Judge to decide fate of man accused in 1984 killing of Candace Derksen today

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Mark Edward Grant, who was convicted of killing Candace Derksen, found not guilty at 2nd trial

A Manitoba judge will deliver her decision in the retrial for Mark Grant, the man accused of second-degree murder in the 1984 death of Candace Derksen.

If he's found guilty or not, the Derksen family plans to light 33 candles — one for every year since the 13-year-old was killed.

Grant, 53, has been behind bars since he was arrested in 2007 in connection with the decades-old homicide. 

Because of the volume of evidence and the complexity of the case, the judge has been deliberating since final arguments finished in May.

"I just know we will light candles. Thirty-three — unscented — quite ordinary white candles and it will be enough," Candace's mother, Wilma Derksen, wrote in her blog.

"We will do it to symbolize this almost 33-year war of ours that we have raged against grief, loss, fear and loneliness.… Candles will help to keep our attention on the light."

Candace disappeared in Winnipeg, on her way home from school, in November 1984. Following weeks of searching, the teen's body was found frozen in an industrial storage shed, not far from the family's home. Her ankles and wrists were bound with twine and the cause of death was determined to be hypothermia.

The case and subsequent trials have gripped the city because, for years, the young teen's death remained unsolved.

Being closer to a ruling leaves the Derksen family with mixed feelings.

"For a man to go to prison or to be sentenced for second-degree murder is not something to celebrate. Then, on the other hand, not guilty means perhaps we are making vulnerable people more vulnerable and that really hits me hard as a mother and as a citizen of Canada, that we need to create safety for our children," Wilma told CBC last month.

The retrial

Grant was arrested after DNA evidence found on the twine was retested by authorities. A jury convicted Grant of second-degree murder in 2011 and sentenced him to 25 years in prison.

Two years later, however, that conviction was overturned by the Manitoba Court of Appeal. It ruled the trial judge erred by not allowing the defence to present evidence to the jury that pointed to another possible killer.

Grant's judge-only retrial, presided over by Court of Queen's Bench Justice Karen Simonsen, began in January.

The DNA evidence

Over the course of several weeks, Grant's defence lawyer, Saul Simmonds, worked to tear apart the integrity of the police investigation, the handling of evidence and the credibility of the DNA testing and results.

DNA testing was in its infancy in 1985 and Simmonds hammered the way evidence was collected, handled and tested. He outlined the ways it was subjected to contamination throughout the process.

To further his arguments, he called on two top American DNA experts to review the lab procedures and DNA results which linked Grant to the murder.

The forensic specialists called the results "fatally flawed" and "scientifically corrupt," and allege the findings were by "suspect bias."

Simmonds alleged the lab team ignored inconsistencies in the results that would have excluded Grant as a match.

He even asked the judge to stay the proceedings because DNA evidence cannot be independently re-tested because all of the extracts have been used up. The judge dismissed the motion. 

The defence later presented evidence related to a second case, similar to Candace's, which they argued could point to another suspect.

The other suspect

Nine months after Candace's body was found, a 12-year-old girl was found tied up inside a train car. She survived.

At the time Grant was in jail for a break-in and Simmonds argued, because of the similarities, another suspect had to have been responsible for both cases.

The woman took the stand at the retrial, but was grilled by the Crown, because she testified she was no longer able to recall any details of the incident.

The Crown worked to discredit the incident further when they called on an investigator tasked with looking into both cases in 2004, who testified he found "no connection" between them.

The Crown's main witness was Dr. Amarjit Chahal, the director of the lab where the DNA samples were retested.

Chahal told the court he stood by the results and even though DNA samples on the twine were degraded, Grant could not be excluded in the sample, he said.

The Crown argued Grant was not in jail when Candace was murdered and couldn't be ruled out as a suspect.

The alleged confession

The Crown called a woman who testified she overheard Grant confess "I killed her," before reneging a few seconds later, saying, "No I didn't. I'm just kidding."

In his closing arguments, Brent Davidson asked the judge to remember the witness said Grant threatened "to do what I did to Candace" if she didn't remain quiet.

While the Crown conceded some of the defence's arguments reduced the weight of the evidence, they maintained it did not amount to reasonable doubt.

Grant has a lengthy criminal history and is a convicted sex offender.

The analysis

Frank Cormier, a criminologist at the University of Manitoba, says regardless of the outcome there will still be unanswered questions.

"A not-guilty verdict will really not bring any sort of closure, if I can use that term, and people will continue to wonder." he said.

"A guilty verdict will leave far fewer questions unanswered.... With a guilty verdict, most people will interpret that as justice has been done.

Cormier said what anyone can take from this tragedy is the "positive legacy" Candace's family has left in the community.

He pointed to "the words and behaviors of the Derksen family, her parents especially, that have really sort of inspired and assured Winnipegers and others that these kinds of things can be handled.

"They can be dealt with if one tries to adopt the proper attitude. There have also been changes to the way we deal with missing young people."

Justice Simonsen will deliver the decision at 1 p.m. CT in a Winnipeg courtroom.