Man accused of sexually assaulting child walks free due to court delays

The case against a Manitoba man accused of sexually assaulting and making death threats against a young girl has been tossed out of court due to "an unreasonable delay" in getting to trial.

1st criminal case stayed in Manitoba since Supreme Court ruling

A Manitoba judge has stayed charges against a man accused of sexually assaulting a child because the case took too long to get to trial. (CBC)

The case against a Manitoba man accused of sexually assaulting and making death threats against a young girl has been tossed out of court due to "an unreasonable delay" in getting to trial.

It's the first criminal case in the province to be thrown out since a Supreme Court ruling in July 2016 set a deadline of 30 months for cases to be completed from the time charges are laid.

In October 2006, the girl went to police about the assaults, which she said started in March 1996, when she was six years old, and continued until March 2003, when she was 12.

The accused was the former common-law partner of the girl's mom, court documents say.

A police detective was assigned to investigate and in February 2007 he pursued an arrest warrant for the man.

But due to mismanagement of the file, which got lost and forgotten in the computer system, it wasn't found again until June 2013 by another officer who was searching the police database on the accused regarding a different matter.

The file was forwarded to Manitoba Prosecutions for a legal opinion and charges against the man were authorized. They included sexual assault, sexual interference, invitation to sexual touching and uttering death threats.

Lost again

The arrest warrant was written up and entered into the Canadian Police Information Centre database.

That's where it got lost again.

The man was only notified of the warrant after RCMP found it on the database on March 10, 2015. They had been searching his name after he complained he'd been assaulted.

The warrant was used to arrest the accused that same day but more delays followed as the case worked its way through the court system.

By the time it got to a preliminary hearing in February 2016, the girl was a 26-year-old woman.

At the preliminary hearing, it was determined there was enough evidence to proceed to trial, with dates set for April 10-13, 2017. But in September 2016, defence lawyers filed a motion for a stay of prosecution on the grounds of the delay. 

The Supreme Court set the parameters at 30 months from the time charges are laid to when the trial wraps up. In this case, that would have surpassed 44 months.

"By anyone's standards … that is an unreasonable delay," Justice Robert Dewar stated in his ruling, released on Tuesday, to stay the case.

2nd sexual assault case tossed over delay

This is the second time in recent years a person charged with sexual assault in Manitoba has had the charges tossed or stayed due to delay.

In 2013, Marlin Vandermeulen was convicted of sexual assault causing bodily harm, uttering threats and assault causing bodily harm, among other charges. He was sentenced to 3½ years in prison.
In August 2016, Mike Mahon, Manitoba’s head of prosecutions, said the province is doing 'very well' on delay. (CBC)

But the case took 37 months from the time charges were laid to conviction. Vandermeulen's lawyers appealed, arguing the delays were unreasonable. 

The judge agreed and issued a stay of proceedings. The Supreme Court later upheld that decision.

In August 2016, Manitoba's head of prosecutions said his office took the case very seriously and that similar situations would be "rare."

Ruling sends clear message

Alex Steigerwald, the defence lawyer in the case that was stayed this week, said the decision by Dewar sends a clear message.

"Delays, unreasonable delays in bringing a case to trial, will not be tolerated and the charter rights of the accused will be enforced and upheld by the courts."

In this instance, the delay was shocking, Steigerwald said.

"I've never seen a case that's been neglected to this extent, where police simply forgot about a case," he said, adding his client is relieved.

"It's truly been hanging over his head for a long period of time."

Police spokesman Const. Rob Carver said the Winnipeg Police Service just received the judgment and couldn't comment on this specific case and what went wrong with the file.

"We are currently reviewing our systems and processes in light of the decision," he said.