Wrongfully convicted man’s case sat on Wilson-Raybould’s desk for months

OTTAWA — Glen Assoun’s lawyer says the wrongfully convicted Halifax man suffered « every single day » as he waited to be exonerated for a murder he didn’t commit — a wait that was prolonged for months as his case sat on former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould’s desk.

David Lametti issued an order for a new trial on Feb. 28, just seven weeks after taking over as justice minister. The following day — after a five-minute new trial in which the prosecution presented no evidence — Assoun was a free man.

He had spent almost 17 years in prison and another four and a half years under strict parole conditions after being convicted of the brutal 1998 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Brenda Way.

Sean MacDonald — one of the lawyers for Innocence Canada, a non-profit organization dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully convicted and which spent years trying to prove Assoun’s innocence — declined to specifically discuss Wilson-Raybould’s handling of the case.

But he said in an interview: « I can tell you this much, that Glen Assoun is 100 per cent factually innocent and he suffered every single day while he waited for his exoneration. I can say that Minister Lametti worked with dispatch to make sure that justice was done. »

The Halifax Examiner first reported earlier this month that Wilson-Raybould sat for 18 months on the findings of the Justice Department’s criminal conviction review group, which recommended that a new trial be ordered for Assoun. Sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the Assoun case, which may yet be the subject of a public inquiry, have confirmed that report to The Canadian Press.

During Assoun’s brief new trial on March 1, prosecutor Mark Scott referred to the « considerable period of time since the minister’s decision has been pending. »

Wilson-Raybould herself did not confirm or deny a lengthy delay in dealing with Assoun’s case, but suggested it was just one of many potential wrongful conviction cases that landed on her desk.

« It would be entirely inappropriate for me to comment on specific cases or applications made under the criminal conviction review process. … These applications are necessarily confidential in nature, » she said in an email this week to The Canadian Press.

« As minister, I took potential wrongful conviction matters incredibly seriously. In order to deal with all such applications more thoroughly, effectively, and impartially, I appointed the Honourable Mr. Justice Morris Fish (a former Supreme Court justice) as special adviser on wrongful convictions in early December 2018. His role was designed to advise me — as minister — on applications under the criminal conviction review process, of which there were many. »

However, before anything could come of that appointment for Assoun, Wilson-Raybould was moved to Veterans Affairs in a mid-January cabinet shuffle, replaced by Lametti, a former law professor. Wilson-Raybould resigned from cabinet a month later amid allegations she was improperly pressured last fall by the Prime Minister’s Office to intervene to stop a criminal prosecution of Montreal-based engineering giant SNC-Lavalin on bribery charges related to contracts in Libya.

Among the examples of what she considered inappropriate pressure, Wilson-Raybould told the House of Commons justice committee last month that she was urged to solicit a second opinion — from someone like a retired Supreme Court justice — on whether SNC-Lavalin should be invited to negotiate a remediation agreement, a kind of plea bargain. She rejected the idea as interference with prosecutorial discretion.

MacDonald said it’s not unusual for a justice minister to seek outside advice on cases in which a miscarriage of justice is alleged. Still, he said the criminal conviction review group at Justice is a « highly professional, specialized group » that spent five years meticulously investigating the Assoun case.

Lametti acted swiftly on the group’s advice, saying in his order for a new trial that he had determined « upon investigation that there are new matters of significance, as well as relevant and reliable information, that was not disclosed to Mr. Glen Assoun during his criminal proceedings. » As a result of that investigation, Lametti said he is « satisfied that there is a reasonable basis to conclude that a miscarriage of justice likely occurred. »

« It’s extraordinarily rare for a minister to make a positive, factual finding of misconduct in his or her order, » said MacDonald. « And I think that speaks to the level of egregiousness that this wrongful conviction has sort of achieved. »

Lametti’s spokesperson, David Taylor, said the minister reviewed the Assoun file « shortly after being sworn-in » as justice minister.

« The compelling facts of the case, as well as the health of Mr. Assoun, underscored the need for prompt consideration by the minister, » Taylor said.

MacDonald questioned Wilson-Raybould’s suggestion that she had many potential wrongful conviction cases to deal with.

« I wouldn’t think that there would be a great deal of applications being processed or reviewed by the criminal conviction review group, » he said.

The group screens out the « vast majority » of applications that are deemed to have little merit. It fully investigates only those that appear to be likely or possible miscarriages of justice — « an ultra rare and exclusive club that very few Canadians, fortunately, have found themselves members in. It’s like a rare, albino rhinoceros, » he added.

Whatever the reason for the delay in getting the ministerial order for a new trial, MacDonald said Assoun’s suffering was « a horrible thing to watch, in slow motion day by day. »

Assoun was out of prison by then but under « unbelievably tight conditions. » He was required to live with his daughter, respect curfews and reporting requirements and, for a long period, had to wear an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet. And all the while, MacDonald said, Assoun « walked around with stigma » of being a convicted murderer.

Since his exoneration four weeks ago, MacDonald said Assoun is « better but he’s still suffering from debilitating anxiety and post-traumatic stress. »

« He’ll be damaged for the rest of his life, in my opinion. »

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