New Brunswick

Dennis Oland murder trial jury selection almost complete

Jury selection for Dennis Oland's second-degree murder trial could wrap up as early as Thursday, with 12 of 16 jurors required already picked.

12 jurors sworn in on Wednesday, only 2 more needed, plus 2 alternates

Jury selection for Dennis Oland's second-degree murder trial could wrap up as early as Thursday.

Twelve jurors have been selected so far — six men and six women.

Dennis Oland was alone in court on Wednesday, during Day 2 of jury selection for his murder trial, which is scheduled to start on Sept. 16. (CBC)
A total of 16 — 14 jurors and two alternates — is required in this case because the trial is expected to take so long, increasing the chances someone will get sick, or be unable to serve for some other reason.

The trial is scheduled to start on Sept. 16 and last 65 days, making it one of the longest trials in New Brunswick history.

Oland, 46, is accused of killing his father, prominent businessman Richard Oland, whose body was discovered in his uptown office more than four years ago.

The accused was officially arraigned on Tuesday at Harbour Station and pleaded not guilty in the makeshift courtroom as more than 1,000 prospective jurors looked on.

The first 12 jurors were picked on Wednesday at the Saint John Law Courts building from a group of 142 who faced questions from Court of Queen's Bench Justice John Walsh and challenges by the lawyers and two so-called triers — citizens appointed from the jury pool to help with the process.

Richard Oland, 69, was found dead in his Saint John office on July 7, 2011. (Canadian Yachting Association)
Oland, who was alone on Wednesday, sat at a table near his defence team, listened attentively, wearing a headset that amplifies the proceedings.

There is a publication ban on any information that would identify the jurors, and on any of the reasons other people were excused.

The judge joked, however, that the media could report that one of the jurors thought he was a "nice judge," referring to one woman who commented that that he was "very pleasant."

Couple of glitches

The jury selection process began on Tuesday when the 1,131 prospective jurors were divided into eight groups of 142 people, with their assigned numbers being drawn randomly from a box. Each group was then assigned a day and time later in the week to appear in court for consideration.

It was expected to extend into the weekend, but Wednesday's proceedings went surprisingly quickly and smoothly.

There have been a couple of glitches, however.

One man who wasn't actually part of the jury pool showed up on Wednesday.

It turns out it was his son, who has the same name and used to the live at the same address, who had been summonsed. Crown prosecutor Paul (P.J.) Veniot happened to notice the discrepancy between the date of birth on the form and the man's appearance. So the man was excused by Justice Walsh,  who has been brought in from Miramichi to hear the case.

In addition, four of the people at Harbour Station on Tuesday ended up not being assigned to one of the eight groups. Although they had each been assigned a number, their numbers weren't placed in the box, the courtroom heard.

The judge quickly took the blame for that, saying he should have asked if anyone present had not had their number called. He stressed what a good job court staff had done in handling the proceedings and dealing with such a large number of people.

Walsh ended up ruling that those four people will be added to the final group, scheduled for Saturday, but the jury panel will likely be completed before then.

A total of 5,000 people were summonsed, but about 4,000 were previously excused from jury duty by the head sheriff for a variety of reasons, as laid out in the provincial Jury Act.

Many reasons for exemptions

Nicole O'Byrne, an associate law professor at the University of New Brunswick, urges caution to anyone who tries to get out of jury duty with a bogus excuse.

"If you're found to be misleading the court, you can face a fine of anywhere from $500 to $20,500, so potential jurors have to be truthful with their claims," she told CBC News.

If you're found to be misleading the court, you can face a fine of anywhere from $500 to $20,500, so potential jurors have to be truthful with their claims.- Nicole O'Byrne , associate law professor

But there are several legitimate reasons why someone cannot serve, said O'Byrne.

Anyone who works in the administration of justice, such as lawyers and police officers — as well as their spouses — are automatically ineligible. So are several professions, including doctors, dentists, priests and ordained ministers.

There are also several reasons someone could be exempt, including:

  • The person has served on a jury within the five years preceding the summons.
  • The person is aged 70 or older.
  • The  person is unable to understand, speak or read the official language in which the proceeding is being conducted.
  • The person suffers from a physical, mental or other infirmity that is "incompatible with the discharge of the duties of a juror."
  • Jury service would cause "severe hardship" because the person provides care to a child under the age of 14, a person who is infirm or elderly, or a person who is mentally incompetent.
  • Jury service would cause "serious and irreparable financial loss" because the proceeding is expected to last 10 or more days.

In addition, the judge could excuse people if they are related to or closely associated with anyone involved in the case, including the victim or accused, the lawyers and possible witnesses, said O'Byrne.

Walsh told the prospective jurors on Tuesday he would have three questions for them.

He warned them not to divulge the questions to other prospective jurors or through social media.

If anyone violates that, "I can guarantee that person will be brought before me and placed in the most serious jeopardy," Walsh said without elaborating.

That's "how serious we take the selection of a jury in any criminal case. We can never forget this is a very serious, serious matter."

Lawyers' strategies 'art,' not 'science'

The Crown prosecutors and defence lawyers will also have the opportunity to accept or reject 12 people each without having to give any reason for their decision, what's called peremptory challenges.

"Honestly, this is where practicing law becomes more of an art than a science," said O'Byrne.

"There are some senior litigators who've told me that once you get past the eligibility and the exemptions and the excuses, you might as well just put all the names in a hat and pull 12 out because there's really no way to guess.

"All the information you have is their employment, their age, and then the person in front of you — what they look like," she said.

She says lawyers sometimes do background research on prospective jurors, but with a jury pool this size, it's unlikely.

They may also use body language and eye contact to size someone up, but ultimately, it comes down to experience and a "gut feeling," said O'Byrne.

'No golden rule'

Steven Penney, a law professor at the University of Alberta, and author of a textbook on criminal procedure in Canada, agrees.

"There's no golden rule," he said.

"It really depends on the discretion and experience of the lawyers involved and their beliefs about the types of people who might be more sympathetic to one side or the other.

"You know, there may be situations where someone's appearance and background and presentation leads them to think that they may be biased for one side or the other. And they may be completely wrong about that assessment, but that may be their sort of gut reaction and they'll exercise their peremptory challenge accordingly."

The lawyers may also challenge potential jurors for cause if, for example, they have evidence that they're not impartial, said Penney.

"One possibility is that defence counsel may bring an application to challenge potential jurors for cause on the basis that they may be biased because of the notoriety of the case and their pre-existing beliefs about the guilt [or innocence] of the accused," he said.

But that doesn't mean the lawyers are looking for people who have never seen any media reports about the case, stressed O'Byrne.

"You could have someone who's read every CBC story, read every article in the newspaper about the Oland murder over the past four years and still not have made up their mind and are waiting to see the evidence presented to them and then make the determination of guilt or innocence," she said.

"And it's the open-minded people who are open to the evidence, open to arguments that I think, for both sides, that's their ideal juror." 

Anyone who fails to appear for jury selection, as scheduled, could be held in contempt of court and face a fine of up to $1,000.