VANCOUVER — Two men found guilty of British Columbia's most notorious gang killings will be allowed to argue the case should be thrown out because their rights were violated by police and correctional officers.
Matthew Johnston and Cody Haevischer were each convicted of six counts of first-degree murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder in the so-called Surrey Six slayings, in which the men killed four members of a rival gang and two bystanders in October 2007 in Surrey, B.C.
The convictions were entered in 2014 and the men appealed them at a hearing last October.
The B.C. Court of Appeal ruled Thursday to uphold the guilty verdicts and deny a request for a new trial. However, it also quashed the convictions and allowed the men a hearing to argue for a stay of proceedings due to an abuse of process.
Eileen Mohan, whose 22-year-old son Christopher Mohan was one of the two bystanders killed, said she was saddened by the ruling. Her family was shattered by the murder, she said.
"You just cannot walk to my doorstep and steal my son's innocent life and destroy all his dreams," she said. "They took all our lives — all our dreams, our future plans, everything was destroyed."
The Appeal Court did not release full written reasons for the ruling, saying lawyers must review them first and advise the court on revisions needed in order to protect confidential information.
A lawyer for Johnston said he is disappointed the grounds for a new trial were dismissed but pleased with the opportunity to have an evidentiary hearing on an abuse of process.
Jonathan Desbarats said the men suffered an abuse of process because of police misconduct during the investigation and because they were kept in solitary confinement for a long period before their trial.
The ruling can still be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The B.C. Prosecution Service said in a statement it will be reviewing the reasons carefully and making submissions to the court regarding the release of abbreviated reasons.
No decisions regarding the next steps in the process will be made before the full review is complete, it said.
The Crown said at the murder trial that the killings on Oct. 19, 2007, inside a highrise condo building began as a hit on rival drug trafficker Corey Lal, ordered by the leadership of the Red Scorpions gang.
Five others, including Lal's neighbour Mohan and fireplace repairman Ed Schellenberg, who were innocent bystanders, were also killed to eliminate potential witnesses, the trial heard.
Red Scorpions leader Jamie Bacon recently pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit murder for ordering Lal's killing and was sentenced to 18 years less time served.
Haevischer and Johnston were found guilty for their roles in the crime in October 2014 but their convictions were not immediately entered because their lawyers filed an application asking for a hearing on an abuse of process claim.
The defence lawyers argued that senior police officers involved in the investigation had exploitative sexual relationships with two female protected witnesses, mishandled sensitive evidence and influenced witness accounts.
Three officers ultimately pleaded guilty in 2019 to misconduct charges in connection with the case.
Lawyers for Haevischer and Johnston also argued that the men were subjected to "harsh and inhumane" conditions contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms when they were housed in solitary confinement for 14 months while awaiting trial.
The Crown argued that a hearing on the abuse of process application was unnecessary in light of the seriousness of the offences. A B.C. Supreme Court judge agreed and their convictions were entered in November 2014.
The appeal ruling on Thursday essentially returns the case back to where it was in October 2014: The men are guilty, but not convicted, and an evidentiary hearing will now determine whether the case should be thrown out due to an abuse of process.
However, the majority of the appeal was unsuccessful.
Lawyers for Johnston and Haevischer argued at the Appeal Court last October that their clients' rights were violated by the secrecy surrounding a pre-trial hearing that allowed a key witness to testify behind closed doors. They also argued the trial judge erred in assessing the credibility of gang-involved witnesses.
Mohan, the mother of the young bystander killed, said she has been waiting more than 13 years and is still trying to believe that the courts will "uphold the law."
"You just can't take innocent life and walk free. We didn't do anything. Christopher and I, we didn't know these people," she said.
"I really cannot understand, but I have to keep believing that somewhere, somehow, justice will prevail."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 28, 2021.
Laura Dhillon Kane, The Canadian Press