More Recent Wrongful Sexual Assault Convictions

In R v ADG, 2015 ABCA 149 (CanLII), a sex assault acquittal was overturned (surprisingly, the ABCA didn’t “fossick guilt from a fact-driven acquittal”, to borrow the glorious prose of McClung J.A. in R. v. Ewanchuk, 1998 ABCA 52 (CanLII) at para. 9). This was due to a reliance on rape myths by the lower court judge – Justice Yamauchi. This is a ridiculous (but not surprising result), as the acquittal was based on very solid concerns with the testimony of the complainants, as is obvious when one reads the excellent reasons for the trial judge’s decision: R v ADG, 2013 ABQB 724 (CanLII). Of course, even a hint of a stereotype-based acquittal is enough to send the Alberta Court of Appeal into a frenzy, and into ordering a new trial. Not surprisingly, in the retrial, the accused was found guilty of (only) most of the allegations. Even less surprisingly, the ABCA refused to overturn that decision, despite numerous concerns with it (R v Griffin, 2018 ABCA 277 (CanLII)). Unfortunately, the decision on retrial was not reported, so it is difficult to determine how bad the errors in it were by reading the ABCA decision alone. Note also the intense media circus around these decisions. I’d be surprised if anyone was talking about investigating the judge’s conduct in the retrial for his mistakes that hurt the accused. Of course, the judge on the first trial acquitting is the basis for complaints and griping about needs for more “diversity” on the bench, and – wouldn’t you know it – better judicial education. It’s a shame that a judge (Judge Camp comes to mind) may lose his/her job for a fact-driven acquittal that is largely unproblematic from a legal perspective and is generally pilloried by appeal courts for the slightest hint of stereotypical thinking (which of course, will justify overturning an otherwise-solid fact-driven acquittal), while a wrongful conviction (one that is blatantly wrong or relies on very weak evidence) rarely leads to any kind of sanction – by the courts, press, public, or anyone else. Instead, the Courts of Appeal (e.g. Alberta’s) generally gleefully uphold the conviction, finding typically that they would simply be loath to intervene with the trial judge’s assessment of credibility and the evidence, etc. – e.g. R v SMC, 2020 ABCA 19 (CanLII – far be it from them to interfere with exercises of judicial discretion and judgment) and the next case discussed: A.B.A. In the event that a conviction is overturned, I’m unaware of a case where a judge faced any kind of sanction or repercussion (I’m not sure that they should – absent the fact that they often would if it had been an acquittal that was overturned). Oh, and haven’t I mentioned, the presumption of innocence is alive and well in our Canadian criminal justice system.

For another disturbing overturning of a fact-driven acquittal, see a recent decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal: R. v. A.B.A., 2019 ONCA 124 (CanLII) – not surprisingly not including Doherty, Watt, Paciocco, or Trotter, etc., where the ONCA overturns a very solid fact-based acquittal due to – you guessed it – myths and stereotypes. Unfortunately, it’s cited uncritically in Brown and Witkin’s recently-released 2nd edition of Prosecuting and defending sexual offence cases (Toronto: Emond Publishing, 2020 – Alberta Law Libraries e-book link) [“Brown/Witkin”] at p. 215. It points out (rightly), at para. 4:

[4]         The Crown’s right of appeal from an acquittal is limited to a question of law alone: R. v. J.M.H.2011 SCC 45, [2011] 3 S.C.R. 197, at para. 39.

Then see paras. 10-11, which is a gross “straw man” and oversimplification (bordering on outright misrepresentation) of the trial judge’s analysis:

[10]      Inherent in this approach is a comparison of the complainant’s behaviour to what the trial judge viewed was “appropriate” behaviour that the trial judge would have expected of an adult threatened with a sexual assault or a victim of sexual assault. The issue here was not what steps the complainant should have taken to protect herself, but, rather, whether she consented to sexual activity with the respondent.

[11]      The complainant testified that she was afraid of the respondent after he sexually assaulted her. The trial judge found that the complainant’s conduct after the assault, which included continued association with the respondent and failure to flee or call out for help when possible, undermined her evidence, again measured against how the trial judge would have reasonably expected her to behave. She stated, “Aside from the alleged rape, there is no evidence to support a finding that her fear existed or if it existed was reasonable in the circumstances.”

Thankfully, the lower court acquittal (by Mitchell J.) included written reasons – R. v. A.B.A., 2018 ONSC 2198 (CanLII):

[22]         I am mindful that the expectation of how a victim of sexual assault will, or should, behave must not be assessed on the basis of stereotypes, generalizations and myths.  Having said that, the behaviour of the complainant occurring after the first incident causes me to approach her evidence with extreme caution skepticism. Her admitted conduct following the first incident and surrounding the later incidents on August 1 and 2, 2015 is, at the very least, inconsistent with her testimony that she was scared and intimidated by the accused.

No fewer than 16 bullet points in para. 25 describe behaviour of the complainant that was inconsistent with her claims.

See also para. 26:

[26]         The basic theme underpinning S.B.’s testimony was that she has never had any sexual attraction towards Mr. A.B.A. because he was her sister’s husband.  She testified that she was sickened by the assaults.  She testified that she simply went along with whatever he requested of her because she was terrified of and intimidated by him and he scared her.  Her testimony is circular.  To find her evidence that she was scared and frightened of Mr. A.B.A. credible, the court must first find she was raped.  Aside from the alleged rape, there is no evidence to support a finding that her fear existed or if it existed was reasonable in the circumstances.  She admitted, he never threatened her with physical violence at any time or slapped, punched, kicked or hit her as a means of forcing her to engage in sexual activity with him.  After the last incident of vaginal intercourse in the bedroom, they snuggled before falling asleep.  When they awoke later that morning, she made no attempt to have Mr. A.B.A. leave or leave herself.  Instead, made her alleged rapist soup and spent some time knitting before Mr. A.B.A. left on his own accord.   This is not the behaviour of an individual who has been brutally sexually assaulted for the past 15 plus hours.

And note the fantastic language in paras. 30-31:

[…]Mr. A.B.A. admitted to suggestions by Crown counsel that he was of poor, or at the very least, low moral character.  Character assassination does not prove his guilt nor does it make him more likely to have sexually assaulted S.B.

[31]         Similar in vein to the requirement that the court must disabuse itself of stereotypes regarding how victims should behave, so too the courts must be loath to stereotype persons who commit sexual assaults.  Merely because Mr. A.B.A. is a 220 pound man with what he claims is an exceptionally large penis and S.B. is a petite woman who presented as mild-mannered in the courtroom, does not make Mr. A.B.A. more likely to have committed the offence with which he has been charged and S.B. to be more likely a victim.

Of course, the acquittal is no doubt very unsafe for this panel of the ONCA (Pardu, MacPherson and Brown JJ.). Had it been the ABCA (or the Supreme Court), the acquittal would likely have been overturned regardless of who was sitting on the panel.

Brown/Witkin is helpful in that it provides decent nuance around rape myths and the fact that they’re generally admissible and their weight is in issue – not their admissibility (see Chapter 7). It fails to criticize the recent SCC trilogy of Barton, Goldfinch, and RV, unfortunately, unlike Sankoff, as I point out here (it’s gratifying to know that there are at least two lawyers in the country publicly criticizing our sexual assault laws not from the “victim’s” perspective). It also doesn’t challenge the SCC or the state of our laws today, although one can hardly blame them, given that it’s the Supreme Court and decades of law in Canada that they’d need to critique. One quibble in particular: at p. 213, it quotes R. v. Osolin, 1993 CanLII 54 (SCC) to suggest that “there is no evidence or research to suggest that false allegations are more common in sexual assaults than in other allegations.” In dissent in Osolin, L’Heureux-Dubé J. does say:

There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that false allegations are more common in sexual assaults than in other offences; indeed, given the data indicating the strong disincentives to reporting, it seems much more likely that the opposite is true.

That may be the case. I’m not aware of statistics on false reporting for sexual assault being higher than for other crimes, but I’d be shocked if it wasn’t. Have any studies been done on this specific issue? Inquiring minds need to know. Also, as I’ve pointed out previously, 2017 Stats Can data suggest that the number of sexual assault reports classified as unfounded was double the rate of other crimes (and that’s in a year when the rate dropped from 19% to 14% for unfounded sex assault allegations). Now I’ll concede that “unfounded” does not necessarily mean false, but I think L’Heureux-Dubé’s assertion (accepted uncritically by the authors here) is weak – at best. What’s that they say about absence of evidence?

Speaking of evidence, see Lisak, David & Gardinier, Lori & Nicksa, Sarah & Cote, Ashley, (2010) False Allegations of Sexual Assualt: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases, Violence Against Women, 16, 1318-34 – result is 2-10% of studied allegations of sexual assault were false – see here, p. 1318. It notes that other studies have come up with numbers of between 1.5 to 90% (p. 1319). Obvious concerns with the methodology of the study: it studied only alleged rapes reported to a university police – i.e. the parties were generally all university students (p. 1327). Also, it only counts cases where there is evidence that the report was false (e.g. p. 1318: “To classify a case as a false allegation, a thorough investigation must yield evidence that a crime did not occur”). Of course, that won’t exist in many cases of false reporting, just as reporting of sightings of Sasquatch won’t always have evidence confirming the claims to be false. Certainly, these sloppy social science findings (and assertions) are more than sufficient upon which to base countless wrongful convictions. A quick Wikipedia search is also helpful: note to our Supreme Court. And no, just because the vast majority of rapes may not be reported does not mean that the numbers are different and is not helpful in assessing the actual rate of false reports. For all we know, all of the non-reported rapes are true, and none of the reported ones are. But thanks L’Heureux-Dubé for qualifying yourself as an expert in social science and providing helpful evidence for the rest of us mortals here.

Surprisingly, sex assault convictions overturned in a 2-1 dissent by ABCA: R v Schmaltz, 2015 ABCA 4 (more on this case in a minute) and in R v Quintero-Gelvez, 2019 ABCA 17 (CanLII). In R. v. A.K., 2020 ONCA 435 (CanLII), a conviction was overturned for problematic reasons for disbelieving accused in a sex assault case. See also R. v D.R.S., 2013 ABCA 18 (CanLII) – sex assault conviction overturned after 8 years once complainant recanted – note the smarmy language of the ABCA (at para. 16, emphasis added):

Moreover, it is obviously not the fault of the appellant that he was convicted based on unreliable evidence. Nor is it any criticism of the Crown prosecutor, defence counsel, or the trial judge; it is merely a reflection of the fact that while the Canadian legal system is very good, it is not perfect.

I wouldn’t call it perfect or very good. Particularly in relation to sex assaults, it’s utterly horrendous.

Also, see this thoughtful blog post, and this book review.

Ururyar is an interesting case – it’s mentioned multiple times in Craig’s book (my review here). It’s a disturbing trial decision (a sex assault conviction – R. v. Ururyar, 2016 ONCJ 448 (CanLII), overturned in R. v. Ururyar, 2017 ONSC 4428 (CanLII), where the lower court judge’s reasoning was called “incomprehensible” multiple times (at paras. 57, 62, 64 – at least he didn’t use rape myths, so definitely no CJC complaint is necessary). The Crown – surprise surprise – did not re-prosecute (this wasn’t in Alberta). It appears to have been a blatant wrongful conviction – 4 of 6 grounds of appeal were valid, as well as the problematic and bats**t costs award against the accused (paras. 66-67). See the Star’s coverage here, Blatchford here, and charges dropped (Star). Also, see the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic’s disturbing press release after the appeal decision (you’ll probably be shocked to learn that they were disappointed with the result!). The impugned judge (Zuker) is apparently a professor at OISE and a judge until 2016. Craig is careful to note in a footnote that the trial decision was subsequently overturned, but “The case is cited here as relevant to the complainant’s experience of the trial process, and not as an endorsement of the trial judge’s reasoning”. Yet she also criticizes defence counsel’s cross-examination of the complainant for relying on the delayed disclosure stereotype (pp. 48-49), which again is not a problem per se – per Sankoff, Brown/Witkin, etc. – it is relevant and admissible, and the weight is the only factor that may be reduced.

She points out (pp. 196-197) that she clearly sides with the minority opinion in Schmaltz (emphasis added, my comments italicized in brackets):

As Justice Paperny demonstrated, that is not what occurred in this case. Take the accused’s argument that Judge Greaves improperly interfered with defence counsel’s ability to cross-examine the complainant as to whether she and Schmaltz had been flirting earlier in the day. The majority of the Court of Appeal concluded that this intervention interfered with cross-examination on a potentially critical ambiguity in the complainant’s statement to the police. Did she tell the police she flirted with him or not? Under Canadian law, whether the complainant was flirting earlier in the evening is irrelevant to the issue of consent [Incorrect – see next note]. Consent to sexual touching must be contemporaneous. It must be given at the time of sexual contact. An accused cannot rely on notions of implied consent or a mistaken belief in implied consent. The allegation in Schmaltz was that he digitally penetrated her vagina while she was asleep. He maintained that she was consenting [and was not sleeping, just to be perfectly clear]. To characterize the presence or absence of flirting earlier in the evening as a critical ambiguity in a case in which the central issue is consent suggests a misunderstanding of the law of consent on the part of the majority of the Court of Appeal [no, it doesn’t – flirting is absolutely relevant to whether or not consent occurred (e.g. see Brown/Witkin at p. 213), and Lisa Dufraimont points out this problem with Craig’s tirade nicely, as I’ve mentioned here. Further, as the majority points out, the much larger issue is credibility, and the trial judge’s interventions with cross-examination that might have shown flaws in credibility if it had not been stopped]. Whether she told the police she was flirting earlier in the evening is only a critical ambiguity if you assume that flirtation earlier in the evening made it more likely she consented to the vaginal penetration later in the evening: an assumption that would be wrong at law [wrong – again]. Indeed, far from being a critical ambiguity, upon a proper application of the law of consent, the ambiguity as to whether there was flirting was “collateral at best and irrelevant on the ultimate issue of consent.” To conclude that judicial intervention to interrupt this line of questioning created the perception of an unfair trial was wrong. As the dissent in Schmaltz correctly noted, the accused’s right to cross-examine a sexual assault complainant is circumscribed by common law rules and by provisions of the Criminal Code, which prohibit evidence of, among other things, a complainant’s sexual history and reputation, as well as irrelevant questions directed to discredited “rape myths” [again, not true – questions that may rely on stereotypes are admissible, and their weight needs to be apportioned carefully – this evidence is not prohibited, it merely may be found to be irrelevant]. The problematic fact that the Crown opened the door to this line of cross-examination by asking the complainant whether there was flirting earlier in the evening (discussed in chapter 5) does not alter the low probative value of the evidence.

Yet the majority of the ABCA decision notes, at para. 47 (emphasis added):

The difficulty however is that, while these issues may have been irrelevant to whether the complainant consented per se, defence counsel’s strategy was to show inconsistencies between the complainant’s trial testimony on these topics and her earlier statements. On these lines of questioning, defence counsel was not propagating rape myths. They were directed not to the issue of consent, but to the issue of credibility, which was central to the accused’s defence.

Note Brown/Witkin, at p. 218 (emphasis added), contradicting Craig’s point that the trial judge is expected to intervene at the slightest hint of cross-examination that may trigger stereotypical thinking:

A trier of fact may rely on the actual conduct of a complainant, witness, or accused in the context of the case being heard, so long as care is taken not to generalize. Evidence that involves how a person reacts to a situation or when a complaint is made, or whether the person engages in post-offence conduct can be helpful in that it informs a finding of credibility, but this evidence should not be assessed based on stereotypical generalizations about how a complainant (or accused) should behave given the nature of the case. Rather, the evidence should be analyzed looking at what is expected of that witness in that case based on his or her characteristics, background, etc. A trier of fact will be on safer ground relying as much as possible on how the person in question generally works, and would be expected to behave, rather than how the world works. Care must be taken to always consider explanations for behaviour and alternative inferences. Undoubtedly, the evidence must be tethered to an evidentiary base.

This is an excellent example of why I simply can’t stand Craig. I promise it would bother me less if she wasn’t cited approvingly by our Supreme Court on a regular basis.

Frankly, the law on stereotypes (e.g. delayed disclosure) is idiotic, and this fact partly (in a circular fashion) absolves Craig and everyone else (including our Supreme Court) of blame for butchering the law as badly as they do: see ADG (emphasis added):

[32]           The law is clear that no presumptive adverse inference may be drawn against a complainant who does not disclose sexual abuse immediately. Yet this does not mean that no consideration whatsoever can be given to the timing of the disclosure of abuse: R v TEM, 1996 ABCA 312 at paras 9-11, 187 AR 273, leave to appeal to SCC refused [1997] 2 SCR xv. The importance of delayed disclosure will vary depending on the circumstances of the particular complainant: TEM at para 11. Victims of sexual assault will have different reasons for reporting abuse at different points in time. It is up to finders of fact to evaluate the testimony of complainants and determine their credibility on the basis of all the evidence, including the timing of their disclosure.

[33]           No inference should be drawn regarding a complainant’s credibility that is based on assumptions about how a victim of sexual assault is supposed to react to the assault. The Supreme Court of Canada has made clear that sexual assault cases should be decided “without resort to folk tales about how abuse victims are expected by people who have never suffered abuse to react to the trauma”: R v Shearing, 2002 SCC 58 at para 121, [2002] 3 SCR 33. There is no inviolable rule on how victims of sexual assault will behave: R v DD2000 SCC 43 at para 63, [2000] 2 SCR 275.  It cannot be assumed that sexual assault victims will react to abuse in any objectively identifiable way. Findings of credibility should not be affected by the timing of disclosure alone – that is, affected by a comparison between a complainant’s disclosure and the disclosure of a hypothetical ‘objectively reasonable’ victim.

How on earth is a trial judge (or jury) supposed to reconcile the above 2 consecutive paragraphs? Delayed disclosure is irrelevant except when it isn’t? And if judges are allowed to consider delayed disclosure, why are judges like Yamauchi getting trashed by the ABCA for doing exactly that? If there is no “inviolable rule on how a sexual assault victim will behave”, how the heck is a judge supposed to consider delayed disclosure as a factor at all (preferably without being fired or ripped by the ABCA, the press and academics)? Perhaps a more sensible approach would be one that incorporates some common sense – wait, that’s a rape myth, too.

Here’s another tragic wrongful conviction: R. v. Howe, 2015 NSCA 84 (CanLII), lower court sentencing decision on QuickLaw – appears to be racially based wrongful conviction – see here. Jury decision where judge fu**ed up terribly (Chief Justice of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, mind you). Judge apparently very recently retired. Craig mentions it very briefly in her awful book (p. 216):

It is not uncommon for the Crown to decline to prosecute a second time because of a complainant’s unwillingness to endure the distress and disruption of testifying at a retrial.

Endnote 73: For recent examples, see the cases of Lyle Howe (Blair Rhodes, “Halifax Defence Lawyer Lyle Howe Has Sexual Assault Charge Dropped,” CBC News [18 February 2016]) and of Stephen Taweel (Blair Rhodes, “P.E.I. Businessman Stephen Nicholas Taweel Won’t Face Sex Assault Retrial,” CBC News [9 May 2016].

I’m pretty sure the distress and disruption of testifying for the complainant was far from the only reason why the Crown declined to prosecute a second time. Oh, and no comment on the awful lower court (jury) trial, nor any indication of reporting the involved judge to the CJC by any Nova Scotia or Alberta academics for his terrible role in the wrongful conviction – noticing a pattern here?

I’ll note an excellent podcast on a wrongful conviction (I think it included charges of sexual assault, alongside murder): Glen Assoun. It’s an excellent illustration of the problem with our criminal justice system: especially when it is thought of by the public and its actors as a tool to punish “criminals” whose guilt is instantly presumed rather than choosing to fairly and justly determine culpability in the first place and actually honouring the presumption of innocence (of course, ensuring that its “price is no greater than it has to be” – see here). The SCC dismissed the conviction appeal: Glen Eugene Assoun v. Her Majesty the Queen, 2006 CanLII 31717 (SCC), upholding the lengthy appeal court decision of R. v. Assoun, 2006 NSCA 47 (CanLII). Sentencing: R. v. Assoun, 1999 CanLII 2819 (NS SC). It took DNA evidence to exonerate him, and he was not exonerated until March, 2019: see R. v Assoun, 2019 NSSC 220 (CanLII) – after a mere 17 years in prison. Nova Scotia has been called the capital of wrongful convictions in Canada – I’m sure Alberta is not far behind.

For more fun recent wrongful convictions, see paras. 72-73 of R. v. S.S.S., 2020 BCCA 180 (CanLII), where a sex assault conviction was overturned due to the judge’s erroneous conclusion of external inconsistency between the accused’s testimony and that of another witness (emphasis added):

The trial judge’s unforgiving approach to the evidence of the appellant in this case contrasted sharply with her more tolerant approach to problems with the evidence of the complainant. It is not necessary, however, to make any determination as to whether the conviction should be overturned on the basis of uneven treatment of evidence. In this case, the judge’s error of principle in respect of “external inconsistencies” in the evidence of the appellant is sufficient to require a new trial.

Also, see R. v. Carbone, 2020 ONCA 394 (CanLII), essentially a dastardly lower court decision where the trial judge effectively reversed the burden of proof – on surprise – a sex assault trial (paras. 30-45).

All this, of course, neatly lines up with the lofty ideal of what we should be able to expect of our judges at all levels; at para. 40 of L’Heureux-Dubé and McLachlin JJ, in R. v. S. (R.D.), 1997 CanLII 324 (SCC) – emphasis added:

The reasonable person, through whose eyes the apprehension of bias is assessed, expects judges to undertake an open-minded, carefully considered, and dispassionately deliberate investigation of the complicated reality of each case before them.

Published by Efrayim Moldofsky

I am a junior criminal defence lawyer in Calgary, Alberta. Read my observations here.

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