New Brunswick

Maurice Johnson found not guilty in Brady Francis's hit-and-run death

A Moncton judge has found Maurice Johnson not guilty in the hit-and-run death of Brady Francis that happened two years ago.

Outside courthouse, friends and family of victim express anger, sadness

Residents from Elsipogtog shared their grief learning Maurice Johnson had been found not guilty in the hit-and-run death of Brady Francis. (Jean Philippe Hughes/Radio Canada)

A Moncton judge has found Maurice Johnson not guilty in the hit-and-run death of Brady Francis that happened two years ago.

In handing down her verdict, Judge Denise LeBlanc said the prosecution was not able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Maurice Johnson struck Brady Francis or that Johnson left the scene knowing he had struck a person.  

"I am not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Johnson knowingly hit a person," Justice Denise LeBlanc of the Court of Queen's Bench said as she delivered her decision in French on Tuesday.

Only Johnson and the lawyers were present in the Moncton courtroom because of COVID-19 restrictions.  

Brady Francis's mother, Jessica Perley, wipes away tears after learning Judge Denise LeBlanc's verdict Tuesday afternoon. (Jean Philipp Hughes/Radio Canada )

Johnson, 57, of Saint-Charles pleaded not guilty to failing to stop at the scene of an accident that caused a person's death.

He has maintained that he hit a deer the night Francis died on the roadside north of Elsipogtog First Nation, where he lived.

Johnson, who did not testify at the trial, told police he regretted not getting out of his truck that night to check to see if this was, in fact, what happened.

Maurice Johnson, 57, of Saint-Charles was charged with failing to stop at the scene of an accident that caused a person's death. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

"He [Johnson] would have had to leave the scene knowing that he had hit a person," the judge said. "Johnson maintained consistently that he hit a deer. His wife's account was the same."

LeBlanc said Francis was staggering that night and could have been crouched on the road.

It took LeBlanc more than two hours to read her decision to the court. 

For most of the morning, Johnson sat quietly inside the courtroom wearing his black and white facemask, but breathed a small sigh of relief when LeBlanc read out her verdict.

"Johnson you are free to go," she said.

"I hope you are able to put this tragedy behind you to be able to move on from this."

COVID-19 restrictions also prevented anyone from Johnson or Francis's family from sitting in the courtroom for the verdict.

Elsipogtog Chief Aaron Sock said he was disappointed by the judge's verdict Tuesday. (CBC News)

Francis was 22 years old when he was struck and killed on Feb. 24, 2018, around 9:40 p.m. He was waiting for a drive from his parents on Saint-Charles South Road in Saint-Charles.

'I'm so angry'

At least 40 people gathered outside the courthouse Tuesday morning, including Brady Francis's mother, Jessica Perley and other family and friends from Elsipogtog, about 90 kilometres north of Moncton. 

On Facebook, Perley said she felt let down by the Canadian justice system. 

"I'm so angry, hurt, lost … let down," read the post. "Why did I have faith in this[?]"

What each side had to say about Maurice Johnson being found innocent of Brady Francis's death

1 year ago
Elsipogtog First Nation Chief Aaron Sock and defence lawyer Gilles Lemieux share their thoughts after Maurice Johnson is acquitted at his trial in the hit-and-run death of Brady Francis 3:20

There were cries, tears and angry outbursts when the crowd heard that Johnson was found not guilty.

"I'm at a loss for words," said Elsipogtog First Nation Chief Aaron Sock, who was among those waiting outside the courthouse.  

An emotional Sock said he was disappointed with the verdict but not surprised. 

"There's no justice for First Nations people in Canada," he said.

Sock plans to turn to elders to help him find the words and guidance that will help calm his community. 

A statement issued Tuesday evening from Elsipogtog First Nation's chief and council expressed shock and sadness over the acquittal, saying the verdict "adds to [the family's] pain of the loss of Brady's life."

"Our hearts are with the family, and our People, as they digest what happened today," the statement read.

The First Nation's lawyer is seeking a copy of the decision and will be reviewing the reasons written in English. 

"We will issue a further statement in due time when the community and Brady's family have had the time to consider options," the council said.

People gathered around Brady Francis's parents to console them. There was traditional drumming and a song in Mi'kmaq.

Crown prosecutor Pierre Gionet and defence lawyer Gilles Lemieux both stood outside and watched the gathering.    

Lemieux said his client was relieved by the judge's decision.

A group of people stood outside the Moncton courthouse awaiting Justice Denise LeBlanc's verdict. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

"For a few years now, he's [Johnson] been living under the cloud and under a tremendous amount of pressure," Lemieux said.

Lemieux applauded LeBlanc's analysis of the case, citing it as "very detailed" and "very precise." 

"She was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the Crown had evidence on each and every element, including the requisite intent. … She found doubt in a number of issues."

But Lemieux also made it clear he doesn't consider the verdict to be a victory.

"It's a decision that's thought out and it's a reason based on evidence," he said. "And it's there. Conclusions based on law."

The court heard from 35 witnesses during the 11-day trial that ended Feb. 28.

No proof beyond a reasonable doubt, says defence

In his final arguments, Lemieux argued the Crown failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

He told the court there are too many unanswered questions to find Johnson guilty.

Defence lawyer Gilles Lemieux said his client is relieved by the judge's decision. (CBC News)

Lemieux alleged the RCMP ignored evidence that didn't fit their theory and used tactics to try to pressure his client into a confession. Johnson maintained he believed he had hit a deer that night.

A collision reconstructionist testified that if a pedestrian was struck on the passenger side, as the damage to Johnson's truck shows, the body would have been thrown forward or to the right by the impact — toward the ditch in this case.

Francis's body was found on the west-bound lane, opposite where the damage suggested it should be.

Lemieux argued the position of Francis's body was not consistent with the damage to Johnson's truck.

The court was told the blood found on the truck did not match Francis's DNA and that the glass fragments found in the deceased's clothing could have come from multiple sources, including his cellphone, the truck or the road.

Johnson's only account of the night came from a four-hour videotaped interview with the RCMP three weeks after Brandy Francis was killed.

The Crown's case

The Crown's case was built on circumstantial evidence. 

Prosecutor Pierre Gionet argued it had to be Johnson's truck that struck and killed Francis.

Gionet used security video from the Saint-Charles convenience store and gas bar to show the four vehicles that drove past Francis during the timeframe when he was hit.

The first two drivers testified they saw Francis walking along the road, the third vehicle was a light-coloured truck which Gionet contends was Johnson's, and the fourth driver testified they saw a person on the ground.

No one else mistook Francis for a deer, said Gionet.

Experts testified the damage found on Johnson's truck was consistent with a collision with a pedestrian.

A forensic identification specialist told the court that, in his opinion, the black pieces of plastic found at the scene came from Johnson's truck. 

No translation provided for Francis family

LeBlanc's decision has been made available in both French and English. 

The Francis family followed the proceedings in a separate courtroom during the trial to allow  a volunteer from the community to provide translation for them during the trial.

Although the Francis family may not attend Tuesday's decision in person, arrangements have been made for them to join by telephone conference, if they choose. 

The decision will be delivered in French, but written copies of the decision will be available in both French and English after the verdict is delivered orally.