Glen Assoun calls for reform in how Ottawa considers cases of wrongful conviction
Glen Assoun, the Nova Scotia man who spent almost 17 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, stands outside Supreme Court in Halifax on Friday, July 12, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
HALIFAX -- Tethered to an ankle monitor and alone in a British Columbia basement apartment in the fall of 2017, Glen Eugene Assoun felt his sanity slipping away as his wrongful conviction file languished in Ottawa.
"I was sitting at the table and hearing voices. I was losing my mind," the 63-year-old recalled in a recent interview at his Halifax apartment.
"It started to dawn on me: Why is it taking so long to get justice?"
Assoun, his family and lawyers with Innocence Canada say the years spent on bail -- awaiting a ministerial declaration that his conviction for murder was likely a miscarriage of justice -- point to a slow, overly political and under-staffed system for probing wrongful convictions.
Assoun was acquitted of the knifing death of Brenda Way on March 1 of this year in Nova Scotia Supreme Court after spending 17 years in federal prison and 52 months on bail.
He remains angry about the "lost decades," and the multiple heart attacks and the mental illness he says he experienced in federal prisons. However, Assoun says he wants his suffering to bring change: an independent, well-funded review system to investigate alleged cases of wrongful conviction.
It's a recommendation first made in 1989 by the royal commission on Donald Marshall Jr.'s wrongful conviction for murder and one repeated in four other public inquiries, most recently the 2008 inquiry into the wrongful conviction of David Milgaard.
Yet, Assoun's case appears to have followed a familiar pattern of years of painful waiting that former Supreme Court of Canada judge Peter Cory described in a 2001 public inquiry as creating a "blight" on the family lives of the accused.
On Nov. 25, 2014, Assoun had emerged smiling from a Halifax courtroom, exchanging hugs with his daughters, whose euphoria was mixed with tears as their father tasted freedom.
He said he felt hopeful then, knowing a preliminary assessment by Justice Department lawyer Mark Green documented a key witness altering her story about an alleged confession and the RCMP erasing potential evidence of an alternative suspect.
Based on the assessment, Assoun says, he expected the federal justice minister at the time, Jody Wilson-Raybould, would receive a final investigation report promptly and make her decision within "a year or two."
In the meantime, Assoun's release conditions required him to leave his hometown and children behind. He flew to be with his brother and sister-in-law in British Columbia, where he was required to remain within metres of their Maple Ridge home.
On Aug. 4, 2016, Assoun asked the courts to allow him to live on his own, arguing he'd become a burden to his brother, whose health was declining. He moved into a basement in Chilliwack, still believing that before long a ministerial decision would arrive.
He says he couldn't afford gas for the 70-kilometre trip to Maple Ridge and was so poor that he relied on food banks for nourishment, usually tinned items and pasta. At times his ankle monitor failed, forcing him to stay connected to a charger as he awaited delivery of a replacement. He suffered recurring nightmares about his years in prison.
Assoun's children were also struggling as their hopes of a renewed relationship with their father were dashed and family milestones passed. For his youngest daughter, Amanda Huckle, an incoherent phone call from her frightened father -- who was imagining police were beating her -- remains a painful moment.
"I'll never forget it. He thought I was hurt somewhere. He was completely delusional," she said in a recent interview.
A Sept. 5, 2017 letter from his lawyers to police said links between the delays and Assoun's mental health had been documented in a psychologist's report that "has been provided ... for the (federal) Minister of Justice ..."
After he was stabilized during a month in hospital, the Nova Scotia Supreme Court altered Assoun's bail to allow him to move in with his daughter Amanda and her wife Shannon Huckle in Halifax, but the couple say his bouts of depression and sense of isolation continued.
"Those three years caused him a breaking point, and we had to pick up the pieces after that," recalled Shannon.
Wilson-Raybould declined an interview request, stating in an email that it would be inappropriate for her to discuss the details of Assoun's case when there may be a public inquiry or court case.
She did say Assoun's was one of "many complex applications simultaneously" being handled by her department and noted she appointed retired Justice Morris Fish as special adviser on wrongful convictions on Dec. 6, 2018.
However, The Canadian Press confirmed with government sources a Halifax Examiner report that Assoun's case was before Raybould-Wilson and ready for her signature by September 2017 but remained unsigned over 17 months later when she was shifted out of the portfolio in January 2019.
Wilson-Raybould's successor, David Lametti, said he acted within weeks of seeing his officials' recommendations. "The compelling facts of the case, as well as the health of Mr. Assoun, underscored the need for expeditious action," he said in an email. He declined an interview.
Innocence Canada's lawyers say the varying responses of politicians demonstrate why an independent review board is needed. Jerome Kennedy, who sits on Innocence Canada's board, says as long as a federal minister is directly involved, political factors can come into play.
"There were viable suspects raised 10 years earlier, and police destroyed valuable evidence, and so why it would take almost five years for a decision for Glen Assoun is simply astounding," says the former attorney general of Newfoundland and Labrador.
He notes the preliminary assessment showed that an RCMP officer had been researching serial killer Michael McGray as a suspect in the Way murder, and yet the RCMP had destroyed this evidence before Assoun's unsuccessful appeal in 2006.
In addition, the report said a key witness changed her testimony that Assoun was the bearded man who assaulted her in 1996-97 and who during the assault had admitted to killing Way.
Lametti, who is campaigning for re-election in Montreal, said he is "always open to exploring good ideas to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the processes to address cases of wrongful conviction."
Ian MacLeod, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said in the past year, the criminal conviction review group has added two full-time lawyers to its staff, bringing the total to seven. In the meantime, to help address a backlog from a recent increase in applications, it has made use of outside agents to ensure files are assigned.
He declined comment on the specifics of Assoun's case but said the department must carefully review materials from applicants, and it may need to obtain and review the police and Crown files, seek out expert scientific opinions, and request DNA and other forms of testing.
"Each of these steps can cause delay," MacLeod said in an email. He said the review group is currently looking at 38 applications, including eight from Innocence Canada.
Still, Amanda Huckle is hoping the repeated calls for an independent review process don't again disappear into an Ottawa maze, leaving others to suffer in silence.
"Our political leaders need to be aware of all the harm these families are going through," she said. "Timely actions are needed so their lives can continue."
This report by the Canadian Press was first published on Sept. 22, 2019.