Nova Scotia

Judge to consider release of more details in N.S. shooting court documents

In a closed hearing Monday, a judge and Crown prosecutors representing the RCMP are expected to question investigators involved in the Nova Scotia mass shooting as part of CBC’s application to unseal search warrants in the case.

There are 1,950 redactions in 7 court documents related to search warrants

RCMP search for evidence on April 23, 2020, at the location where Const. Heidi Stevenson was killed in Shubenacadie, N.S., during a mass shooting. A provincial judge is scheduled today to consider whether redacted sections of court documents related to the case should be released. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

In a closed hearing today, a judge and Crown prosecutors representing the RCMP are expected to begin questioning investigators involved in the Nova Scotia shootings as part of CBC's application to unseal search warrants in the case. 

Twenty two people died on April 18 and 19 when a 51-year-old denturist went on a killing rampage in rural Nova Scotia. Over about 13 hours and a span of more than 150 kilometres, he gunned down neighbours and strangers, torched homes and shot pets. Police shot and killed the man in Enfield, N.S., after a lengthy search. 

In the days that followed, investigators sought approval to search for evidence on the gunman's properties in Portapique, N.S., and Dartmouth, N.S., as well as vehicles and electronic devices. Justices of the Peace agreed to seal the applications, as well as the documents related to what RCMP were searching and what they found. 

The Mounties have obtained 23 judicial authorizations in the case and following an application launched by CBC, Judge Laurel Halfpenny MacQuarrie agreed to release parts of seven of them in May. 

Those documents revealed people told the investigators the gunman was paranoid, had a history of abuse and had recently stockpiled gasoline. One person described him as a psychopath. 

A property registered to the shooter in Portapique, N.S., on Friday, May 8, 2020. RCMP obtained a search warrant to search the area, which was destroyed by fire. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Crown must prove redactions necessary, lawyer says

This week in Port Hawkesbury provincial court, Halfpenny MacQuarrie is scheduled to consider whether the redacted sections of the five search warrants and two production orders should be released to the public. Though some of them are repetitive, there are 1,950 redactions in total. 

The blacked out sections include much of the information the shooter's common-law partner gave to police, details in witness statements and the calibre of the firearms used in the attacks.  

RCMP requested authorization to search the gunman's property for things such as human remains, documents, firearms, surveillance systems and chemicals. Two items on that list have consistently been redacted. 

"The issue for this Court becomes how do I adhere to the principle of an open Court while balancing the need to protect confidential and/or privileged information," said Halfpenny MacQuarrie in a June 16 ruling. 

The faces of the 22 people killed in the mass shootings in rural Nova Scotia on April 18 and 19. (CBC)

Halifax lawyer David Coles said the open court principle means the Crowns have to show each of the redactions is necessary.

He is representing CBC and the seven other media outlets that joined the CBC's application: Post Media, the Canadian Press, the Globe and Mail, CTV, Global, Saltwire and the Halifax Examiner.

"Our position is that our courts are presumed to be open and that's what gives confidence from the people that the court system is working properly because they can weigh and see the evidence for themselves," said Coles in an interview with CBC. 

"If the Crowns want to keep the identities of people confidential or want to argue that revealing information will compromise the investigation, they have to establish that on the evidence. The burden is always with them. Otherwise it's to be released and open to the public."

The Nova Scotia Serious Incident Response Team is investigating the circumstances of the shooter's death at a gas station in Enfield, N.S. (Tim Krochak/The Canadian Press)

Crown argued material should be sealed for 6 months

Provincial Crown prosecutors are representing the interests of the RCMP and the provincial police watchdog agency, which has been tasked with investigating gunman Gabriel Wortman's death. 

In submissions filed with the court last month, provincial Crown attorneys Mark Heerema and Shauna MacDonald said that material sealed to protect the investigation — including the models of guns the killer used — should remain sealed for six months.

They also argued that revealing the names of people who spoke to police would threaten their privacy and that disclosing some details, such as whether someone died by gunshot or in a fire, doesn't add to the media's ability to explain the situation but has the potential to cause harm to surviving family members.

The Crowns asked that the details that would "protect the interests of innocent persons" remain sealed permanently. 

Canadian courts have come up with different processes for how to handle unsealing applications.

For this one, Halfpenny MacQuarrie determined that on Monday and Tuesday, the proceedings will be closed to the public and media as the judge will be evaluating whether the Crown can establish the redactions protect privileged information and that the release of information could harm investigations. 

The burnt-out remains of the shooter's home on Portapique Beach Road in Portapique, N.S., taken May 13, 2020. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Judge, Crown can question investigators

The judge and the prosecutors will be able to question RCMP Sgt. Angela Hawryluk and Keith Stothart, an investigator with the Nova Scotia Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT). 

Hawryluk, who has been a Mountie for 28 years, authored the RCMP's applications for search warrants and outlined the information she gathered to support them. 

As part of the Crown's case, Hawryluk swore an affidavit on June 25. Much of it relates to information the RCMP have uncovered in their investigation into the shootings and those sections were blacked out. 

Hawryluk stated the investigation has focused on understanding the gunman's actions "as well as any individuals who may have rendered assistance to him either before or during the events." 

She said prematurely releasing information could harm the case.

"If other suspects, witnesses or targets yet unknown to the investigation are made aware of the direction of the investigation, they may flee, destroy evidence, attempt to influence other witnesses," the document said. 

Keith Stothart, the SIRT investigator who is examining the circumstances of Wortman's death, said some details in the search warrant documents could interfere with his work as well. 

Federal prosecutors are representing the Canada Border Services Agency, which is involved as police believe three of the firearms the gunman used came into Canada illegally from the U.S. However, no one from the agency filed an affidavit and the agency won't be opposing the release of redacted information in the first seven warrant documents.

If you are seeking mental health support during this time, here are resources available to Nova Scotians. 

Do you have a tip related to the Nova Scotia shooting? Please click here to get in touch with CBC.

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About the Author

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. Over the past 11 years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. Please send tips and feedback to elizabeth.mcmillan@cbc.ca

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