Murder charges against Kyle Unger were dropped Friday in a Winnipeg courtroom, ending a 19-year legal odyssey after the Crown determined it didn't have enough evidence to retry him for a 1990 killing.
Don Slough, Manitoba's deputy attorney general, told Justice Glenn Joyal that the charges against Unger are being withdrawn because it would be unsafe to retry him on the available evidence.
Slough said DNA testing shows no trace of Unger on any of the exhibits and cannot link him to the crime scene.
Based on an absence of evidence, Joyal ordered that Unger be formally acquitted of all the charges against him. Joyal then wished Unger "good luck."
"Finally," a smiling Unger, 38, told reporters outside the courthouse. "It's still surreal, almost."
He said the decision marks "the first day of the rest of my life, a new beginning."
An acquittal does not necessarily mean a person is factually innocent, but what it does mean is that "in the eyes of the law, he's an innocent man," Unger's lawyer, Hersh Wolch, told reporters.
'It's still surreal, almost.'— Kyle Unger
Asked whether he was angry about how many years of his life have been wasted, Unger said he wasn't.
"I never was angry — upset, but not angry," he said. "When you feed off anger, it takes more. They already took my younger years away from me. Why let them have my mind?"
Unger spent 14 years in a B.C. prison for the sexual assault and killing of 16-year-old Brigitte Grenier. She was beaten, strangled and sexually mutilated at a rock concert in the small Manitoba community of Roseisle, about 120 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg.
A new trial for Unger was ordered in March of this year after federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson ruled there was a reasonable likelihood he had been wrongfully convicted.
Unger said on Friday that the hardest part of his ordeal has been "waiting for it to come to an end. It’s a long journey."
Wolch did not present evidence for the defence at Friday's hearing. Instead, he went through discredited prosecution evidence against his client then told Joyal the prosecutors "should be ashamed."
"It's not sufficient enough to say those were the standards then. You're wrong, and it had horrible consequences for this young man," Wolch said.
He called Unger's 1992 conviction "a blatant miscarriage of evidence" and "an extreme example of tunnel vision."
Slough told reporters that he spoke to the Grenier family leading up to Friday's events and explained what was going to happen.
"They're devastated by this. They've suffered this horrible loss," he said. "That's all I can say about that. I don't want to repeat the conversation."
Grenier's father, Ron, told CBC News the past 24 hours have been horrible for the family.
"I guess it can't compare to what happened to … Brigitte. [It's] worse for her because she took the beating and the suffering and the whatever before she passed away," he said. "I'm still alive, I'm still here."
A Canadian first
The acquittal, rather than just a stay of the charges, is a Canadian first, Wolch said.
He said it was "a momentous day."
"The minister rarely from federal [government] sends the matter to a retrial. And then an acquittal? It's virtually unheard of. It is unheard of, so this is huge," he said.
'We have to sit down and formulate a position, and we will,' he said. 'I anticipate making an approach for compensation.' —Hersh Wolch
"We do have an historical day today, but we haven't learned enough," he added. "When the Crown calls no evidence, it's because the Crown has no evidence to call.
"We did not fear a trial for a minute, and the reason is this man didn't do the crime. This has all the hallmarks of what causes wrongful convictions."
Wolch said he expects to pursue monetary compensation for Unger.
"We have to sit down and formulate a position, and we will," he said. "I anticipate making an approach for compensation."
But Manitoba Justice Minister Dave Chomiak said Friday afternoon there are no grounds for compensation because none of this would ever have happened without Unger making a confession. For the same reason, there are no grounds for inquiry either, he said.
Confessed to police
Unger had confessed to undercover police who were part of a sting operation known as Mr. Big, in which the officers promised money to a targeted suspect to help them out.
Asked on Friday why he made the confession in the first place, Unger said he was "young, naive and desperate for money."
"They hold a lot of promises to you, so you say and do what you have to do to survive, just like in prison — you have to do what you have to do to survive and get through it."
Unger, who now lives in B.C., was asked whether he intends to move back to Manitoba.
"I don't know. I definitely will be coming back a lot for holidays [to] see my family," he said.
Co-accused committed suicide
Unger was convicted, along with Timothy Houlahan, who was released on bail in 1994 when his conviction was overturned by the Manitoba Court of Appeal in 1994. Houlahan killed himself later that same year.
Although court was told at the time of the trials that Unger and Houlahan did not know one another, Crown prosecutor George Dangerfield argued they conspired to kill Grenier.
Dangerfield, now retired, has made news in recent years as a number of his cases have been overturned as wrongful convictions. Some of those past cases involve Thomas Sophonow and James Driskell.
In September, the case of a fourth Dangerfield murder conviction, Stanley Ostrowski, was put under review. Ostrowski is still in prison.
Appeal initially rejected
Unger's initial appeal to the Manitoba Court of Appeal following his conviction was rejected and leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada was denied. But in September 2004, a forensic evidence review committee established by the province called into question the hair comparison evidence used at Unger's trial.
New DNA testing suggested a strand of hair found at the scene of the crime and originally used to convict Unger did not come from him. Evidence from a jailhouse informant and a police sting operation were also discredited.
Unger's lawyer subsequently filed an application to the minister of justice for a review of the murder conviction. Based on the DNA evidence, a judge of the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench said she had "very serious concerns [he] may have been wrongly convicted of murder."
In November 2005, Unger was granted bail pending the minister's decision.
Following Nicholson's announcement in March, Unger's bail conditions were loosened by a Court of Queen's Bench judge in Winnipeg. A curfew restriction was lifted by the court.