Justice denied: Alleged child-sex abuser walks free after Alberta judge rules trial delayed too long

Steve Mertl
Daily Brew
November 3, 2012

Our justice system enshrines the right to a speedy trial on the principle that, as William Gladstone said, justice delayed is justice denied.

But speedy is a relative term and many cases take years to wend their way through the crowded court system. And if the charges are particularly complicated or encounter procedural obstacles, you get the outcome that has devastated an Alberta woman and her family who saw her childhood sexual abuser just walk free.

The Globe and Mail reports that the head of Alberta's prosecution services, Greg Lepp, has launched an investigation into delays that caused a judge to dismiss the three-year-old sexual assault case because it took to long to come to trial.

Charges against the accused man, who along with is victim cannot be identified under a publication ban, were stayed and can't be refiled.

"[I feel] sick. Absolutely sick," the victim's mother, who also can't be named, told the Globe.

She said she had hoped "obviously that he would be found guilty and be put in prison, but just to actually get to court and tell her 'I'm sorry' — to actually have him be in court and realize what he did was not acceptable."

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The case, which was stayed a month ago, came up in the Alberta legislature when Opposition Wildrose Party MLA Rob Anderson claimed the trial delay was the result of a shortage of prosecutors.

"Premier, I want to know what kind of pathetic excuse for a justice system charges an individual for violating an innocent girl for eight years and then denies that victim her day in court," said Anderson, according to CBC News.

Premier Alison Redford promised the government would investigate what happened.

"I won't make political hay of this," she said. "I won't respond at this point in time. We'll look into this matter and provide appropriate comment back."

"It's extremely frustrating, even within the department, when something like this happens," Lepp, associate deputy minister in the Ministry of Justice and the Attorney General, told the Globe.

"It's not what we want to have happen. It's not why we come to work every day."

The alleged abuse began when the woman, who lives in the Calgary bedroom community of Airdrie, was a nine-year-old child and continued until she was 17. She came forward in 2009, when she was 23.

The Globe said the family was told an unrelated murder case tied up the court system in Airdrie. Lepp, who refuted Anderson's contention that a shortage of prosecutors was responsible, said a combination of factors, including illness and a storm, caused the delays.

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"There were all kinds of things that would happen," Lepp said, adding: "When cases are complicated, there's lots of issues."

Lepp called the incident a "very, very rare unfortunate occurrence.

"It happens almost never in Alberta. And it did happen in this case, and one case is one too many."

But the victim's family blames the Crown attorney handling the case, telling the Globe it took 18 months to interview the victim. Her mother said the prosecutor kept reassuring her that things were going ahead.

"He said. 'Oh, don't worry, it's normal. It takes this long to do things,' " she said.

Lepp said police would have interviewed the victim before recommending charges and the prosecutor would have met with her to prepare her to testify before the trial.

"I'm satisfied that [a delay by the Crown] would not have been the determining factor," Lepp told the Globe, adding his investigation will take at least two months.

Lepp's assurances about Alberta aside, Canada's justice system is dotted with similar cases.

This week, an alleged child pornographer in a Nova Scotia court saw three charges against him stayed after his lawyer argued the case hadn't come to trial in a reasonable time, the New Glasgow News reported.

However, the Crown said Thursday a new charge of bestiality will be laid against Earle Victor MacDonald.

"During the course of this investigation and looking at child pornography images on the accused's computer, police also recovered homemade videos that led to a charge of having sex with a dog," said prosecutor Craig Botterill. "So those charges will have to be dealt with before the court."

MacDonald was initially charged in June 2011 after an investigation that began the previous November. The case apparently dragged because of police delays in getting his computer analyzed.

In British Columbia, incest charges were stayed in 2010 against a man after police failed to translate video-recorded statements from his alleged victims for almost two years.

CTV News reported at the time that the man was arrested in 2008 and charged with 13 counts but prosecutors requested a delay in May of that year because it was awaiting translations of two statements in Russian and Dari.

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The Crown requested three more trial delays over the absence of the translated statements. The court was told police had requested funding for the translations in April of 2008 but were denied.

In staying the charges because the accused's Charter right to be tried in a reasonable time was breached, provincial court Judge Marion Buller Bennett said justice had been denied to both him and his victims.

"It is very disturbing that the value of the complainants' sexual, physical and emotional integrity is less than the cost of translation and transcription," Bennett said.

"H.S.O. (the accused) has been publicly charged with very serious offences and he now has no ability to clear his name."