By: David Haas
| Posted: Wednesday, Jan 30, 2013 06:00 am
Any notion that all is well in Canada’s justice system took a hard body shot locally in January. A man found guilty of sexually molesting a young boy, and released only after serving a full eight-year sentence, had an acquittal entered by Alberta’s Court of Appeal.
The warning signs were there – the accusations surfaced back in 1993 during a parental custody squabble. In approaching such allegations regard should be had to the setting in which they are made. When a young boy who had become the shuttlecock between competing parents comes out with the complaints while in the control of a parent whose interests are served by what is being said, a high degree of caution would be in order. It was not to be.
The couple had split in 1989 when the boy was five. Subsequently the man took up living with the mother and boy. In 1992 the boy visited his father, and the father refused to return him. He was however back for a visit at Christmas 1993, at which time he began apologizing for untrue things he had said to his father. The man was unsure what this meant, but found out in January 1994 when the boy testified at a custody hearing that the man had sexually abused him. The man was charged in February 1994, and heard the allegations again at a preliminary inquiry.
A judge trying the case convicted the man in February 1995 on the basis of the boy’s testimony, despite the man’s denial. At trial the boy was questioned about his seeming recantation in 1993, but stuck by his damning account. The court of appeal dismissed the man’s appeal in 1996.
By 2000 the boy, then 15 and back living with his mother, formally recanted his prior testimony in a statutory declaration. He repeated this recantation under oath in an examination in 2004. He again recanted under oath at a hearing in March 2012 before a special commissioner appointed by the court of appeal. There is always high scepticism towards such recantations, from a logical enough attitude of, “So when are you telling the truth?”
The special commissioner conducting the inquiry did not find the man’s recantation that convincing when considered alone, but pointed to other evidence supporting it. That presumably included testimony from a psychologist who had reviewed a video of police questioning the boy. The psychologist criticized the police interviewer’s un-sceptical acceptance of what the boy was saying, even though it was full of vague answers and lacked detail. In a similar vein, while the court of appeal noted that although the boy had “held firm” at trial when questioned about his 1993 apology, “his evidence at trial consisted of accusations punctuated by retractions.” Shaky ground on which to found a conviction for a vile offence.
In denying the man parole after he had served two thirds of his sentence, the National Parole Board pointed out in 2000 that he continued to deny his guilt and refused to accept treatment. This reflects a common but dangerous institutional assumption that the courts cannot get it wrong. In 2001 the man applied to the federal minister of Justice for a review. Sometime after early 2007 the new minister asked the Alberta Court of Appeal to look into the matter. The decision came down on January 13. The parole authority’s attitude and the glacial pace of handling the review request are additional concerns in a mess which could have been avoided by a more cautious attitude in the first place.
Writer David Haas is a long term St. Albert resident.