'I get to live the rest my life free': Baltovich acquitted

After fighting 18 years to clear his name, Robert Baltovich has been found not guilty of second-degree murder in the killing of his girlfriend, Elizabeth Bain.

After fighting 18 years to clear his name, Robert Baltovich has been found not guilty of second-degree murder in the killing of his girlfriend, Elizabeth Bain.  

The verdict came Tuesday, moments after the Crown stunned a Toronto courtroom with the announcement that it would not bring any evidence or witnesses forward in Baltovich's trial, which had been expected to last as long as eight weeks.

Prosecutors, who had planned to call 50 witnesses to the stand, said on Tuesday they had no reasonable prospect of conviction.

Ontario Superior Court Judge David McCombs, in response, told the jury the only possible verdict would be not guilty. After a few minutes of private deliberations, the jury of six men and six women returned with their verdict.

Baltovich, speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, called the sudden end to his trial "an unbelievable relief."

"It was an 18-year nightmare and in a half an hour, it's over," said Baltovich, 42. "I'm just glad it's over. No more bail, no more convictions, no more charges. I get to live the rest my life free."

Bain, a 22-year-old student, disappeared June 19, 1990, after telling her parents she was going to the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus to check the tennis schedules. Her car was found a few blocks away with blood on the back seat, but her body was never found.

Baltovich was arrested and charged five months later, and convicted of second-degree murder on March 31, 1992. During the trial, the Crown portrayed Baltovich as a possessive boyfriend who killed Bain in a jealous rage because she wanted to break up with him.

He was sentenced to life in prison and spent eight years in jail before being released on bail, pending an appeal.

In 2004, the Ontario Court of Appeal set aside the conviction and ordered a new trial.

'A little bit bitter'

Throughout his long legal battle, Baltovich has always maintained his innocence. His case was the subject of a 1998 book No Claim to Mercy, in which author Derek Finkle depicted his conviction as a miscarriage of justice.

Baltovich said he feels "a little bit bitter" about being targeted in the case from the onset, but he said it's too early to know truly how he feels about the legal battle he endured.

He said for now, all he wants to do is live his life, look for a job, and finally get a good night's sleep.

"I've been waiting 18 years to hear [this verdict], and I'm just going to enjoy it for the rest of the day and the rest of my life," he said.

Ontario Attorney General Chris Bentley said Baltovich "needed and deserved" the verdict.

"I hope he will be able to get on with the rest of his life with this matter behind him," he said.

Bain's mother can't accept verdict

Bain's mother, reached at her Toronto home after the verdict was announced, said she will never believe Baltovich is innocent.   

"We believe that he did it, that doesn't change," Julita Bain said. "[He] might be freed here, but he has to face the final justice up there."

Baltovich said he understands that Bain's family has been living in their own "never-ending nightmare" for the past 18 years.

"I just hope that one day they can come to accept that I didn't kill their daughter," he said. "I loved her, I miss her. I know they do. Maybe one of these days we can get together and grieve together."

Judge bans witnesses questioned under hypnosis

Baltovich's lawyer, James Lockyer, a prominent advocate for the wrongfully accused, said the Crown simply had no case against Baltovich. Standing beside his client outside the courtroom Tuesday, Lockyer said the prosecutors' arguments unravelled just as other wrongful convictions in Canada have.

"Their case died of a thousand cuts," he said. "The theory, the whole premise of their case, it just fell apart."

The judge in the trial had restricted prosecutors during pre-trial motions, banning them from using evidence from witnesses who were questioned under hypnosis in advance of the 1992 trial. The Crown said the restrictions left them little to work with.

"We have carefully weighted the evidence that was once available to the prosecution, and what now remains as a result of the evidence that was excluded," prosecutor Philip Kotanen told court when announcing he would present no evidence.

"It has become apparent that there is no longer any reasonable prospect of conviction."

Lawyer suspects Bernardo

Lockyer has repeatedly said he suspects convicted sex killer Paul Bernardo was involved in Bain's disappearance. Bernardo confessed in 2005 to a series of rapes in Scarborough that occurred at about the same time as Bain disappeared, although he denied killing Bain.

The judge overseeing Baltovich's trial was going to allow Lockyer to bring up the Bernardo theory in court but, with the abrupt end to the trial, Lockyer never got a chance.

"I think he [Bernardo] probably did it, and I think the evidence shows he probably did it," Lockyer said.

But Baltovich said he doesn't want to ponder the possibility.

"It's not something I really even want to think about because it's just too terrifying to think he could be the guy," he said.

With files from the Canadian Press