N.S. Appeal Court orders new trial for William Sandeson
Court rules mistrial should have been declared after judge learned private detective helped police
The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal has ordered a new trial for William Sandeson, the former Dalhousie University medical school student who was convicted of killing physics student Taylor Samson in August 2015.
The province's highest court said in a ruling Wednesday the trial judge erred in not declaring a mistrial after learning that a private detective employed by the defence supplied information to Halifax police.
Sandeson, 27, was convicted by a jury three years ago of first-degree murder following an eight-week trial. Prosecutors argued at trial that Sandeson lured Samson, 22, to his Halifax apartment to kill him and steal his nine kilograms of marijuana. Samson's body has not been found.
Sandeson appealed his conviction. A central issue involved the work of Bruce Webb, a private investigator hired by Sandeson's defence team to interview witnesses prior to them testifying at the trial.
Webb discovered that two witnesses — Justin Blades and Pookiel McCabe — had substantially changed their stories from what they initially told police. The two men were in an apartment across the hall from Sandeson's on the night of the killing.
They initially told police they saw and heard nothing. They subsequently told Webb they heard what sounded like a gunshot and then looked in the door of Sandeson's apartment to see a man slumped over at the kitchen table, bleeding.
Webb tipped police that Blades and McCabe had changed their stories and he helped put them in touch with investigators.
Sandeson's lawyers didn't find out any of this until in the midst of the trial in Nova Scotia Supreme Court. They asked for a mistrial, but Justice Josh Arnold refused their request. He ruled Webb's information was not material to the murder case against Sandeson.
The Appeal Court disagreed.
"In my view, such limiting is a legal error," said Justice David Farrar, writing for the three-member appeal panel.
"The right to make full answer and defence includes not only the ability to challenge the Crown's case on the merits but also the ability to advance reasonable Charter and/or other process-oriented responses to the charges."
The trial had been chaotic at times, with multiple voir dires — hearings within the trial itself — that required the jury to be shuffled in and out of the courtroom, sometimes for hours at a time. The Appeal Court acknowledged the challenges.
"I do not want to appear overly critical of the trial judge. The startling revelation of Webb's relationship with the police, and how to deal with it in the middle of a murder trial before a jury, caught everyone by surprise," Farrar wrote.
"There were no precedents for guidance. Trial counsel presented his argument for a mistrial in three parts that blurred and overlapped which may have resulted in confusion."
However, the appeal panel did not accept arguments that police were merely passive recipients of information from Webb.
"The police did not passively receive information: they successfully encouraged Webb to help them in their investigations and ensured their collaboration remained secret."
Farrar concluded that state conduct in this case could be seen as an affront to society's sense of fair play and undermine the integrity of the justice system.
Sandeson's appeal lawyer, Ian Smith of Toronto, had advanced four grounds in asking for a new trial during a hearing earlier this year. They included Webb's role, whether a warrantless search of Sandeson's apartment was justified, whether his Charter rights were violated during two of his police interviews, and whether the first-degree murder conviction was unreasonable.
But Farrar said he only needed to address the one ground related to Webb to satisfy himself that a new trial was necessary.
In fact, Farrar wrote that it would be improper to deal with the other three grounds because they may become relevant during the second trial.