Litany of errors by Quebec judge prompts new trial for woman convicted of killing daughters

A Laval woman, who was found guilty of killing her two daughters in 2013, will get a new trial after an appeals court found the trial judge made a series of errors when instructing the jury.

Quebec Court of Appeal takes issue with instructions trial judge gave to jury

Adèle Sorella was found guilty in 2013 of killing her two daughters. A Quebec court granted her appeal for a new trial on Monday. (CP)

A Laval woman, who was found guilty of killing her two daughters in 2013, will get a new trial after an appeals court found the trial judge made a series of errors when instructing the jury.  

Adele Sorella has served four years of a life sentence for the 2009 murders of Amanda, 9, and Sabrina, 8. Their bodies were found in a room of the family home that contained a hyperbaric chamber. 

Their bodies bore no traces of violence and a cause of death was never firmly established. During the trial, a pathologist testified they could have died either from an insulin injection causing hypoglycemia or from having been asphyxiated in the hyperbaric chamber. 

But in a decision handed down Monday afternoon, the Quebec Court of Appeal said Superior Court Justice Carol Cohen gave improper guidance about how the jury should weigh the evidence heard at trial. 

Language differences

Cohen gave two different interpretations concerning burden of proof. In English, she explained to the jury that a guilty verdict required being convinced beyond reasonable doubt, which meant being "closer to absolute certainty."

A makeshift memorial was erected outside Sorella's Laval home after her children were found dead inside in 2009. ((Patrick Sanfaçon/La Presse/Canadian Press))

Her explanations in French failed to use the word "absolute," a violation of Canadian jurisprudence, the Court of Appeal said.

"This created an ambiguity or was equivalent to telling [the jury] that they didn't have to be certain about the prosecution's proof," Martin Vauclair wrote in his decision for the Court of Appeal.

Vauclair also took issue with Cohen's failure to directly answer a question from the jury about whether they had to exclude the possibility an accident caused the deaths.

In response to the question, the trial judge simply repeated her original instructions.  

Problematic video evidence

While these two errors were enough to justify a new trial, the Court of Appeal found Cohen made several other errors as well. 

At trial, the jury was shown a lengthy video of Sorella's police interrogation. Hours before the interrogation, she was found behind the wheel of a car that had slammed into an electricity pole. 

Paramedics reported that she was in an abnormal state when they arrived on the scene. She would later be given medication but before that happened, she underwent a four-hour interrogation.

During the interrogation she invoked her right to remain silent or a desire to return to her cell an estimated 90 times. In other words, the Court of Appeal pointed out, every 2.66 minutes Sorella expressed that she wanted to end the interview. 

Amanda Giovanna De Vito, 9, and her sister Sabrina Angela De Vito, 8 (left to right). They were killed in 2009. ((Family handout))

There is precedent for allowing such interrogations as evidence if they have probative value. But the trial judge erred by encouraging the jury to use the video as circumstantial evidence to establish motive, Vauclair wrote.    

In addition, Cohen provided confusing guidelines about the relevance of Sorella's mental state around the time of her daughters' deaths. 

Mafia links had 'no basis'

Finally, the Court of Appeal determined that Cohen should not have stayed silent when the Crown suggested Sorella was tied to the Mafia.

"This allusion ... had no basis in fact or law in the circumstances," Vauclair's decision reads.

At the time of the deaths, Sorella's husband was on the lam following a police crackdown on organized crime. He was fatally poisoned in 2013.

A spokesperson for the Crown said they will analyze Monday's decision further before selecting their next step. Sorella's lawyer could not be reached for comment.