Nova Scotia

Rehtaeh Parsons case review finds system 'failed'

The independent review into how authorities in Nova Scotia handled the Rehtaeh Parsons case has found errors were made by both police and Crown.

Ex-Ontario deputy attorney general tasked with looking at actions of Halifax police and prosecutors

The family of Nova Scotia teen Rehtaeh Parsons says she ended her own life following months of bullying after she was allegedly sexually assaulted by four boys and a photo of the incident was distributed. (Facebook)

The independent review into how authorities in Nova Scotia handled the Rehtaeh Parsons case has found errors were made by both police and Crown.

Murray Segal, Ontario's former deputy attorney general, was tasked with examining how Halifax police and the province's Public Prosecution Service dealt with the case. 

The report, which makes 17 recommendations, says the investigation into allegations of sexual assault and an explicit photo took too long, and it highlights a series of missteps, beginning with Parsons's first unrecorded interview with police.

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Parsons's family said she was sexually assaulted by four boys at a November 2011 party, and a photo of the incident was subsequently circulated. Parsons died after attempting suicide in 2013.

"What took place on November 12, 2011, in the Eastern Passage bedroom was wrong on many levels," Segal said in his report.

"A young person's integrity, dignity and privacy was violated in a degrading manner. A teenage girl was sexually objectified in a dehumanizing way."

Police said they looked into the allegations of sexual assault, but initially concluded there weren't enough grounds to lay charges after consulting with the prosecution service.

While Segal concludes that determination "was within the realm of reasonable decisions given all the circumstances," he points to a series of problems in how the case was handled.

Unrecorded interview

Segal says RCMP Const. Kim Murphy did the first interview with Parsons, but didn't follow proper protocol and the officer "unnecessarily interviewed her at length."

The report says because Parsons was a young person, there should have been a social worker present, and not Parsons's mother, who should have been interviewed separately.

The mistake meant Rehtaeh Parsons had to be interviewed a second time by another officer. 

This error caused "an avoidable negative impact" on Parsons, the report says, and the second statement wasn't taken under "conditions conductive to optimal reliability."

The report found the sexual assault investigation unit's investigation should have wrapped up sooner. But while it included errors, it was "proper and thorough." 

"It took too long for a kid and a family in crisis," Segal said as he presented his report in Halifax Thursday afternoon.

Interviews 'thwarted' 

A digital photo of the alleged assault began to circulate. Her family said Parsons was mocked by classmates and endured relentless harassment and humiliation. 

Segal found a police investigator tried to interview as many students as possible and was "apparently thwarted by school authorities."

The report says the investigator, Halifax Regional Police Det.-Const. Patricia Snair, intended to arrest two of the boys, interview them and charge them, but first went to the Crown for advice. 

After reviewing the file, Crown attorney Shauna MacDonald determined "there was no realistic prospect that sexual assault charges would result in convictions."

"While I find that more attention could have been given to the allegations surrounding the events that occurred at the window, the Crown's position, in view of the many evidentiary challenges in this case, was not unreasonable," Segal says. 

Crown error

There were problems, however, with the advice from another Crown attorney, Peter Dostal. The junior counsel, after consulting with a more senior lawyer, determined child pornography charges couldn't be pursued as it was impossible to tell whether those in the explicit photo were underage.

It turns out this advice was wrong, Segal said.

"It reflected a misunderstanding of the law as it relates to child pornography," he wrote.

The report also found the investigation failed to address the cyberbullying Parsons experienced. Police were unsuccessful in intervening to stop the circulation of the photo.

"The rapid, ongoing damage caused by the distribution of the photo was not alleviated in any way by the authorities' intervention," the report says.

Segal said police could have obtained a search warrant to seize phones from the boys they believed had the photograph. 

Year-long investigation

He said that would have sent a message to students that police were taking the matter seriously. He also found the police could have put more pressure on the school to co-operate.

Segal concludes by saying the investigation should have wrapped up sooner and that the investigator's workload played a factor. 

"A year-long investigation was simply unacceptable," he said. 

Ultimately, child pornography charges were laid, but only after the case was reopened following the death of Parsons. Police charged two men just four days before Segal was appointed to lead the review.

The both men subsequently pleaded guilty to child pornography-related charges and have been sentenced.