Bail for convicted toddler killer a possible 1st for New Brunswick

In what is believed to be a first for New Brunswick, a man convicted of second-degree murder in the death of a toddler has been released on bail pending the outcome of his appeal.

Court of Appeal releases James Turpin, cites Supreme Court of Canada decision in Dennis Oland case

James Paul Turpin is scheduled to return to court on Feb. 13 at 10 a.m., when his appeal is set to continue. (CBC)

In what is believed to be a first for New Brunswick, a man convicted of second-degree murder in the death of a toddler has been released on bail pending the outcome of his appeal.

James Turpin, 38, of Charlo, was serving a life sentence after a jury found him guilty last year of second-degree murder in the 2004 death of two-year-old Kennedy Corrigan of Central Blissville.

But on Thursday, Court of Appeal Justice Kathleen Quigg agreed to release Turpin under conditions, citing the Supreme Court of Canada's decision earlier this year in the case of Dennis Oland.

The country's highest court ruled in March that the New Brunswick Court of Appeal made a mistake by twice denying Oland bail last year while he waited to appeal his second-degree murder conviction in the 2011 bludgeoning death of his father, multimillionaire Richard Oland.

Kennedy's family is shocked, angry and disgusted by Turpin's release, said Ali Corrigan, the cousin of the girl's mother, Connie.

"I couldn't believe this is our justice system at work here," she said.

Under the Criminal Code, bail may be granted pending appeal if: the appeal is not frivolous, the convict will surrender into custody when the time comes, and the detention is not necessary in the public interest.

The bail provisions have been interpreted differently in different jurisdictions, however.

When Oland appealed to the Supreme Court, no one convicted of murder in New Brunswick had ever been granted bail pending appeal before, and there had only been about 34 cases across Canada in which someone convicted of murder was granted bail.

Dennis Oland was granted bail on Oct. 25, 2016, after the Court of Appeal overturned his conviction and ordered a new trial. The Supreme Court of Canada later ruled he should have been released sooner, while he was awaiting the appeal court's decision. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Oland's case was the first time the Supreme Court has ruled on how the provisions should work in appeals of convictions.

"By all accounts, aside from the seriousness of the offence for which Mr. Oland was convicted, he presented as an ideal candidate for bail," said the March 23 decision written by Justice Michael Moldaver on behalf of the nine-justice panel.

"Parliament did not restrict the availability of bail pending appeal for persons convicted of murder or any other serious crime and courts should respect this."

Oland's defence lawyer Alan Gold believes Turpin is the first convicted murderer in New Brunswick to be released on bail pending appeal since the Supreme Court's precedent-setting ruling.

I couldn't believe it. I thought for sure, 'Connie has it mixed up … Has to be. They can't be contemplating releasing a convicted murderer.'- Ali Corrigan, relative

Oland was freed before the Supreme Court's decision on his bail appeal.

The New Brunswick Court of Appeal heard his conviction appeal first and overturned the jury's guilty verdict on Oct. 24, 2016, citing errors in the trial judge's instructions to the jury. 

The appeal court ordered a new trial and released Oland the following day, saying his presumption of innocence had been restored.

Although bail pending appeal became a moot point for Oland, his defence lawyers still wanted the Supreme Court to hear their challenge of his initial bail denial, which left him behind bars for about 10 months before winning the retrial, which is scheduled to begin Oct. 10, 2018.

'It blows my mind'

Ali Corrigan, the cousin of Kennedy's mother, Connie, said the family wasn't notified about the start of Turpin's appeal in October either. (CBC)

Corrigan, who lived with her cousin and Kennedy at the time of her death, contends Turpin's case is different. She pointed to his criminal record, which stretches between 1999 and 2012 and includes several breaches of undertakings and breaches of probation.

She questions why he was kept in custody before his trial but is released now, after a 12-member jury reached a unanimous verdict of guilty on June 10, 2016, following a three-week trial and 11.5 hours of deliberations over two days.

"The fact that he just filed an appeal gives him the right to walk free before the appeal has even been approved — they don't even know yet if they're going to give him an appeal, if he deserves an appeal, but in the meantime, let's let him out?

"It just to me, I can't understand how this is legal. It blows my mind."

Said Kennedy fell in bathtub

Two-year-old Kennedy Corrigan of Central Blissville, about 50 kilometres south of Fredericton, suffered a massive brain injury on April 2, 2004, and died a week later at the IWK Hospital in Halifax. (Court exhibit)

Kennedy died as a result of a brain injury of unknown origin while in the care of Turpin, who was dating her mother at the time.

Turpin told authorities the girl fell and hit her head in the bathtub. Police investigated, but no charges were laid at that time.

The investigation was re-opened by the RCMP's historical homicide unit in 2013, leading to charges being filed against Turpin in June 2015.

During the trial in Fredericton, medical experts for the Crown testified Kennedy's fatal brain injury wasn't consistent with a slip and fall from a standing position. The Crown's position was Turpin caused the injury by shaking or by some other means of force.

Turpin was convicted and sentenced to the mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole for 10 years.

Strict conditions

His appeal started in October and is scheduled to resume on Feb. 13. His amended grounds of appeal allege the trial judge, Court of Queen's Bench Justice Judy Clendening, erred in law in the treatment of expert evidence, in failing to properly instruct the jury on an "accident," and on the possibility of a verdict of manslaughter. The jury's verdict was "unreasonable," the defence says.

During Thursday's bail hearing, his lawyer successfully argued Turpin's prior convictions were old and he has a much stronger reason to abide by court-imposed conditions this time.

Turpin was released under orders to keep the peace and be of good behaviour, to remain at a particular residence in Eel River Bar at all times except between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., when he's allowed to work, attend school, medical appointments, court appearances and meetings with his defence lawyer, or when he's under the supervision of his sister, who provided a $5,000 surety.

He had to surrender his passport, cannot leave the province, must report to Campbellton RCMP every Friday, and carry his bail papers with him at all times.

He was also ordered to have no contact with the Corrigan family, to abstain from the consumption of alcohol and non-prescribed drugs, and not to possess any firearms.

Family not notified

Corrigan said the family was "blindsided" by Turpin's application for release.

They didn't find out about Thursday's bail hearing until Wednesday night, when her cousin received a call from a detective with the RCMP's historical homicide unit.

"Everybody from the first trial has my cell number, they know where I live, where I work, and same for Connie," said Corrigan. "There's no excuse that this should have got this far into the process without anybody being notified.

"I mean what would have happened if that one police officer that found out … didn't call Connie to tell her? James would be walking around the community today and people would be seeing him and it would be a huge shock. So I don't know how that happened, how that was not communicated right."

When Corrigan heard about the bail application from Connie, she called the detective herself to clarify.

"I couldn't believe it. I thought for sure, 'Connie has it mixed up. She's hysterical, she's crying, she must have the facts mixed up. Has to be. They can't be contemplating releasing a convicted murderer.'"

Department of Justice spokesperson Marc Andre Chiasson declined to comment on why the family wasn't informed.

"Public prosecution services, which are independent from government in their function, made their arguments in court and they will not be making any more comments as the matter is still before the Court of Appeal," he said in an email to CBC News on Friday.

With files from Catherine Harrop