British Columbia

Convicted triple murderer's request for DNA testing punted by B.C. judge

A man convicted of murdering his wife and twin toddlers needs to apply directly to Ottawa if he wants the DNA testing he insists will prove his innocence, a B.C. judge has ruled.

Dean Roberts has always maintained that he did not kill his wife and twin 14-month-old sons

Dean Roberts is arguing that DNA testing will prove his innocence in the murders of his wife and twin sons. (Shutterstock / Africa Studio)

A man convicted of murdering his wife and twin toddlers needs to apply directly to Ottawa if he wants the DNA testing he insists will prove his innocence, a B.C. judge has ruled.

Dean Christopher Roberts has always maintained that he did not strangle his wife Susan and 14-month-old son Josiah, then set fire to the family's Cranbrook home, killing Josiah's twin David, according to a B.C. Supreme Court decision.

In an attempt to prove his innocence in the 1994 murders, Roberts applied to the court last year, asking for the release of evidence that could undergo DNA testing.

He has exhausted all routes for appealing his convictions, but plans to ask the federal Ministry of Justice for a review, the decision says. Roberts argues he would have difficulty meeting the threshold for ministerial review without DNA evidence supporting his case.

But on Thursday, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Arne Silverman declined to order DNA testing, ruling that Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has the power to do that if she agrees to the review.

"The process set out in the [Criminal] Code for ministerial review, is available to the petitioner.  Part of that process permits the minister to order DNA testing in circumstances where she considers it appropriate to do so," Silverman wrote.

The night of the murders

Most of Roberts' young family was killed in one fiery night in the summer of 1994.

Roberts was at a friend's place when his house caught fire on July 18, according to Silverman's decision. His eldest son, three-year-old Jonathon, was rescued by neighbours, and firefighters scooped little David out of his crib.

Susan's burned body was found in the master bedroom, with a white nylon rope wrapped around her neck. Two days later, Josiah's body was found in a bushy area with a similar rope around his neck.

David died in hospital several days after the fire.

Roberts was a suspect from the very beginning, and spent most of that summer under police surveillance, according to the decision.

He eventually confessed to the murders to an undercover police officer posing as a crime boss as part of a "Mr. Big" sting.

A confession recanted

At trial, the jury heard that Roberts had been sick of domestic life, wanted to get back together with an ex-girlfriend and had recently taken out a $200,000 insurance policy on his wife's life.

But the prosecution's case largely hinged on the confession, which Roberts recanted, the decision says.

Roberts told the jury he confessed because he was scared of the undercover officer after watching him threaten two other officers with a gun as part of the "Mr. Big" scenario. He argued his confession only included publicly available details of the murders.

There was no direct forensic evidence tying Roberts to the murders, according to the decision. Police found rope in Roberts' truck, but it didn't match the rope used to strangle his wife and son, and he wasn't a match for the DNA found under Susan's fingernails.

Nonetheless, a jury found Roberts guilty of three counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder on Nov. 2, 1995. He was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.

Appeals exhausted

He lost an appeal of the convictions at the B.C. Court of Appeal, and did not file an appeal with the Supreme Court of Canada.

The University of British Columbia Innocence Project began working with Roberts in 2009.

In the years since Roberts was convicted, DNA technology has advanced rapidly. There are several pieces of evidence that were not tested during the original investigation that could now be analyzed, according to the decision.

The courts have also changed their approach to confessions made during "Mr. Big" stings.

In 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada put tighter restrictions on the admissibility of evidence obtained during the operations, putting the onus on prosecutors to prove that it won't unduly prejudice a jury, that it is reliable and that there was no police misconduct.

About the Author

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Bethany Lindsay is a B.C. journalist with a focus on the courts, health, science and social justice issues. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.

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