CBC Investigates

Sex assault cases in Alberta collapse due to excessive delays

The Crown stays charges in sex assault cases as overcrowded Alberta courts struggle with Supreme Court ruling mandating timely trial dates.

'Having him walk out of the courthouse and watching him walk down the street with nothing. That was hard'

D.S. was allegedly sexually assaulted more than 4 years ago in Fort McMurray. The criminal charge was stayed because of excessive delay. (Supplied by D.S.)

A young mother of two in Fort McMurray watched the man accused of sexually assaulting her walk free last week.

The charge was laid four years and four months ago and took too long to get to trial, so the charge was stayed.

The case is one of five across northern Alberta that have been directly affected by a Supreme Court decision handed down in the summer. All five involve sex-related charges.  

The Supreme Court Jordan decision puts hard timelines in place to resolve a case: 18 months for provincial court matters and 30 months for Superior Court (in Alberta, the Court of Queen's Bench) cases.

Unless there are "exceptional circumstances," delays beyond those time frames are "presumptively unreasonable" and violate an accused's charter right to be tried within a reasonable time, the decision said.

Charge stayed in workplace sex assault case

The identity of the Fort McMurray woman, referred to as D.S. in court records, is protected by a court-ordered publication ban. CBC News is not identifying her alleged attacker because the criminal charge against him was stayed.

D.S. worked with the man she accused of sexually assaulting her. She said he had been making her feel uncomfortable for years by following her and making inappropriate comments. On June 29, 2012, she said, he asked her for some help with work in the basement over the lunch hour.  

"He attempted to hug and kiss me and I pushed him off me and said no," D.S. said. "After that he ended up attacking me and I had to fight him off."

When D.S. reviewed camera footage from the basement, she discovered the attack wasn't captured on tape.  

"I realized he had covered the cameras. So he had pre-planned this whole thing," she said. "You could see him applying and removing the cover from the camera."  

Fort McMurray courthouse (CBC)

The man was charged with one count of sexual assault. Then the waiting began. It took three years just to hold a preliminary hearing and commit the accused to stand trial. The February, 2016 trial date was adjourned until October when an interpreter failed to attend court. 

"I definitely feel like I was pushed to the side there, put on the back burner," D.S. said. "I think it could have been handled a little bit more proactively. And ultimately that was at the cost of my chance to get justice."  

The trial was supposed to start last Thursday. Instead, the accused's lawyer filed a Jordan application that was ultimately successful.  

D.S. said she watched in shocked silence as the defence lawyer congratulated his client. She said she heard him say, "You're free. We won. We won."  

"Having him walk out of the courthouse and watching him walk down the street with nothing. That was hard," she said.

'Crippling stress'

A member of the military who works in an intelligence unit was accused of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl in late 2010 and early 2011 in Grande Prairie, Alberta. In early 2013, he was charged with six criminal offences.

After numerous delays for different reasons, the trial was scheduled to be held in early November. But that represented a 32-month delay. In mid-October, the defence filed a Jordan application, supported by an affidavit from the accused.

In the five-page document, the 29-year-old said the criminal charges have affected his personal life and his career.

"I have experienced constant severe depression since being charged with these offences. I feel restless, helpless, confused, alone, and ashamed to be in this situation. I am easily brought to tears. I have contemplated suicide on more than one occasion," he wrote.

Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said, "We are extremely concerned about the mounting pressures our justice system faces."

"I feel embarrassed about these charges. It upsets me that events alleged to have occurred in 2010 are still impacting my current circumstances and that these matters remain unresolved. The uncertainty of the outcome of these charges causes me crippling stress that gets worse as time passes."

All charges against him were stayed in a Grande Prairie court on Oct. 18.

Alleged victim feels betrayed

So many years have passed that the alleged victim in that case is now the mother of two young children. S.M.'s identity is also protected by a publication ban. She told CBC News her encounter with the military man when she was 15 was her first sexual experience. She said it ruined her relationship with her father because he refused to believe the claims she made.  

"Had it gone to trial," she said, "my dad would have seen all the evidence stacked up against him [the accused]. Whether he cares or not, I would have felt a lot better knowing that at least he knew the truth."

S.M. said the stay of charges feels like a betrayal.  

"It was a long time and I was really expecting it to go to trial," she said. "Now they're just dropping it after all this time. They just change the laws on you."

More and more Jordan applications

The stays entered in the Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray sex assault cases because of excessive delays are not isolated examples. A charge of aggravated sexual assault was stayed in Wetaskiwin on Sept. 28 because it took longer than 30 months to get to trial.  

An Edmonton man charged with aggravated sexual assault was allowed to plead guilty to the lesser charge of sexual assault after his lawyer filed a charter challenge. He will be sentenced in December.  

A Jordan application will be heard in an Edmonton courtroom later this week in the case of a 43-year-old man facing seven charges including making, distributing and possessing child pornography and sexual assault of a child.  

Three high-profile cases in Calgary are also in danger of being thrown out with pending Jordan applications including a kidnapping, second-degree murder and manslaughter.  

Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley is concerned.

"No victim wants to see their accuser walk free because a matter was stayed, and neither do we," Ganley said. "These pressures and backlogs have been created over years, even decades. The Alberta Crown Prosecution Service is working hard to prioritize serious and violent cases."

"At least I had the courage to try to stand up for myself," alleged sex assault victim D.S. says. (Supplied by D.S. )

The Justice department said it is also considering appeals in the cases where stays have already been granted.  

Fort McMurray woman still believes in system

D.S. said even though she's disappointed in the collapse of the case against her accused attacker, she's still glad she sought justice.  

"I'm really disappointed with the outcome," she admitted.  "But I would encourage anybody in my situation to stand up for themselves. Because if you don't, it's just going to eat away at you, and you might end up being worse off.  

"I believe in the system," she said. "I still believe that this decision regarding the Jordan application is going to be greatly beneficial for future cases. I just think it's very unfortunate they failed to take into account people who are [stuck] in the middle of these proceedings."

With files from CBC's Meghan Grant