Nova Scotia

Assoun case highlights the fallibility of justice system, say critics

Critics of the justice system say the way police investigated Glen Assoun and the manner in which prosecutors handled his file highlights an urgent need for changes.

'This is another example of a significant miscarriage of justice'

Glen Assoun speaks to reporters Friday in Halifax after a judge released documents about his wrongful murder conviction. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

Two advocates for the wrongfully convicted are convinced Canada's criminal justice system is broken.

Nova Scotia academic Jane McMillan and Toronto criminal defence lawyer Sean MacDonald say the latest example of that is the wrongful conviction of Glen Assoun.

Documents released on Friday in Halifax point to serial killer Michael Wayne McGray as a possible suspect in the 1995 murder of Brenda Way. Assoun, who always maintained his innocence in the case, was convicted of second-degree murder and spent 17 years in prison.

After a review of the case, federal Justice Minister David Lametti overturned Assoun's conviction earlier this year.

"This is another example of a significant miscarriage of justice," McMillan said of the Assoun case. "It's shocking and devastating and really disappointing and discouraging."

MacDonald, who represented Assoun, agrees.

"The reasons why are far-reaching and start at the very beginning of this case, during the investigation, and span every level of the justice system, right past the [Nova Scotia] Court of Appeal to the Department of Justice," said MacDonald.

Review shows investigators focused on Assoun

A federal Justice Department review of how police and the courts handled the case, released Friday, shows investigators focused on Assoun at the expense of other suspects. Prosecutors failed to disclose information and RCMP deleted files that pointed to another possible suspect.  

McMillan, the former partner of Donald Marshall Jr., saw first-hand the lifelong damage caused by a wrongful conviction.

"No one ever recovers from that, in my opinion and my experience," she said. "It cuts people to the core.

"There's no normalcy left to a person who's been wrongfully convicted, unfortunately." 

The case against Marshall, a Mi'kmaw man who was imprisoned 11 years in the murder of an acquaintance, is a landmark case for those fighting on behalf of the wrongly convicted.

Call to overhaul police methods

McMillan said the Assoun case shows an overhaul is urgently needed, starting with police methods.

"There have to be changes in training," she said. "There has to be greater accountability."

Lawyers Sean MacDonald, left, and Philip Campbell in 2017. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

She said there has to be a particular focus on "police bias and the problem of tunnel vision."

MacDonald would also like to see significant changes.

But he said he's not optimistic based on past experience working for Innocence Canada, formerly known as the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted.

"My fear is that governments are going to retreat back into their fortresses, lock the door and deny and deflect," he said.

"That's largely been our experience, for the most part, through the course of every one of the 24 wrongful convictions that Innocence Canada has dealt with."

Nova Scotia's Department of Justice refused to comment on the case Friday.

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About the Author

Jean Laroche

Reporter

Jean Laroche has been a CBC reporter for 32 years. He's been covering Nova Scotia politics since 1995 and has been at Province House longer than any sitting member.

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