Nova Scotia

Pandemic concerns jeopardize trials in case of beating in Dartmouth jail

Two large and complicated Nova Scotia criminal trials are in jeopardy because of pandemic restrictions. The trials are for 15 men who are accused of beating a fellow inmate at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Dartmouth, N.S..

Judge says transporting accused to and from jails where they're being held would be risky

Cells are seen during a media tour of renovations at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in 2018. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Two large and complex Nova Scotia criminal trials are in jeopardy because of pandemic restrictions.

The trials are for 15 men accused of beating a fellow inmate at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Dartmouth, N.S., on Dec. 2, 2019.

The victim had to be rushed to hospital with serious injuries. He later recovered.

Because of the logistics of the case, the accused were broken into two groups for separate trials. The first of those trials was to begin next Monday.

But in a conference call Wednesday afternoon, Justice Jamie Campbell voiced serious reservations about proceeding.

"It would be very imprudent and I think it would be a grave concern to everyone if we were to proceed with the trials," he told lawyers and the one accused, Kaz Cox, who is representing himself.

Transporting accused would be risky, judge says

A special courtroom was being constructed in the Nova Centre in downtown Halifax to accommodate the two trials. The new convention centre was chosen because it is large enough to create a courtroom that would allow for physical distancing among all the participants in the two trials.

But the judge said transporting the accused to and from the jails where they're now being held would be extremely risky under current conditions.

The accused have been scattered to other facilities since the assault. Some of them are being held in federal prisons, including the Atlantic Institution in Renous, N.B.

It's not clear whether they could be transported across provincial borders to attend their trial.

Some defence lawyers complained to Campbell that restrictions at the various jails have made it difficult for them to communicate with their clients since they're relying on phone calls instead of in-person visits.

Portable video units could be option

Crown prosecutor Rick Woodburn proposed an alternative to a trial where everyone would gather in the same courtroom.

Woodburn said the provincial Justice Department has acquired portable video units that could be installed in various jails. They would allow the accused to observe the proceedings without having to be transported into Halifax.

Defence lawyers questioned how they could adequately consult with their clients when they wouldn't be in the same room.  

"Just because you can, doesn't mean you should," Campbell said in response to the Crown's proposal.

He asked the lawyers to consult with their clients and return to court Friday morning to see whether the Crown's proposal for a hybrid trial could be made to work.

Campbell said it would be difficult to balance the accused's right to prompt trials against the risks posed by the pandemic.

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