Nova Scotia

Judge approves bid to unseal files in Glen Assoun's case

What went wrong in the case of Glen Assoun, who was convicted and later acquitted of the 1995 killing of ex-girlfriend Brenda Way? CBC and two other media outlets were in court Tuesday aiming to get access to that information.

Assoun was convicted, then acquitted, of the 1995 killing of ex-girlfriend Brenda Way

Glen Assoun, pictured Tuesday, was convicted of second-degree murder in the 1995 killing of his ex-girlfriend and imprisoned for nearly 17 years until he was cleared in February. CBC, the Halifax Examiner and The Canadian Press have been trying to get access to information about Assoun's release. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

What went wrong in the case of Glen Assoun?

The Nova Scotia man was convicted and later acquitted of murdering his ex-girlfriend Brenda Way, 28.

The answer should be revealed on July 12 because of a decision Tuesday by a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge.

Justice James Chipman ruled that documents that led to Assoun's conviction being overturned will be released on that date, with the possibility of only minor redactions.

Assoun, who's now 63, spent nearly 17 years in prison after being convicted of second-degree murder in the 1995 killing of Way. He professed his innocence the entire time, but he was only cleared in February of this year.

That's when federal Justice Minister David Lametti ordered a new trial after seeing material prepared for a review of Assoun's case. The Crown opted not to proceed with that second trial, leading to the murder charge being withdrawn.

In his order, Lametti cited a possible miscarriage of justice.

Three media outlets — the CBC, the Halifax Examiner and The Canadian Press — have joined forces to try to get access to the information behind Lametti's decision.

Some clues

There are some clues as to what's in the information provided to Lametti. They came from Assoun's lawyer, Philip Campbell, when he spoke to reporters outside court on March 1.

That's the day the Crown withdrew the murder charge. Assoun's lawyers and provincial prosecutors were given access to the information on the condition they kept it private.

In his comments, Campbell said the fault did not lie with prosecutors or relate to Assoun's original trial. Instead, Campbell said, the problems originated with police handling of evidence around the time of Assoun's appeal in January 2006.

Campbell expanded on those comments in the brief he and Sean MacDonald filed in advance of Tuesday's hearing. The lawyers quote Lametti as saying there was "relevant and reliable information that was not disclosed to Mr. Glen Assoun during his criminal proceedings."

At the request of the federal Justice Department, Chipman imposed a publication ban and sealing order at the start of the review process that led to Lametti's decision.

The sealing order was to keep sensitive information secret until the review was complete. The CBC opposed that order at the time, but was unsuccessful.

Media argue info should be public

With Assoun now a free man, the media argue there is no longer any reason to keep this information secret.

"I'm an innocent man. I proved my innocence back in March," Assoun said outside court following Tuesday's ruling. "Took me 21 years to prove my innocence, and there's a blanket of secrecy over my case and it needs to be lifted so I can tell my story."

Assoun's legal team supports the media efforts to lift the sealing order, with a notable exception. Campbell and MacDonald have applied for a narrowly focused publication ban on the names of three men  — described in court documents as two inmates serving lengthy federal sentences, and a third man who has supplied information to police — whose lives, the lawyers say, would be put in jeopardy were they to be identified.

Chipman said he's prepared to consider that request and told lawyers to make written submissions before July 12. But that is the only exclusion he said he was prepared to consider.

In their brief, lawyers for the Public Prosecution Service said they are opposed to Assoun's request for a publication ban on the names of the three men.

"The request is unusual and unprecedented," prosecutors Mark Scott and Marian Fortune-Stone wrote. "It provides no evidentiary basis upon which the court could assess, with confidence, the nature and extent of a realistic risk, if any."

Federal government submits brief

The federal Justice Department, which includes the Criminal Conviction Review Group that examined the case against Assoun, has also submitted a brief for this hearing.

Lawyers for the department have opposed the release of the full report and proposed supplying a redacted version instead. They argued that the full report reveals the names of other potential suspects and police methods that they don't want released.

But Chipman countered that that sort of information is presented in open court every day in this province.

Brenda Way was found stabbed to death in a Dartmouth, N.S., apartment in 1995.

In their documentation, both provincial prosecutors and the federal department discussed the need to protect vulnerable people and privileged information. The judge noted that those concerns were "not on the table" as far the decision he must make.

While it did not have legal standing at the original trial and did not participate in the first court action over the sealing order, the Halifax Regional Municipality has been granted intervener status in the case.

The city's brief echoes the position of the federal Justice Department, saying information Halifax Regional Police supplied to the conviction review group was provided voluntarily and with no expectation that any of the information would be made public. Lawyer Duncan Reid said the city is not trying to withhold the names of police investigators who may be implicated in the documents that are to be released next week.

Unsolved murder cases typically open for 99 years

An affidavit by Det. Const. Justin Sheppard in support of the city's brief states that while there is no active investigation underway in Way's killing, unsolved files like that typically remain open for up to 99 years.

"The interest of Mr. Assoun in having the story that has shaped his life told in detail, by him and by others, is now obvious," Campbell and MacDonald write at the conclusion of their brief.

"It is time for the court to allow that story to be heard."

CBC's Blair Rhodes was live blogging from court.

About the Author

Blair Rhodes

Reporter

Blair Rhodes has been a journalist for more than 35 years, the last 27 with CBC. His primary focus is on stories of crime and public safety. He can be reached at blair.rhodes@cbc.ca