Halifax, NS: Glen Assoun heard the news this morning he has waited 20 excruciating years to hear – he was acquitted of the murder of his former common law spouse.
Shortly after federal Justice Minister David Lametti quashed Mr. Assoun’s conviction and requested a new trial, Nova Scotia’s prosecution service said it would not attempt to re-prosecute the case.
Prosecutor Mark Scott told the court that after reassigning the evidence, the Crown did not believe it had a realistic prospect of obtaining a conviction.
The decision brought tears to many in the packed courtroom, including the court clerk and Mr. Assoun’s many family members and supporters.
Justice Chipman specifically congratulated Innocence Canada and lawyers Phil Campbell and Sean MacDonald for the “tremendous work” they put into the case.
“You kept the faith with remarkable dignity,” Justice James Chipman told Mr. Assoun directly. “You are to be commended for your courage and resilience. You are a free man. I sincerely wish you every success.”
Mr. Assoun then thanked his lawyers, Innocence Canada and the organization’s director of case review, Jerome Kennedy, for helping him to restore his innocence.
The decision means that Mr. Assoun is free of all charges related to the murder of Brenda Way and should not have spent 16 years behind bars, protesting his innocence all the while.
In the decision that triggered today’s dramatic series of events, the Department of Justice made an explicit finding that relevant and reliable evidence was not disclosed to Mr. Assoun during his criminal process.
“Retrying Glen Assoun against the backdrop of this massive miscarriage of justice would have been unconscionable,” said Mr. Campbell. “It is well past the time for the tremendous suffering Glen has endured to come to an end.”
Mr. Assoun expressed immediate relief this morning that his innocence has been restored.
“I’ve been telling anyone and everyone who would listen for over twenty years that I am an innocent man. Thank God somebody finally heard me. Thank you Minister Lametti you gave me my life back.”
Mr. Assoun, 63, was convicted in the 1995 murder of his former girlfriend, Brenda Way. Ms. Way had been stabbed to death in a laneway.
Mr. Assoun was released under restrictive bail conditions in 2014, after the federal Criminal Convictions Review Group (CCRG) concluded that there was a reasonable possibility that he had been the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
The CCRG has spent the past four years closely scrutinizing fresh evidence in the case.
"The relief of having a murder conviction quashed is almost indescribable," said Innocence Canada co-president Ron Dalton, who served 10 years in prison before his own murder conviction was quashed. "Glen has suffered tremendously and deserves to be fully exonerated with all speed."
Mr. Assoun is the 24th wrongly convicted individual freed with the help of Innocence Canada.
“Behind this seemingly sudden cascade of events lie many years of hard slogging by a skilled, dogged team of Innocence Canada lawyers,” said IC co-president Kirk Makin. “As grateful as we are for this outcome, our current system of restoring innocence is horribly convoluted and lengthy.
“Wrongful convictions happen,” he said. “They will always happen. Reversing them is an incredibly long, under-funded, arduous slog.”
The Department of Justice’s review of Mr. Assoun's conviction was triggered by an extensive application filed by Innocence Canada lawyers. The application included substantial fresh evidence indicating that Mr. Assoun was wrongly convicted at his 1999 trial.
Under the S. 696.1 procedure, convicted persons who have exhausted the court appeal process can apply for a new trial provided they can furnish fresh, cogent evidence. The Minister can choose to turn down the application; refer it to a provincial appellate court for rehearing or other disposition based on the new evidence, or direct that the Attorney-General of the province concerned hold a re-trial.
Previous exonerees who went through the lengthy S.696.1 process include Steven Truscott and Romeo Phillion.
"Today, the Minister has returned the precious constitutional presumption of innocence to Glen Assoun," said Mr. MacDonald. "In ordering a new trial, he has used the most powerful tool at his disposal. Glen is no longer a convicted killer."
The CCRG investigation turned up evidence of official misconduct that could have led to the conviction being reversed more than a decade ago. Notwithstanding today’s developments, this evidence remains under a publication ban.
Co-counsel Phil Campbell said that today’s ministerial decision was based on, "new and extremely powerful evidence that has come to light during the course of this application and the government's subsequent re-examination of the case."
Mr. Campbell said he is prevented from releasing details of the seriously tainted evidence in the case because of court-ordered publication bans, as well as a confidentiality agreement between Innocence Canada and the CCRG.
"Information that will be revealed in the courtroom in days and months to come will shock Canadians," Mr. Campbell said. "Anybody who assumes that our justice system no longer convicts the innocent is in for a rude awakening."
Mr. Makin urged the news media to undertake whatever legal challenges may be necessary in order to bring all of the evidence to light.
“It is now very much in the public interest that the press is in a position to publish this information,” he said. “Miscarriages of justice will occur again and again unless we examine their root causes and learn from these horrendous mistakes. Full scrutiny of the conduct of authorities in this case is long overdue."
Ms. Way was found dead in Dartmouth, N.S. On Nov. 12, 1995. She had been stabbed to death.
Mr. Assoun voluntarily surrendered to police in 1998. Despite vehemently asserting his innocence, he was initially charged with first-degree murder but was committed to stand trial on second degree murder at the conclusion of the Preliminary Hearing. Unable to obtain a lawyer for his trial, Mr. Assoun represented himself.
Convicted of second degree murder on Sept. 17, 1999, Mr. Assoun was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole until he had completed serving 18 and a half years behind bars.
Mr. Assoun loudly protested his innocence throughout his trial, including at the moment of his conviction. Innocence Canada launched an internal review of his case soon after Mr. Assoun contacted Innocence Canada pleading for help.
The organization adopts cases where it concludes that an applicant is likely to be innocent. In Mr. Assoun's case, the organization believes that the fresh evidence points overwhelmingly to Mr. Assoun being innocent in the murder of Ms. Way.
In 2013, Innocence Canada filed an application for ministerial review. In 2014 the Department of Justice released a preliminary report that found, 'there may be a reasonable basis to conclude that a miscarriage of justice likely occurred."
On Nov. 24, 2014, based on this conclusion, the Nova Scotia Supreme Court released Mr. Assoun on bail. One of the conditions imposed was that he wear an electronic ankle bracelet at all times to enable authorities to track his movements.
"The heinous conduct that characterized this case cannot remain in the dark," added Mr. MacDonald. "The Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service is fully aware of all the underlying information supporting the Minister's decision today. To re-prosecute this case would have compounded a grave mistake that stole two decades of Glen’s life from him.”
The organization is urging a complete investigation into other suspects who were identified but ignored so that Ms. Way’s killer may be brought to justice - which Innocence Canada believes is still possible.
The Assoun case represents a tragic bookend to the first murder exoneration of modern times in the Donald Marshall case, Mr. Campbell observed.
"Almost four decades after Donald Marshall was exonerated of murder in this province, the specter of what happened to him remains," he said.
“We are grateful for the decision of Mr. Lametti and the work of his advisors but saddened at the personal toll the case has taken on an innocent man and the need, once again, to relearn the lessons of the past.”
For further information or comment, please contact Innocence Canada co-counsel Phil Campbell (416-847-2560; or Sean MacDonald (416-606-3017).