'This was the hardest fight of my life,' says acquitted Edmonton boxer

Edmonton boxing coach Leo Marsh was acquitted by a Court of Queen's Bench judge on charges of sexual assault and sexual exploitation. In an exclusive interview with CBC News, Marsh talks about the impact of the charges and the #MeToo movement.

Leo Marsh speaks out after being acquitted of sex charges

Leo Marsh, 65 was found not guilty by a Court of Queen's Bench Justice on charges of sexual assault and sexual exploitation. (Phil Laplante Jr./CBC News )

Leo Marsh was once knocked out so hard in the ring that the first word he woke up to was: "Eight."

But he said that was nothing compared to the two-year-long bout he just fought— and won.

Last week, the boxing coach and member of the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame was found not guilty of sexual assault and sexual exploitation.

When Court of Queen's Bench Justice James Langston acquitted him after a three-day trial, Marsh said, "I felt that a world of weight had come off my shoulders."

In an exclusive interview with CBC News, Marsh explained, "For the first time in two years I can be who I am and not be afraid of what people would think of me. I'm 65 years old. I have a bad heart. And I spent my whole life building up a name that my children could be proud of.

"So when the judge said not guilty, I just said, 'Hallelujah. It's over.' "

Tarnished reputation

Edmonton criminal lawyer Douglas Lee represented Marsh from the time he was charged two years ago. Lee said he always believed his client's innocence, but admitted it was difficult to watch the toll the charges took on Marsh.

"I'm watching this person who has lived a normal life," Lee said. "Who has been volunteering for nearly five decades, teaching kids how to box. Watched his reputation go down in flames and watched his life just dismantle itself, waiting for the trial to happen."

Edmonton criminal lawyer Douglas Lee said he always believed in the innocence of his client, Leo Marsh. (Phil Laplante Jr./CBC News )

Lee decided to put Marsh on the stand to testify in his own defence.

"I honestly believed what he was telling me in terms of his side of the story," Lee said.

According to Lee, the judge believed Marsh too.

"He [Langston] found that his evidence made a lot of sense. There were certain credibility issues with the complaint. The witness changed her evidence throughout the course of the proceedings in its entirety."

The lawyer said the young woman who accused Marsh of sexually abusing her told one story to police investigators, a different version at the preliminary hearing, then changes were made again when she testified at the trial.

Marsh believes the complainant was pushed into making the allegations by a pair of adults who had a grudge against him.

Complainant speaks out

In a telephone interview, the young woman denied that suggestion. Her identity is protected by a court-ordered publication ban.

"I went to police because I knew it was wrong what he had done to me," she said.

She called the trial "unfair" and the judge "biased in his opinion."

"I know that at the end of the day, me and Leo are the only ones who know the truth of what happened. I'm not going to let some biased judge tell me different. At the end of the day, that was just his opinion."

According to The Canadian Women's Foundation: "A review of international research on false reporting of sexual assault suggests that false reporting happens in 2% to 8% of cases."

Marsh believes this is one of those cases.

"Everybody wants to believe that the victim is always right," Marsh said. "And we want the girls to come forward. So when they come forward, you want to believe that they come forward for a reason.

"And in this case, there wasn't a reason."

Marsh and his lawyer both refer to the #MeToo movement that now dominates news headlines.

"There's a political climate that's surrounding these types of cases nowadays," Lee said. "The presumption of innocence has been skewered when it comes to these type of cases. And it's been reversed, in the court of public opinion, not in the court of law."

Going on with his life

After criminal charges against Marsh were made public, he and his partner, Louise LePore said they found out who their friends were.

Louise LePore and her partner, Leo Marsh look forward to getting on with their lives now that Marsh has been acquitted of sex related charges. (Phil Laplante Jr./CBC News )

"You just never know right?" LePore said. "People that we've known for years... just jumped on the Facebook train of he's a monster."

LePore became emotional when she recounted a phone call of support she received after Marsh was acquitted.

"This morning an athlete called and he said, 'You know I'm so glad Leo held his head high. I'm so glad you supported him. I'm so thankful the gym is open and he was there because you change people's lives.' "

That's the tradition Marsh and LePore plan to continue now that the legal dark cloud has been lifted.

"I'm just going to go on with my life now," Marsh said. "I can't change people's minds. They're always going to have their own idea.

"But I believe in the justice system. The justice system says I'm innocent. They have to live with it or don't live with it. That's up to them."

About the Author

Janice Johnston

Janice Johnston is an award-winning journalist in Edmonton who has covered the courts and crime for more than two decades. You can reach her at janice.johnston@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @cbcjanjohnston