A man convicted in 2011 of second-degree murder in the death of a teenage Winnipeg girl was found not guilty today following a retrial.
A Court of Queen's Bench judge found Mark Edward Grant, 54, not guilty of second-degree murder in the 1984 death of Candace Derksen, 13.
In 2011, a jury had found Grant guilty in the teen's slaying.
"The totality of the evidence before me ... falls short of the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt," Justice Karen Simonsen told a packed courtroom in Winnipeg on Wednesday afternoon.
The ruling concluded the judge-only retrial that started in January. Final arguments were presented in May and the judge has been deliberating since, due to the volume of evidence and complexity of the case.
Simonsen said Wednesday she accepted the defence's assertion that DNA evidence used to tie Grant to the killing was "fundamentally flawed."
Outside court, Wilma and Cliff Derksen said they continue to believe Grant was responsible for their daughter's death. They said they greeted Simonsen's decision with both relief and disappointment.
"I'm hoping the Crown doesn't appeal," Wilma Derksen said. "In any case, we're outta here. It's been 33 years. This just means this is over for us, the process is over, and in that there is relief. Of course, there was a bit of disappointment in that it didn't arrive at the conclusion that we personally have arrived at. That is going to be a little hard to come to grips with. We have our own personal truth and we haven't changed our minds."
She said she hopes the decision will represent a "second chance" for Grant.
"If he lives with having learned something, then this has already been worth it … We believe in miracles and I am going to continue to believe in them."
Her husband said he accepted Simonsen made the decision she felt she had to, given the evidence before her.
"The judge made a judgment call on a few things there and everybody has a right to do that," he said. "I'm sure it was very difficult for her but she made the call she had to make, and I respect that. There just wasn't enough evidence to have the verdict that we expected."
Grant's lawyer, Saul Simmonds, said Grant will be released later Wednesday afternoon. He has been in custody since his arrest in 2007.
Grant shook his lawyers' hands and thanked them following his acquittal.
"He's just grateful," Simmonds said outside court. "He's in a position that he's been for 10 years maintaining his innocence. Unfortunately, this is a system that sometimes doesn't listen.... Now it's time for him to try and return to the life that has been taken away from him. I think Mr. Grant is looking forward to just being able to look up and see blue sky."
The jury that convicted Grant at his first trial was likely overwhelmed by the complexity of the DNA evidence, Simmonds said.
"I think a part of the difficulty is that the appreciation of trying to explain DNA to the layman is not an easy thing to do," Simmonds said. "We had top experts who were able to convey it properly and to determine and make clear that these flawed DNA [tests] should never have been presented."
"My heart goes out to anyone who loses a child," Simmonds said. "The sad thing is that sometimes in our zeal to try and find someone responsible, we sometimes go the wrong way. That's what has happened in this case."
Body found not far from home
Derksen disappeared on her way home from school in Winnipeg in November 1984.
Her body was found frozen in an industrial storage shed, not far from her family's home, the following year. Her ankles and wrists were bound with twine and the cause of death was determined to be hypothermia.
The homicide remained unsolved for many years but in 2007, Grant was arrested after his DNA was determined to be a match for DNA retrieved from the twine used to bind Derksen.
He was convicted by a jury in 2011 and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
The Manitoba Court of Appeal overturned that decision in 2013, after the court ruled the trial judge erred by not allowing the defence to present evidence to the jury that pointed to another possible killer.
Alleged overheard confession not accepted
Simonsen's written decision is more than 100 pages long.
During her ruling, she reminded the court of the presumption of innocence as a pillar of the justice system, and said it was up to the Crown to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Grant committed the crime.
She said she did not accept the alleged confession overheard by Tania Lachance presented during Grant's first trial. Lachance came forward with the assertion after 20 years.
"It is difficult to accept she remained silent for so many years," Simonsen said.
During the retrial, defence lawyer Simmonds questioned the integrity of the police investigation into Grant's involvement, and the credibility of DNA testing done in 2007.
Two top American DNA experts he called on told the court the results were "fatally flawed" and "scientifically corrupt," and alleged the findings may have been due to "suspect bias."
- Top DNA expert has 'no confidence' in DNA results linking accused killer to Candace Derksen's murder
- DNA results that led to Grant conviction 'scientifically corrupt,' says professor
Grant has a lengthy criminal history and is a convicted sex offender.
At the second trial, Grant's lawyer noted that a 12-year-old girl was found tied up in a train car nine months after Derksen's body was found. The girl survived. His lawyer said Grant was in jail at the time for breaking and entering, and suggested someone other than Grant was responsible for both crimes based on their similarities.
The now-adult victim testified during the trial, but told the court she didn't remember any details.
Wilma Derksen, wrote on her blog that she planned to light 33 candles on Wednesday night, one for each year since her daughter's death, regardless of Simonsen's decision.
"We will do it to symbolize this almost 33-year war of ours that we have raged against grief, loss, fear and loneliness.… Candles will help to keep our attention on the light," she wrote.