the public court record. This isn’t very satisfying, but I can’t see spending what would likely be thousands of dollars more on my lawyer just on principle. The Halifax Examiner isn’t a huge operation, and that money would be better spent on other reporting.

In any event, yesterday Stairs met me at the police station, and police communications officer Neera Ritcey escorted us to the board room, where much of the evidence was presented to me on a USB stick. That’s because I didn’t ask for all the evidence — I had no interest in seeing body swabs and the like. Mostly, I wanted the digitized versions of the audio and video tapes and photos.

And, of course, the knife.

I explained the knife here:

There’s one element in the trial that is especially absurd — a knife. When Brenda Way’s body was found, the cops did all the usual things: taped off the murder scene, brought in the medical examiner, had dogs and investigators canvass for evidence, etc. I think they held the scene for over a day. But besides Way’s body, they found nothing.

Fast forward several months, and Brenda’s sister Jane was at a party where she met a psychic. Jane told the psychic that her sister had been killed and it was all a mystery, so over the course of three days, Jane and the psychic held sessions, and at the end of that time, the psychic told Jane that Brenda had been killed with a knife with the tip missing from it.

Then, Jane went back to the murder scene — this was about 10 months after the murder — and lo and behold, Jane finds a knife with the tip missing from it.

There was no evidence on the knife — no DNA or blood or fingerprints, nothing that would link it to either Assoun or the murder — but that knife was entered as evidence at trial.

A detective came in and presented the knife in a plastic evidence bag. I wasn’t allowed to touch it, which is fine. Stairs held it this way and that so I could get a close look at it, and I took a bad photo of it:

I was struck by how small the knife was. The blade was about three inches long, the handle maybe four. And indeed, the tip was missing, but that couldn’t have been more than an eighth of an inch. It didn’t strike me as the kind of weapon someone would carry around for the purpose of murdering people, but what do I know about such things?

I’ll have more to say about the knife in the podcast. And I’m still working through the other evidence, converting audio and video into more useful (to me) formats, and sending them off to the CBC folks for enhancement. There’s some evidence I’d like to eventually show readers and listeners, but some, like the crime scene photos, I’ll keep to my own nightmares.

I want to thank everyone involved in this, especially Jennifer Stairs but additionally Neera Ritcey, who also tells me that chief Dan Kinsella was instrumental in the process. I feared being disappointed yesterday, but everyone behaved professionally and courteously, and I walked away with the information I requested. I appreciate it.

It’s taken five long years to get from reading the court transcript to getting the evidence, and there are at least a few more months (and possibly years) to go for the reporting.

This reporting has cost a great deal of money, mostly for legal and court costs, but also for copying and administrative costs and paying freelancers for various related aspects of the work. Without actually diving into the financial statements, I’d guess total costs for this one project hover somewhere around $70,000.

Then there’s my time. As just one example of that, I brought audio files recorded in 1999 to a professional in hopes of getting them converted to a more useful modern format, but he wasn’t able to automate the process, so last week I spent most of two days tediously converting each of about 300 files manually myself. I’m not quite finished that process. I’ve spent many hundreds of hours doing similar tasks, like photographing the entire court file and converting the photos to PDFs.

None of this reporting would be possible without the support of subscribers. There is no advertising on the Examiner site, no annoying popup ads, no big money behind the operation, no government handouts. Your subscription funds the entire operation — not just the day-to-day reporting by our excellent crew of writers, but also the longer term projects like the Assoun story.

All of which is to say, if you haven’t already, this would be an excellent time to subscribe.

Thanks much.


1. Street checks

Police Chief Dan Kinsella. Photo: Halifax Examiner

“This month, Nova Scotia passed a law banning street checks – but what will change?” asks Connor Smithers-Mapp:

Even before Retired Justice Michael MacDonald’s 108-page report concluded that street checking – the practice of stopping of citizens to collect and record their personal information — contravenes freedoms guaranteed by the Charter and at common law, street checking had long been an issue in the Black community.

I went to my first Black community meeting in 1979 to discuss the issue, merely known as “police harassment” at the time. Even before that, my parents along with our cousin Rocky Jones, and others, had met to discuss arbitrary stopping of Black pedestrians and motorists. Suffice to say, for decades, complaints about the practice, to government and police, went unheard.

Click here to read “Street checks: there’s not much hope for change.”

2. Jukin’ the cruise stats

We’re all going to be rich! Photo: Halifax Examiner

Mary Campbell at the Cape Breton Spectator has a long post about the misrepresentation of cruise ship passengers’ economic impact. It deserves more attention than I have time for this morning, but she uses a study of Maine ports as a jumping off point:

There’s a problem, obviously, with accepting cruise line-generated economic impact figures and using them to justify spending public money on infrastructure to benefit the cruise lines (second berths, helipads, you get the idea). It’s a problem some jurisdictions have been trying to come to grips with.

Take Maine, for instance.

For years, writes Colin Woodward in the Portland Press Herald:

Maine ports have been told that cruise ship passengers each spend a daily average of nearly $110 ashore, an economic boon that pumps tens of millions into coastal Maine annually.

The paper actually did a five-part series on the subject in 2018, concluding that while cruise tourism was making money for Portland, it wasn’t making “as much as everyone thinks.”

Then the government of Maine and its cruise industry promotion partner CruiseMaine did something innovative — they funded a $100,000 cruise study by a Portland consultancy, DPA, to get some non-cruise line-generated data.

The study concludes that cruise passengers spent $29 million in the State of Maine in 2018 which, combined with “indirect” spending, generated total spending of $33 million. That’s a relatively modest $4 million in “indirect” spending.

Compare that to the Port of Sydney, which starts with 144,914 disembarking visitors based on a 92% disembarkation rate for passengers and a 43% disembarkation for crew.

The Port says the average passenger spends $70.01 and the average crew member spends $71.47 for a total of $10 million.

But think about that for a minute: that $29 million total noted above is for the entire State of Maine — nine ports. Which means the average spend per port is $3.2 million. We’re claiming visitor spending in Sydney is worth three times average spending in Maine ports?

“Personally, concludes Campbell, “I find this stuff really interesting and I wish the governments in Atlantic Canada would fund a study like Maine’s — especially since we clearly have academics who are ready and willing to undertake it.”

Click here to read “Jukin’ the Cruise Stats.”

As with the Examiner, the Cape Breton Spectator is subscriber supported, and so this article is behind the Spectator’s paywall. Click here to purchase a subscription to the Spectator, or click on the photo below to get a joint subscription to both the Spectator and the Examiner.
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3. The rude press

And I guess I’m out-sourcing much of today’s Morning File to Mary Campbell, who points us to an article by Alex Pareene in The New Republic, headlined “The Death of the Rude Press.

Pareene laments the loss of such in-your-face websites as Deadspin and Splinter, commenting:

Rude media, for lack of a better term, is dying.

Deadspin was rude. This was almost its defining characteristic. It was rude, by and large, to people who deserved it: amoral and venal team owners, predatory sports media personalities, bandwagon Warriors fans. Splinter was notoriously rude, just as Gawker was rude before it, to figures at the towering summit of influence and craven strivers who wished to join their ranks. In an earlier era of digital publishing, Suck was rude (just look at the name the site’s founders chose for themselves, back when online magazines called themselves high-minded things like Salon). Rudeness in media was not invented alongside  the web browser. The Village Voice in its heyday was rude as hell. Rolling Stone was often rude, except to Jann Wenner’s friends. Mad was so rude that it only survived comic book censors by becoming a magazine. Some of America’s greatest journalists and critics, from Ambrose Bierce to H.L. Mencken to Dorothy Parker, were decidedly rude.

Rudeness is not merely a tone. It is an attitude. The defining quality of rude media is skepticism about power, and a refusal to respect the niceties that power depends on to disguise itself and maintain its dominance. 

If your local media has no place for people who voice contempt for your city’s police chief, say, or your state’s attorney general, or the publisher of your city’s largest newspaper, all of those people will feel more comfortable in abusing their power. They will grind you down, and in the process, they’ll tell you to be civil about it.

Er, please subscribe.

4. The Sullivan Pond four

Young thugs.

“The rogue goose likely responsible for an unprovoked attack on an 87-year-old Halifax-area woman has been identified, and the angry bird may be removed from a well-known flock that long ago became a beloved symbol of downtown Dartmouth,” reports Michael MacDonald for the Canadian Press:

Hope Swinimer, director of the Hope for Wildlife rehabilitation centre, says the large, snow-white goose was among nine removed earlier this week from Sullivan’s Pond and brought to her facility in Seaforth.

As for the combative goose in question, that bird is a newcomer to the flock — one of four younger geese added to the older group earlier this year.

From the beginning, the younger contingent was bad news. Those who frequent the park complained about the smaller gaggle, which were known to chase joggers and confront unsuspecting visitors with raucous honking.

The geese were wilding? Now all we need is for an asshole real estate developer to take out newspaper ads calling for the execution of the geese.

5. Pedestrians

As today’s “guest editor” of Star Halifax, Martyn Williams makes the jump: we respond better to dangerous geese than to dangerous drivers.

Last week, an attack by “aggressive” geese at Sullivan’s Pond in Dartmouth put an 87-year-old lady in hospital. It was a serious incident, which resulted in a plan and swift action.

A fearless crew from Hope for Wildlife rounded the geese up and transported them to their winter home. Danger mitigated, successfully.

Oddly, we don’t react the same way when cyclists and pedestrians are hit on our dangerous roads and crosswalks. I’m not suggesting we round up drivers and ship them to some place where they can race around well over the speed limit without causing harm to others. But clearly some kind of action and a plan is required.

In past years, after the time change and with the next inclement weather, there have been a rash of pedestrians being struck by drivers. I fearfully opened my email this morning fearing that the police would notify me of one or two pedestrians struck during last night’s rain. Thankfully, so far, none have been reported.

It’s supposed to be ugly weather this evening. Keep alert.


Government

No public meetings.


On campus

Dalhousie

Composition Masterclass (Friday, 9:30am, Room 121, Dal Arts Centre) — with Laura Sgroi.

The Challenge Of Separating Sense From Nonsense (Friday, 1:30pm, Room 226, Chemistry Building) — Joseph A. Schwarcz from McGill University will speak.

Imperial Encounters in Sri Lanka: Pluriversal Sovereignty and the State (Friday, 3:30pm, Room 1170, Marion McCain Building) — Ajay Parasram will talk.

Nutritional Advice Is There a Solution to The Confusion? (Friday, 5:30pm, in the auditorium named after a bank, Marion McCain Building) — Joseph A. Schwarcz will speak again.

Saint Mary’s

Responsible Investing: Finance for the Future? (Friday, 8am, Loyola 290) — this is cute.

Canadian Gateway Cities: Four Reflections on Transportation Infrastructure, Global Value Chains and Urban Governance (Friday, 1pm, Loyola 290) — panel discussion with Dorval Brunelle from UQAM; Jean Michel Montsion, York University; Peter Hall, Simon Fraser University; and Claudia De Fuentes, Saint Mary’s University. More info and registration here.


In the harbour


05:30: Apollon Highway, car carrier, arrives at Autoport from Southampton, England
06:00: Oceanex Sanderling, ro-ro container, moves from Pier 36 to Pier 41
06:00: La Partenais, bulker, arrives at Pier 27 from Baie Comeau, Quebec
06:00: ZIM Shekou, container ship, arrives at Pier 42 from Valencia, Spain
06:30: Nolhanava, ro-ro cargo, arrives at Fairview Cove from Saint-Pierre
11:30: Apollon Highway sails for sea
13:00: La Partenais sails for sea
16:30: ZIM Shekou sails for New York
18:00: Oceanex Sanderling sails for St. John’s


Footnotes

I’m currently editing Part 4 of Linda Pannozzo’s series on the climate emergency and the economy, and hope to have it published around noon. We’ll have Stephen Kimber’s weekly column published Sunday, and perhaps more over the weekend.

Morning File takes Remembrance Day (Monday) off. I’ll be back on Tuesday.

Tim Bousquet

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. Tim published the Assoun articles in front of the paywall, in spite of the huge costs involved. For this reason, and because of other great content, I have renewed my subscription.