Yukon appeal court tosses sexual assault conviction against retired Whitehorse teacher

The courthouse in Whitehorse. (Jackie Hong/CBC - image credit)
The courthouse in Whitehorse. (Jackie Hong/CBC - image credit)

A retired Whitehorse teacher has successfully appealed his conviction in a historic sexual assault case involving a former student, with appeal judges replacing the finding of guilt with an acquittal instead.

In a decision Friday, Yukon Court of Appeal Justice Karan Shaner, backed by justices Peter Willcock and Patrice Abrioux, wrote that the trial judge in Paul Deuling's case failed to look at the totality of the evidence, particularly in regards to the reliability of the complainant.

Deuling's lawyer, Richard Fowler, wrote in an email Monday that he was "obviously very happy with the result of the appeal and that Mr. Deuling was finally acquitted of the one count he had been convicted of at the trial."

Deuling was charged in 2019 with five counts alleging that he'd sexually touched and later assaulted the complainant throughout the 1980s, from the time that she was in elementary school until she was a young adult. After a trial in 2022, Judge Brian Neal found Deuling not guilty on four counts but guilty on one count of sexual assault.

The Crown's case largely depended on the testimony of the complainant. Neal, in his decision, noted serious issues with her evidence, including inconsistencies and gaps in her memory as well as contradictions with the testimony of other witnesses. Despite that, he ruled that she was credible and reliable when testifying about a camping trip Deuling took her on when she was 17, during which she accused him of sexually assaulting her.

The appeal judges, however, found that looking at the complainant's testimony about the camping trip in isolation was a mistake, and that "the extensive adverse credibility findings" made with regards to her testimony on other counts "irreparably" undermined the entirety of her evidence.

Not considering the totality of the evidence, Shaner wrote, led to Neal making an "overriding and palpable error" when assessing the complainant's evidence about the camping trip and was also "an error of law."

While appeal courts can order a new trial after quashing a conviction, Shaner wrote doing so in Deuling's case would be "manifestly unfair."

"The trial judge acquitted Deuling on four of the five counts based on his finding of extensive and significant deficiencies in [the complainant's] credibility and reliability. These findings should have been applied in his analysis on Count 4," she wrote.

"A new trial solely on Count 4 would pose the same problem; the new trier of fact would be deprived of the opportunity to apply the negative credibility and reliability findings in assessing [the complainant's] evidence."

Shaner ordered an acquittal to be entered instead.