In October 2014, Theoren Gregory Poitras, 25 years old, was found dead in Richmond, B.C.. Poitras, chose to re-locate to Richmond British Columbia from Edmonton, Alberta in what sounds like the proverbial “get out of town” scenario. Allegedly he was involved in the drug world there.
It was then “alleged” that Sean Jacob Lee Jennings and David Nguyen also ended up in Richmond, also originally from the drug world of Edmonton, and in typical gang style killed Poitras, leaving him in his own blood, in front of an Elementary school.
The pair were charged with 1st degree murder. But in June 2017, three years later, Crown Counsel in British Columbia, very quietly, days before the trial, stayed all charges. They cited that “further evidence had been received…and there was no substantial likelihood of conviction”.
There it is, the statement, which like the Damocles sword is held over the police for each and every case which has been forwarded for charge approval. The police submit the evidence, and the Crown decides whether there is a “substantial” chance of convicting the accused.
Over the past number of years, local scuttle butt amongst investigators )there is no measurement of this statistic to reference) ; say that fewer and fewer cases are making it to trial.
Judges have even lamented to me that it seems that no one is willing to take cases to the trial stage. Add in the affinity for plea bargains, and there seems to be little seeming to work its way through an incredibly slow moving court system and actually be decided at a trial.
Is the Crown office “trying” the cases in the reports, and not in front of the courts? Is the bureaucratic need to avoid public controversy, or god forbid, the fear of losing in court, and are exposed in the public eye, keeping them from pursuing charges, when in fact charges are warranted.
We will probably never know. Crown can make these decisions in private, out of the public eye, and so far never seem to be held accountable for these decisions, or more accurately these non-decisions.
The Poitras investigation was part of a large IHIT, CFSEU, Edmonton Police and the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Team investigation. It seems Mr Jennings, upstanding citizen, was also allegedly involved in a murder in Alberta; where he has also been charged with 2nd degree murder in a street shooting death of Alor Deng in Edmonton in July 2014.
Millions of dollars were no doubt spent in this Project, and numerous resources employed. When Jennings was arrested for the Poitras murder, CFSEU and IHIT called a press conference to announce their successes. Now that the charge has been stayed in the Poitras murder there is now deafening silence from Crown, CFSEU and IHIT as to why this particular case has been dropped.
No one feels a need to explain.
The public will never know what “new evidence” was learned, new evidence which apparently was so significant that their case had been blown up. Did they charge the wrong guy? Did witnesses fall by the way side? Did the police contaminate evidence? Did the Crown drop the ball? This lack of openness helps no one. In fact it leads to greater distrust.
Which leads me back to this “substantial likelihood of conviction” phrase. It is used every day. Every police officer knows the phrase, from the earliest days on the job when they have been pursuing charges, submitting reports to the Crown, and awaiting their decisions. There is little questioning of the eventual decision, and more often than not there is no detailed rationale given.
All cases involve this process. As the more serious cases unfold; murder, extortion, or kidnapping for example, this same process is followed. The police meet with Crown but ultimately Crown decides with the ill-defined “substantial likelihood..” being the most significant criteria, and being their ultimate measure. I personally spent hours in Crown offices disagreeing with a lack of charge, arguing that the merits of the evidence warranted charges. Sometimes you were able to convince, but other times you were not. Sometimes you were wrong, and in my opinion sometimes they were wrong. I was fortunate to have a good relationship with most, and there were no ill-feelings even though sometimes these meetings would become quite heated. We would often leave frustrated, shaking our heads at the level of proof that was being demanded.
By way of example. Our team was investigating a shooting in Port Moody in the middle of the night between two groups of equally criminal gangsters. One was trying to “rip” the drugs of the other. It led to one group opening fire on the others, and a stray bullet went through a residence striking a lady who was laying on a couch watching television. The bullet entered her head through her eye. She awoke in a hospital with brain damage, with no idea how she got there. Many years later she is still recovering, but will never be the same.
The only witnesses in this case at this time of date were the gangsters themselves. There was no changing this fact. After months of investigation we managed to turn one of the “victim” gang members to assist us. He agreed to testify even as to who was the “shooter”. This, now witness, did not want anything in exchange. No preferential treatment.
Crown refused to use his evidence, due to his lack of credibility since he was an admitted gangster. We argued in over three meetings that we met the threshold of charge approval, that they needed to put him on the stand and let the courts decide if he was credible. We lost all arguments, with the Crown wanting a credible witness which did not exist. The Crown and I remain friends and understand each others argument, but totally disagree with the not laying of charges. The “shooter” in this case went on to further criminal activities.
The problem of course is obvious. How do you define “substantial”? And because it is such a subjective measure, different Crown lawyers could give different answers. It seemed to me that the more experienced, the more willing they were to go to trial, and therefore the more willing to have less of a hurdle for the evidence to jump over. I have had certain Crown Counsel say that on a scale they want a 90 % success rate. This is high and therefore to maintain that level, the cases that are maybe a 60 % or 70 % probability are pushed to the bottom and not chanced.
Substantial is defined partially as “having a solid basis in reality or fact”. Pretty general one would have to say, which whether planned or not has led Crown lawyers in to an obvious way to side step the difficult cases. And of course some of the more difficult cases are the gang style killings.
BC has developed a reputation of a place where gangsters can free wheel (we have not even been successful in having the Hells Angels designated as a criminal organization), and I believe part of that blame falls on a Crown Counsel not willing to push with the more difficult cases. There is no incentive for them to do so, but they are contributing to an endangered public. A safety issue because there is a lessened fear of prosecution.
It has also created an us versus them relationship between the police and the Crown. There is an element of distrust, and in many cases now, Crown will not even make a decision without full disclosure of the entire case, in other words not trusting the police to deliver what they say is in the Crown submission. This too is causing grief and public safety issues (but that is for another blog).
The police of course will not criticize the Crown. They still have to live with them on a daily basis, as many Crown reports are forwarded and any criticism may be met with even further intransigence.
The decisions of the Crown are done without any oversight and accountability, other than by their peers in their own offices, or a possible appeal up the chain into the Attorney Generals office. And like all government offices, when the bureaucracy decides to turtle, it is more difficult to dig down through the layers, or find someone willing to buck the system. Their future promotion or judge appointment is decided by these very same people.
The American system, of politically elected District Attorneys is quite the opposite. Those elected want to make a name for themselves, they want to take on the big cases, they are less worried about losing in exchange. Now, before I go further, this is not an ideal system where political gain can be a factor in deciding charges, but it does make one pause.
Preet Bharara, the recently fired District Attorney of New York (fired by Trump which may make him a martyr rather than a villain) led over 100 prosecutions of Wall Street executives for insider trading, he reached settlements with the four biggest banks, conducted public corruption investigations into both Democratic and Republican officials, and was known for its terrorism cases that reached around the world.
Do you think such prosecution is a possibility in any Province in Canada? Is it because we have no crime here, no white collar crime or terrorism cases? Of course not, quite the opposite, Canada is developing quite a reputation for harbouring white collar crime in fact.
In Canada, we are seeing some prosecutions which they do go forward with blown completely out of the water, and criticism being directed at Crown and the police. Look no further than the Duffy case where he was acquitted of all 31 charges, and now there is a lawsuit against all involved for $8 million.
The Supreme Court of Canada Jordan decision which put a time limit on trials getting to court is putting added pressure on the Crown across the country, and causing apoplectic fits.
Apparently 30 months, once the charges are layed, and Crown has all the evidential material, and now need to get it into court, is beyond their capabilities.
The Supreme Court called the current Crown system a “culture of complacency”. High Judge speak for a slow and dull bureaucracy, and one apparently not that interested. I don’t think anyone who has worked in any Federal or Provincial bureaucracy would be surprised by this description.
In this day and age, can we afford to have no accountability in such crucial matters. Maybe an independent oversight of Crown is necessary, we certainly don’t seem to be reluctant to have oversight of the police. Remember the police are only half of the judicial process, maybe its time to demand some answers from the other half of the equation.
Our Crown system needs to be subjected to a complete managerial overhaul.
Is Solicitor General Jody Wilson-Raybould the one to lead us out of this morass? It seems unlikely.
She says that there is nothing gained by “appointing blame”. and really it is a problem for the Provinces. Sounds like a statement from a bureaucrat who has been rolling in the clover of a Federal system. Someone willing to accept complacency.
The Jordan problems are now beginning to surface. It was recently announced that notorious, full patch Hells Angel Larry Amero has just been released by judicial authorities in Quebec, due to the time it has taken to get him into court. He was arrested in November 2012 under Project Loquace, one of 100 arrested, being one of the primary targets of the extensive investigation. He was released from organized crime charges and cocaine importation. You will remember him as being one of the victims of the shooting in Kelowna in 2011 where Jonathan Bacon was killed. Of course this was because of the Jordan decision.
He will probably come back to work on the Vancouver docks where he is a card carrying longshoreman, that is if he is not too busy with his other life.
Clearly five years was not enough time for the Quebec prosecutors.
But hey, there is no sense in appointing blame.