Nova Scotia

First criminal jury trials to be held in Halifax since start of the pandemic

Two murder trials get underway in Halifax Wednesday, the first criminal jury trials to be held in the city since the start of the pandemic.

COVID-19 has created a major backlog of cases as more and more jury trials were postponed

The Nova Scotia government had to commission two specially-built courtrooms in the Burnside industrial park in Dartmouth to accommodate social distancing requirements for COVID-19. (Robert Short/CBC)

Two murder trials get underway in Halifax Wednesday, the first criminal jury trials to be held in the city since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Nova Scotia government had to commission two specially-built courtrooms in the Burnside industrial park in Dartmouth to accommodate the social distancing requirements for COVID-19, after health authorities determined the Law Courts in downtown Halifax could not meet those standards.

It took months to find a space and make the necessary adaptations. During that time, more and more jury trials had to be postponed. More than two dozen cases had to be pushed back because of the pandemic, and that number has since grown to about 44 cases. 

Scheduling of trials became a juggling act, weighing factors such as how long it had been since the accused had been charged and whether they were free in the community or being held in jail. 

The new courtrooms have more space to allow for COVID-19 precautions. (Robert Short/CBC)

In the new courtrooms, the jury box is a long expansive space in which each seat is separated by Plexiglas barriers. The jury room, where members will deliberate toward the end of the trial has individual desks spaced six feet apart, arranged in a circle. Construction crews were still putting the finishing touches on the new facility Tuesday afternoon.

Upcoming trials

In one of the new courtrooms, Markel Jason Downey will be facing a charge of first-degree murder in the death of Ashley MacLean Kearse. She was shot in a home invasion in Cole Harbour in 2014 and left paralyzed. Downey was tried on 28 charges relating to the home invasion, but acquitted of all charges. Those acquittals were overturned on appeal.

Four years after she was shot, Kearse died and the medical examiner ruled her death a homicide tied to the shooting, leading to the first-degree murder charge. Kearse testified at Downey's original trial. Audio of her testimony could be played for the jury at this second trial.

In the second courtroom, Gregory Maxwell Purvis faces a charge of second-degree murder in the death of Derek Miles in 2018. 

Miles, 42, was found in medical distress in an apartment on Pinecrest Drive in north-end Dartmouth on Jan. 19, 2018. He died at the scene and the medical examiner ruled his death a homicide the next day.

Three men were initially charged with murder, but the Crown withdrew the charge against one of the suspects and a second suspect, Purvis's nephew, George Andrew Purvis, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to nearly five years in prison.

With 44 cases and counting, it will likely be years before the backlog of criminal jury trials is cleared up.

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