Prosecutor stays criminal charge in Serenity case

Prosecutors have stayed a criminal charge against the guardians of four-year-old Serenity, who died after suffering injuries while in was stayed Tuesday.

The four-year-old died in 2014

Serenity was four years old when she died of severe head trauma in an Edmonton hospital. (Supplied)

An Alberta prosecutor has stayed a criminal charge against the guardians of four-year-old Serenity, who died after suffering injuries while in kinship care.

The case prompted public outrage and an emergency debate in the Alberta legislature. Her death led to the creation of a panel looking into the province's child-intervention system.

Crown prosecutor Brandy Shaw filed the stay of proceedings Tuesday in Wetaskiwin Court of Queen's Bench.

"The charges were stayed following review of the evidence at the preliminary inquiry and a determination that we no longer had a reasonable likelihood of conviction," Shaw said in an email Tuesday.

The man and woman, who were the child's legal guardians, had been charged two years after the little girl's 2014 death with failure to provide the necessaries of life.

CBC is not publishing Serenity's surname, or identifying her mother or her caregivers in order to protect the identities of Serenity's siblings.

"We're all heartbroken because of this. The fight is not over. It's far from over," Serenity's mother said in an interview Tuesday.

The mother said Crown prosecutors and police investigators travelled to British Columbia and met with her Tuesday afternoon to give her the news. 

She said she told them she does not want to speak with them anymore because they did nothing for her child, and then walked out of the meeting.

'An agonizing case'

After a preliminary hearing in Wetaskiwin in February of this year, the pair was ordered to stand trial. The trial was due to begin this fall.

In a statement, Eric Tolppanen, assistant deputy minister of the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, said there was no longer any reasonable likelihood of conviction. 

"In general, Crown consideration of a case continues to evolve after the initial decision is made to lay charges, and Crown prosecutors continue to evaluate the evidence in light of the prosecution standard of 'reasonable likelihood of conviction'," said Tolppanen. 

Tolppanen added that the Crown has one year to potentially reinstate the charge and declined further comment. 

Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer said the decision to stay the charge was made by the Crown, without government involvement. 

"This is an agonizing case," said Schweitzer in a statement. "The decision to stay the prosecution was taken independently by the Crown attorneys without any involvement by elected officials."

Schweitzer noted there is a pending fatality inquiry and would not be commenting further on the matter. 

Joshua Asp, the lawyer for the male accused, said Tuesday he did not know the stay was coming, but said he believes it's because his client and the co-accused are innocent, and because the prosecution have "an extremely weak case." 

Asp said he is unable to disclose more information about the case until it is clear that the publication ban on the preliminary hearing has been lifted. 

The charge was only laid after "extreme public pressure" on the legislature and media reports, said Asp.

"My client has been ostracized in his community," he said.

He said he hasn't yet been able to reach his client to deliver the news, but that he has relayed it to the man's family members. 

Serenity had been in living in a kinship placement with her relatives on a central Alberta reserve.

Full legal guardianship of Serenity and her two siblings had been awarded to her kinship caregivers one year before she was admitted to hospital in September 2014.

According to an investigation by Alberta's Child and Youth Advocate Del Graff, Serenity and her two older siblings had been left in the care of relatives despite complaints about abuse.

Medical records indicate she was suffering from catastrophic injuries, including a fractured skull and starvation. She was hypothermic. There has never been any indication Serenity's caregivers were responsible for her injuries. 

She died on Sept. 27, 2014.

Serenity's caregivers said at the time she had fallen from a tire swing. But a forensic pediatrician determined her injuries were inconsistent with a fall.

A fatality inquiry has been ordered into her death once the criminal investigation has concluded.