Judge assigned to oversee Dennis Oland's murder retrial is highly regarded

The judge overseeing Dennis Oland's retrial is highly regarded among lawyers and considered a solid choice to handle the complex case, which has already tripped up one of New Brunswick's most experienced criminal jurists.

Court of Queen's Bench Justice Terrence Morrison specialized in commercial law before 2008 bench appointment

Court of Queen's Bench Justice Terrence Morrison worked as a lawyer in private practice for 26 years before becoming a judge, including serving as outside legal counsel for NB Power during various hearings before the former Public Utilities Board. (CBC)

The judge overseeing Dennis Oland's retrial for the 2011 murder of his father,Richard is highly regarded among lawyers and considered a solid choice to handle the complex case, which has already tripped up one of New Brunswick's most experienced criminal jurists.

"I think he's probably a very good judge for the Oland trial," said Hartland lawyer Peter Hyslop of Justice Terrence Morrison.

Hyslop once opposed Morrison at utilities board hearings a dozen years ago when the two were lawyers and later appeared before him following his judicial appointment in 2008.

"Patient is the word that first comes to me. He's very thorough and takes his time and is a pleasure to appear in front of."

Finding judges to handle the two Oland trials has not been a simple matter.

The Oland family is so prominent in the Saint John area, none of the judges who normally handle local murder trials have been able to take the case.

Justice John (Jack) Walsh was brought to Saint John from Miramichi to handle the first trial in 2015.

That resulted in a jury finding Dennis Oland guilty, but the Court of Appeal threw the conviction out, citing an error in Walsh's jury instructions.

Court of Queen's Bench Justice John (Jack) Walsh, who presided over Dennis Oland's first trial, is one of the country's foremost experts in the legal application of forensic DNA typing. (Andrew Robson)

Morrison has been imported from Fredericton to run the second trial.

A 1978 graduate of Acadia University, Morrison obtained a law degree from the University of New Brunswick three years later. He worked as a lawyer in private practice for 26 years, mostly in Fredericton, before becoming a judge but far from the murder and mayhem of criminal court.

He specialized instead in the high-rent legal areas of commercial, contract and administrative law.

That's a big difference from Walsh. He came to the Oland trial immersed in criminal matters after a long career as a Crown prosecutor, but he still made enough of an error in his lengthy charge to the jury to scuttle the entire first trial.

Hyslop said properly managing the information that reaches a jury in a trial of someone charged with a serious crime is notoriously tricky even for the most experienced judges.

"A justice once told me criminal trials are the most challenging because of the nature of decisions they have to make during the trial itself on the admissibility of evidence and on making a carefully planned summation to juries," said Hyslop.

"The ultimate decision doesn't rest with the judge. A lot of the decisions that have to be made on the way to the conclusion are made by the judge and they have to made expeditiously."

Handled 2nd-degree murder trial in 2014

Still for Morrison, 10 years on the bench, first in Woodstock and more recently in Fredericton, has served to expose him to a variety of criminal trials, including sex crimes, drug offences, assaults and at least one other brutal murder.

In 2014, he sentenced Kyle Scott for the vicious bludgeoning death of 82-year-old Sarah Kennedy near Woodstock. Kennedy had tried to help Scott after his ATV broke down near her home and he repaid the kindness by striking her 19 times with a hammer and cutting her throat after she died.

"The killing was random and senseless," said Morrison as he sentenced Scott, who had pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, the same charge facing Dennis Oland.

Citing the "multiple hammer blows delivered to Ms. Kennedy and the deliberate mutilation of her corpse," Morrison said he considered Scott's actions "much further along the spectrum of brutality" than previous cases he was being asked to compare it to.

He sentenced the 20-year-old to life in prison with no eligibility for parole for 15 years, five years longer than defence lawyers argued was appropriate.

Diligent, conscientious

It has all been more than enough to prepare Morrison to handle the Oland trial. according UNB associate law professor Nicole O'Byrne.

"The learning curve is extraordinarily steep," said O'Byrne of the education corporate and civil law lawyers undergo as judges suddenly dealing with the gritty world of criminal acts and their ugly consequences.

O'Byrne has no doubt Morrison will be up to the task.

It will be difficult, but anybody who's got a reputation of being as conscientious and hard-working as Justice Morrison — they will be able to handle it.- Nicole O'Byrne , associate law professor

"It comes down to work ethic and how conscientious you are and how much you pay attention to what's happening in front of you — that's the key thing to being a judge, not necessarily your background," she said.

"His reputation is of being a very diligent and very conscientious judge. He's there to kind of guide things. It will be difficult, but anybody who's got a reputation of being as conscientious and hard-working as Justice Morrison — they will be able to handle it."

Morrison has a lengthy record of decisions and most that have been challenged at the New Brunswick Court of Appeal have held up to scrutiny.  

In one case where a jury verdict of guilty in a trial presided over by Morrison was thrown out as "a miscarriage of justice," the Appeal Court specifically noted the fault was not his.

Miramichi lawyer George Martin was convicted by a jury of obstruction of justice at a trial in 2013, but subsequent to the verdict it was learned sheriff's deputies had allowed one juror to make a phone call after being sequestered without informing Morrison or seeking his permission.

"The error or irregularity alleged in the present case cannot amount to an error of law, because none of it can be attributed to the trial judge," said the court prior to granting Martin a new trial.

Dennis Oland's retrial for second-degree murder in the killing of his father, Richard Oland, more than seven years ago is scheduled to begin on Nov. 6. (CBC)

Morrison is also used to media attention.

He is best known for the years he spent as outside legal counsel for NB Power during various hearings before the former Public Utilities Board.

He helped present the case in favour of refurbishing the Coleson Cove generating station to burn the Venezuelan fuel orimulsion and of rebuilding the Point Lepreau nuclear plant to extend its life by 25 years.

He also won approval from the utilities board for a hefty 8.8 per cent NB Power rate increase in 2006 following marathon hearings at which he was opposed at every step by Hyslop, who at the time was New Brunswick's public intervener.

"A lot of time you come out of those with somewhat of a dislike for opposing counsel so I'd have to say I came out with a very high level of respect for him at the time," said Hyslop, who notes a friendship that developed in those early years was of no detectable assistance following Morrison's elevation to the bench.

"He found against me too often, but I didn't appeal so that probably tells you more than anything else. I don't think I ever appealed any of his cases," said Hyslop.