Police watchdog may skip review of Oland homicide investigation
New Brunswick Police Commission decided in 2015 it would review Saint John Police Force's handling of case
The New Brunswick Police Commission may not proceed with a professional conduct review of the Saint John Police Force's handling of the Richard Oland homicide investigation.
The independent provincial policing oversight body decided to review all prior decisions related to the Oland investigation and plans to discuss the matter further at an upcoming meeting, executive director Jennifer Smith told CBC News on Monday.
"We are taking the appropriate steps, which will include engaging in discussions with the Saint John Police Force and the Saint John Board of Police Commissioners as to their current position on the original request [for the investigation review], what actions they have taken to address their handling of complex investigations, and plan for a way forward," said Smith.
"The incident occurred eight years ago, there have been two trials, a number of related public documents, and a change in senior leadership at both the Saint John Police Force and the New Brunswick Police Commission, all of which adds to an already complex investigation and court proceedings."
Meanwhile, the Saint John Police Force "has addressed" the jury selection issue and the commission "is satisfied with the action taken," said Smith, declining to elaborate and directing any further inquiries to Chief Bruce Connell.
The chief did not respond to a request for an interview.
The Saint John Board of Police Commissioners has not responded to a request for an interview either.
Report on commission pending
The decisions come as an independent review of the provincial commission itself nears completion.
The New Brunswick Department of Public Safety hired retired RCMP assistant commissioner Alphonse MacNeil in May to review the policies, practices and procedures of the police watchdog.
Public Safety and the commission have both received preliminary findings, said department spokesperson Coreen Enos.
The department declined to release those findings, but MacNeil's report is expected to be finalized "in the coming weeks" and will be made public, she said.
Part of what the commission needs to consider are the findings and recommendations resulting from that review, said Smith.
"We just want to have better and more concise and proper information in order to properly make our decision as we move forward."
"Ultimately, it's up to the commission members to make that determination."
The commission's Police Act review of the Saint John force was announced in 2015 after problems with the investigation came to light during Dennis Oland's first trial, which ended with a jury convicting him of second-degree murder in the 2011 bludgeoning death of his father.
The jury heard evidence that police failed to protect the crime scene from possible contamination, used the washroom located in the foyer outside the victim's office for two days before it was forensically tested, and never tested the back door for evidence because someone had opened it and therefore contaminated it.
That prompted the trial judge to give the jury instructions on "inadequate" police investigations.
The commission's review was suspended when Oland appealed his conviction and a new trial was ordered, but it was expected to resume once all criminal proceedings were complete.
'Shortcomings, failings and inadequacies'
Last week, New Brunswick Court of Queen's Bench Justice Terrence Morrison found Oland, 51, not guilty of second-degree murder at his retrial. He said the Crown had failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
In his written decision, Morrison said there were "numerous shortcomings, failings and inadequacies in the way in which the Saint John Police Force defined and processed the crime scene."
For example, the crime scene should have included not only the victim's second-floor office at 52 Canterbury St., where his body was discovered, but also the foyer area, stairways and both exits, "where trace evidence could possibly have been located," he said.
The failings of the police investigation highlighted by the defence, although considered by me, do not weigh heavily in the final determination of this case.- Terrence Morrison, New Brunswick Court of Queen's Bench justice
The back door ought to have been forensically examined, regardless of it being opened and possibly contaminated. "It was a natural escape route for an assailant to consider," said Morrison.
"Another failing was the uncontrolled access by police and others to the crime scene, both before and during its processing," the judge said, noting even the forensic officer failed to follow "basic crime scene hygiene" regarding protective shoe coverings to avoid the contamination of evidence.
"I am mindful that this trial is not a judicial inquiry into police," said Morrison, noting the issues raised "may or may not have resulted in the loss of evidence."
He also cited case law that states: "[a] deficient investigation may sometimes influence whether the trier of fact has a reasonable doubt, but the trier of fact should focus on the quality of the evidence, not the quality of the investigation."
"The failings of the police investigation highlighted by the defence, although considered by me, do not weigh heavily in the final determination of this case," Morrison said.
Public Prosecution Services has up to 30 days to decide whether to appeal the judge's decision.
Oland's two trials cost the New Brunswick Department of Justice and Office of the Attorney General about $1.6 million so far, government figures show. Some of the expenses from the retrial, which lasted 44 days spread over four months, are still making their way through the province's accounting system.
Oland case cost police $150K
The two trials and investigation leading up to them cost the Saint John Police Force $150,851, according to figures provided by Marven Corscadden, director of business development and corporate effectiveness. That includes overtime ($98,544), DNA testing ($16,445) and forensic accounting services ($35,862).
"We do not have costs readily available for other murder investigations and there is not an average cost as the nature and scope of investigation is different from one another so it is difficult to compare files," said Corscadden.
The former chair of the Saint John Board of Police Commissioners who in 2015 requested the commission review of the force's homicide investigation said at the time it was necessary for the public's confidence in the force, and that it would also be important for the morale of the police officers themselves.
It was not about laying blame, Nicole Paquet had said, it was about finding areas that might need to be improved.
"It's very important that we look at those areas brought forward by [Court of Queen's Bench] Justice John Walsh in his instructions to the jury [at Dennis Oland's murder trial] to assure the public that those areas have been addressed, and if they still need to be addressed, that measures will be taken to restore public confidence in the investigative practices and policies of the Saint John Police Force."
The New Brunswick Police Commission's next scheduled meeting is Aug. 14.
The body of Richard Oland, 69, of the prominent Moosehead Breweries family, was discovered face down in a pool of blood in his Saint John office on July 7, 2011.
His son was the last known person to have seen him alive during a visit to his office the night before.
A key piece of evidence in the Crown's case against Oland was the brown sports jacket he wore when he visited his father, which was later found to have four small bloodstains on it and DNA matching his father's profile.
No weapon was ever found.
The jury at Oland's first trial found him guilty in December 2015, but the Court of Appeal of New Brunswick overturned his conviction in October 2016 and ordered a new trial, citing an error in the judge's instructions to the jury.
Oland's defence argued police demonstrated "tunnel vision" in focusing their investigation on him.