Nfld. & Labrador

Driver acquitted of killing Cow Head teen by hitting him with vehicle

Justin Simon Hynes, 17, was walking to school in September when was hit and killed.

Justin Simon Hynes, 17, was walking to school in September 2017 when he was killed

Neila Blanchard speaks to her lawyer, Jim Bennett, following the verdict in her trial for dangerous driving causing death. (Troy Turner/CBC)

The woman accused of killing a teen by hitting him with her car as he walked to school in Cow Head, on Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula, has been acquitted.

Neila Blanchard, 56, of Parsons Pond had been charged with one count of dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death.

Justin Simon Hynes, 17, was walking to school in Cow Head when he was struck and killed on Sept. 11, 2017.

Justice Valerie Marshall said that the Crown attorney had successfully proven that Blanchard's driving was dangerous, but not the "mens rea" — the criminal intent required for a conviction.

"There is no doubt that the collision caused the tragic death of young Justin Hynes," Marshall said in a written decision.

"However, in accordance with the Supreme Court of Canada's direction … consequences do not determine whether the offence was committed. The elements of the offence must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt."

Justin Hynes died when a vehicle struck him on Main Street in Cow Head while he was on his way to school in September 2017. (Facebook)

CBC News reached Dion Brown, Hynes's uncle, by phone in Alberta on Friday, after the court's decision.

"I couldn't believe it. I still don't know if it's believable," Brown said.

"He was like one of my own kids. I went home every summer and we hung out.… Justin was always with us. There's a million memories. Unfortunately now when I drive through town all I'm going to think about is where he lost his life."

According to case law cited by Marshall, the court must examine not only whether the manner of driving caused danger, but also if a reasonable person would have foreseen the danger, and if not avoiding the danger was a marked departure from the standard of care expected by a reasonable person in the circumstances.

The court found that Blanchard's vehicle left the road while travelling southbound on Cow Head's main road, struck a museum sign in the town, and continued toward Justin Hynes, hitting him only seconds later.

But Marshall wrote that she was not convinced that Blanchard's driving leading up to and during the accident was "of the degree of a 'marked departure' from the norm."

The court heard from multiple witnesses at trial, some of whom spoke about Blanchard's driving just before the collision. One man testified that he saw Blanchard's car veer off into the road, and another driver testified that Blanchard was following his vehicle closely on a road in Cow Head.

Marshall said these witnesses were credible, but did not establish that the driving pattern met the threshold required to establish criminal intent.

"It is possible that the accused was speeding; however, this has not been proven by the Crown. Further, the Crown did not establish that the accused's manner of driving was due to impairment. In addition, the Crown also did not establish that there was a pattern of careless driving," Marshall wrote.

Bennett told reporters after the verdict the Crown had not proven the 'mental element' of Blanchard's actions reached the threshold for a criminal conviction. (Troy Turner/CBC)

Jim Bennett, Blanchard's lawyer, said he wasn't sure what the court would decide before the verdict was announced.

"It requires a marked departure from ordinary driving — ordinary, even negligent driving," he said. 

"Some could be careless driving but the dangerous driving standard is a very high standard, and it also would bring with it serious consequences."

The case was being heard in Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador in Corner Brook.

Bennett says he doesn't believe there will be an appeal.

During Blanchard's trial, a police officer who was one of the first to arrive on the scene said the boy's blood could be seen on the road, along with his sneakers. 

Hynes's schoolwork was scattered around the area, said RCMP Const. James Barter, and a notebook was sitting on the windshield of the vehicle that Blanchard was allegedly driving — a burgundy Honda CRV.

Blanchard, seen here in Corner Brook Supreme Court in October, has been acquitted. (Troy Turner/CBC)
 

Barter also told the court tire marks on the pavement could be seen leading to the vehicle. 

Outpouring of grief

Bennett said Blanchard will still live with the burden of having killed Hynes, even if the actions didn't amount to a criminal conviction.

"That won't go away," he said.

Bennett said he would be surprised if his client ever drives or works again.

"There are no winners here today," he said. "There's no winners here. Neila Blanchard has this chapter in her life behind her, but she still bears a heavy burden which she has borne mentally and psychologically for causing the death of that young man. And his family will go on without him."

In the days after Hynes was killed, many in the community of Cow Head were reeling. 

"He was a really good friend to me. We have been friends since we were three years old. We grew up together," said Mitch Brown, who had known Hynes since they were little and looked forward to graduation day with him.

"He was loved by so many people. He touched many hearts."

The Cow Head town council issued a prepared statement Friday. In it, council said it was a sad day for the community.

"The town is shocked at the outcome of this trial. There should be an appeal and an inquiry as to how the investigation was handled as we feel justice was not served."

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