Nova Scotia

Judges reserve decision in William Sandeson's appeal of murder case

A panel of judges in the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal has reserved its decision in the case of convicted killer William Sandeson, who's trying to get a new trial for the August 2015 killing of Taylor Samson in Halifax.

Sandeson serving life sentence with no parole eligibility for 25 years

William Sandeson is shown in 2016 at a preliminary hearing in advance of his first-degree murder trial in Halifax. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

A panel of judges in the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal has reserved its decision in the case of convicted killer William Sandeson, who's trying to get a new trial for the August 2015 killing of Taylor Samson in Halifax.

On the final day of a two-day hearing, the judges peppered a Crown lawyer Tuesday morning with questions about the conduct of a private detective described as a "traitor" by a lawyer for Sandeson.

Samson, a Dalhousie University student, was killed in an apartment in south-end Halifax. His body has never been found.

A jury convicted Sandeson, 27, a former Dalhousie medical student, of first-degree murder following an eight-week trial that ended in June 2017.

The hearing in the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal got underway yesterday in a Halifax courtroom with Sandeson's lawyer, Ian Smith, asking for a new trial.

The CBC's Blair Rhodes live blogged from court.

Smith focused much of his arguments on Bruce Webb, a retired RCMP sergeant who worked for a private detective agency hired by Sandeson's lawyers to help them prepare for the trial.

In the course of his work, Webb interviewed two men — Justin Blades and Pookiel McCabe —  who were in the apartment across the hall from Sandeson and initially told police they didn't see or hear anything the night Samson was killed.

But when Webb pressed them, the men changed their story. They told Webb they saw a bleeding man slumped over the kitchen table in Sandeson's apartment.

Webb subsequently told a police officer that investigators should requestion Blades and McCabe, which they did.

It wasn't until the middle of the trial that Sandeson's lawyers realized that Webb was the reason police reinterviewed Blades and McCabe.

Murder victim Taylor Samson, 22, was reported missing on Aug. 16, 2015. (Halifax Regional Police)

The lawyers asked for a mistrial on the grounds that Webb's actions breached Sandeson's privileges as a client, but Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Joshua Arnold refused.

Smith argued Arnold underestimated the seriousness of Webb's actions and its impact on the fairness of the legal process.

But Crown lawyer Jennifer MacLellan argued the defence was given adequate opportunity to address the issues with Webb.

MacLellan said Arnold found Sandeson's fair trial rights were not infringed upon because the witnesses' evidence would have come out even without Webb having spoken to police.

She also noted Arnold determined that while the Crown failed to disclose the information in a timely fashion, there was no violation of litigation privilege.

'This is a breach of duty,' says judge

Judges on the three-member Court of Appeal panel spent much of yesterday afternoon and this morning asking MacLellan about Webb's actions.

Justice David Farrar questioned Arnold's characterization of Webb "merely" telling the police to requestion the witnesses when describing the impact of his actions.

"This is a breach of a duty that Webb had to his client … and it's during the trial process," said Farrar.

MacLellan reiterated that Arnold found police did not do anything wrong in their handling of Webb's information. She said he considered Sandeson's right to a fair trial against the defence's request for a mistrial.

Mistrial a 'remedy of last resort'

She noted a mistrial is a "remedy of last resort," and a particularly undesirable one seven weeks into a trial. 

"Other less drastic remedies have to be considered," said MacLellan. "The trial judge is in the best position to determine in the circumstances of what has happened here if a mistrial is the best remedy."

Smith also argued that a search of Sandeson's south-end Halifax apartment without a warrant was not lawful, because there were no "exigent circumstances" that justified their actions.

Search of apartment was lawful: Crown

But MacLellan argued the situation was urgent, as at that point it was a case of suspected kidnapping and therefore an ongoing concern.

She noted Sandeson's first statement to police, which he gave voluntarily, raised concerns with police when they compared his answers to his text messages and found out he had lied about meeting Samson that night.

He said police searched Sandeson's apartment because they believed it was the last place Samson had been seen.

Smith also claimed that Sandeson's rights were violated by police as their investigation shifted from a missing persons case to a homicide.

Sandeson was initially arrested on a kidnapping charge, but Smith said the officers' aggressive line of questioning suggested he was suspected of murder.

Crown says officers were sincere in belief that case was a kidnapping

MacLellan noted that kidnapping is "not a bloodless crime," and that the investigation was at that point still a kidnapping.

She said the phrasing of the officers' questions — such as, "Why won't you help him, Will?'" — suggested Samson was still alive.

"It shows that they're very sincere in their belief that this is still a kidnapping and it's nothing more than a hunch, or serious fear, that Samson is dead," said MacLellan.

Sandeson is currently serving a life sentence with no parole eligibility for 25 years.

In his closing arguments, Smith said a new trial would allow Sandeson to apply for a stay of proceedings. If that remedy wasn't available to him, Smith said Sandeson could apply to have certain evidence excluded from a new trial, such as the evidence from Blades and McCabe.

With files from Aly Thomson and Blair Rhodes

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