Crown's 'very thin case' against Raymond Cormier made conviction unlikely, lawyers say

Crown's 'very thin case' against Raymond Cormier made conviction unlikely, lawyers say

While the acquittal of Raymond Cormier on a charge of second-degree murder in the death of Tina Fontaine shocked many people, legal experts say there wasn't much else the jury could do.

"This was a very thin case. There was really very little evidence," said Scott Newman, spokesperson for the Criminal Defence Lawyers' Association of Manitoba.

Cormier, 56, pleaded not guilty to killing the 15-year-old Indigenous girl, whose 72-pound body was pulled from the Red River near the Alexander Docks on Aug. 17, 2014.

He was found not guilty by a jury of seven women and four men who deliberated for about 13 hours over Wednesday evening and into Thursday afternoon.

"I think the jury clearly took a significant amount of time to consider the evidence," said Newman. "I think there are a lot of concerns with regard to the evidence that was presented that really we have to look at this as a very just verdict."

The Crown had no forensic evidence or eyewitnesses directly linking Cormier to Tina's death, and the cause of her death remains undetermined.

Instead, the Crown's largely circumstantial case relied on secretly recorded statements made by Cormier, along with testimony from witnesses who said they saw Cormier and Tina together in the days before she disappeared from the Best Western Charterhouse Hotel in downtown Winnipeg on Aug. 8, 2014.

The lack of forensic evidence hurt the Crown's case significantly, said Jody Ostapiw, president of the Manitoba Criminal Defence Lawyers' Association.

"It's not even that there was no forensic evidence linking Mr. Cormier to the duvet cover or to Ms. Fontaine's body, but the fact is there was other DNA found on that duvet cover," she said in an interview on CBC's Power and Politics.

Interpretation challenged

Crown attorneys argued that statements allegedly made by Cormier in those recordings amounted to admissions of guilt, but Cormier's defence said police transcripts of the recordings couldn't be independently verified by listening to the recordings.

They also challenged the Crown's interpretation of Cormier's statements, arguing they are the words of a man obsessed with Tina's death and concerned with finding her killer.

"The comments that the Crown pointed to in those wiretap operations were again not full admissions," Ostapiw said. "They were definitely discussions about Ms. Fontaine, about what happened to Ms. Fontaine, but they were open to interpretation."

Cormier's trial went ahead without a preliminary inquiry, which is used to test the evidence before a trial. Newman said if a preliminary inquiry had been held, Cormier's case likely never would have made it to trial.

"I think there's a very real question about whether or not this would have been a case that even got past a preliminary inquiry had one been held, maybe sparing a lot of time and expense with respect to the trial," he said.

David Milward, law professor at the University of Manitoba, doesn't think that Cormier's case would necessarily not have made it past a preliminary inquiry.

Cormier's defence tried to have the case thrown out after the Crown had presented all of its evidence, arguing there wasn't enough for any jury to convict, but Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal rejected the motion.

Milward suspects the decision to ask for a direct indictment had more to do with the pressure put on the Crown to bring the case to trial quickly.

"You have Tina Fontaine, a young Indigenous girl who was murdered, yet another missing and murdered Indigenous women case, very much a public lightning rod," he said.

"It struck me as this is one where the prosecution wanted to move very swiftly."

As for the prospect of an appeal, Ostapiw says there is very little room for the Crown to appeal in a jury trial. The Crown would have to point to some issue with the judge's instructions to the jury.

"Unfortunately for Ms. Fontaine's family, I'm sure they're disappointed with it. But given the evidence that we know the Crown presented, I agree that the Crown did not prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt."