OTTAWA — Dennis Oland was wrongly denied bail pending an appeal of his second-degree murder conviction, the Supreme Court of Canada says in a judgment that clarifies the grounds for granting release to people who challenge a finding of guilt.
The unanimous high court ruling Thursday had no immediate effect on Oland’s high-profile case, given that he is no longer in custody while awaiting a new trial.
But the 9-0 decision breaks new ground on bail eligibility in appeal matters and is therefore almost certain to have influence beyond the sensational New Brunswick case in which Oland was initially convicted of killing his father.
Well-known businessman Richard Oland was bludgeoned to death in his Saint John, N.B., office in July 2011, and his son Dennis, now 49, was convicted in 2015. He was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 10 years.
Oland appealed in January of last year and sought release, but the bail request was turned down — a decision that was later affirmed by the New Brunswick Court of Appeal.
Oland was subsequently granted release by the same court last October, when a new trial was ordered after he had spent almost a year in prison.
That effectively made his appeal to the Supreme Court moot.
Nevertheless, his lawyers continued to pursue the bail eligibility matter with the aim of clarifying the issue in cases that turn on the question of public confidence in the justice system.
In a statement Thursday, Richard Oland’s brother Derek said: “We are pleased with today’s Supreme Court of Canada decision and continue to believe Dennis is innocent.”
Dennis Oland’s lawyer, Alan Gold, said the decision vindicates “our view of the law.” But he added it also confirms that Oland was “needlessly in custody for many months, and there’s no way to give that time back to him.”
In denying bail last year, a New Brunswick judge said that while Oland posed no danger to the general public, the seriousness and brutality of the crime weighed in favour of his detention.
The judge was not persuaded that granting bail would uphold public confidence in the administration of justice.
A three-judge panel of the appeal court agreed with the decision, saying that while it was a “judgment call,” there was no error in law.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court disagreed.
Justice Michael Moldaver said in the court’s reasons for the judgment that Parliament did not restrict the availability of bail pending appeal for people convicted of murder, or any other serious crime, “and courts should respect this.”
When deciding to grant bail to someone awaiting an appeal, judges will “draw on their legal expertise and experience” in weighing factors that affect public confidence, he wrote. These include the strength of the grounds of appeal, the seriousness of the offence, public safety and flight risks.
But in balancing these factors, judges should keep in mind that confidence “is to be measured through the eyes of a reasonable member of the public,” he added.
“This person is someone who is thoughtful, dispassionate, informed of the circumstances of the case and respectful of society’s fundamental values.”
Aside from the seriousness of the offence for which Oland was initially convicted, he seemed “an ideal candidate for bail” and entitled to the same treatment as someone less prominent in the community, Moldaver said.
In Oland’s case, Moldaver wrote, the appeal judge was satisfied there were no appreciable public safety or flight risk concerns, and there were clearly arguable grounds to challenge his conviction.
In addition, the trial judge found that Oland’s crime tended more toward the offence of manslaughter than to first-degree murder, lessening his degree of “moral blameworthiness,” Moldaver said.
In the final analysis, the various considerations “ought to have tipped the scale in favour of release,” he concluded on behalf of the high court.
A new murder trial is expected next year at the earliest.
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Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press