HALIFAX — Key evidence explaining what led to the wrongful murder conviction of a Nova Scotia man who spent almost 17 years in prison should be released later this month, a senior judge decided Tuesday.
The Canadian Press, CBC and the Halifax Examiner had asked Justice James Chipman for access to federal documents that include details of how 63-year-old Glen Assoun was improperly convicted of second-degree murder on Sept. 17, 1999.
On March 1, 2019, after a two-decade struggle by Assoun to overturn his conviction, a judge found him innocent in the 1995 stabbing death of 28-year-old Brenda Way.
Canada’s justice minister has already declared there was “reliable and relevant evidence” that wasn’t disclosed during the criminal proceedings.
On Tuesday, Chipman said in an oral decision the Justice Department assessment should be released on July 12, when he will provide the full reasoning behind his judgment.
However, he added he may still order the removal of the names of three people who lawyers for Innocence Canada had argued could be put at risk if their identities are revealed.
“I have determined the entirety of the file will be released on or about July 12 in the wake of my decision with the possible exception of the redactions requested by Mr. Assoun’s counsel,” said Chipman.
During opening arguments Tuesday in Nova Scotia Supreme Court, Chipman said the onus falls squarely on the federal government and other interveners to show why the open court principle shouldn’t be applied.
Media lawyer David Coles took aim at the position taken by the federal Justice Department and the police, saying there wasn’t enough evidence to support the argument that the privacy of some witnesses and police information should be protected.
“It’s not enough to say the individual may have a privacy interest. You have to establish the privacy interest,” Coles told the judge.
“None of this evidence is before you in a compelling manner.”
Phil Campbell, a lawyer with Innocence Canada, has said police didn’t disclose key evidence before Assoun’s unsuccessful appeal in 2006.
“It’s appropriate in this case that the truth be revealed,” Campbell told the court.
Campbell, whose group works to free the wrongfully convicted, argued the only information that should be protected is the identities of three informants.
The struggle to release the information goes back to 2014, when the Justice Department determined in a preliminary report there may have been a miscarriage of justice in the Assoun case.
Assoun was released on bail, but Chipman refused a media request to see the report.
Federal lawyers have argued there are legitimate privacy interests at stake, and only an edited version of the assessment should be released.
They argue that would strike a balance between the open-court principle and the need to protect the review system Ottawa has set up to examine cases of wrongful conviction.