Lost evidence, derailed cases shake legal faith in N.L. justice

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. -- Sebastian Benuen uses one word to describe the collapse of the criminal case against the man charged with killing his four-month-old grandson: "Devastating.

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"I don't know what's going on with the justice (system)," he said from Sheshatshiu, N.L., near Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

"There's all kinds of questions that need to be answered."

It has been a rough stretch for Newfoundland and Labrador's Justice Department. It announced in December that a second-degree murder charge laid in 2013 had been withdrawn against Thomas Michel, the father of Benuen's baby grandson, Matthew Rich.

The case could not proceed because crucial evidence -- tissue from the baby's brain -- had gone missing.

That revelation was followed in recent weeks by several cases tossed out of court over undue delays and questionable investigative methods. They include a child pornography case that involved a long wait for forensic analysis from police, a major fraud case that took more than eight years to come to trial, and a child luring case dismissed due to Charter of Rights violations.

"It is not acceptable," Justice Minister Andrew Parsons said in an interview. "We have to take the steps that are necessary to avoid this happening."

Parsons was sworn in after the Liberals took power in December, following 12 years of Progressive Conservative rule. He said he doesn't know yet what it will take to prevent further cases being dismissed.

"Do we need better protocol? Better policy? Different resources? I don't know. These are the answers we are still seeking."

Last month, Parsons asked Alberta's Serious Incident Response Team to review the RCMP's investigation into the killing of Don Dunphy. He was shot dead last Easter Sunday by a Royal Newfoundland Constabulary member who was part of then-premier Paul Davis' security team.

The officer went alone to the home of Dunphy, 59, in Mitchells Brook to investigate a perceived threat against provincial politicians on Twitter. The RCMP have reported that the officer said he responded with "lethal force" after Dunphy pointed a loaded .22-calibre rifle at him.

And in a separate case last month, the Justice Department also called in the Serious Incident Response Team from Nova Scotia to review a complaint regarding how the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary handled an undisclosed investigation.

Details were sparse, but the director of the Halifax-based team said the matter involves allegations "of potential criminal conduct."

St. John's lawyer Mark Gruchy believes at least some of the recent upheaval is linked to social and criminal fallout from the province's unprecedented offshore oil boom and its sudden economic decline. Prosecutions have also become increasingly complex, he said in an interview.

"I feel like for a long time the political powers were kind of asleep at the wheel. I don't think they are anymore."

Any changes must be considered in light of the province's almost $2-billion projected deficit. A senior government source who was not authorized to speak publicly said growing pressure to cut spending by as much as 30 per cent won't enhance police work or case management.

Still, Parsons has already said he wants to introduce civilian-run oversight for cases of potential police misconduct. He also plans an independent review of how baby Matthew Rich's brain tissue was lost.

When the murder charge against Michel was withdrawn in December, the Chief Medical Examiner's office said that autopsy tissue is kept for independent review in suspicious deaths, including "non-accidental head injury in infants."

"Following examination of the brain by a forensic pathologist and a neuropathologist, subsequent attempts to locate the specimen were unsuccessful and it appears (it) may have been inadvertently disposed," the office said in a statement.

"I'm a dad," Parsons said. "It's a very tragic case and I can't imagine what the family's going through."

Benuen recalled how his daughter - who he said is still in a relationship with Michel - brought his grandson for a visit just before he died.

"I played with him. He was standing on my knees. He was a very healthy baby at that time. And all of a sudden, a couple of days later, he's gone."

Somebody must be held responsible for mistakes that have denied the family justice, Benuen said.

"We need answers."


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