SCC judgment reinforces fundamental legal principles

SCC judgment reinforces fundamental legal principles

By Vince Semenuk
A recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) reinforces the legal principle that the Crown must present clear evidence to win a criminal conviction. It also shows the value of having effective defence counsel at trial.

As court documents state, Shawn Metzger was convicted of a home invasion in Morningside, Alta., in June 2017. During a burglary, a resident woke to find three or four masked intruders in his house. He was struck on the head with a baseball bat, dazing him as a flow of blood obscured his vision.

The man said the intruders demanded that he open a safe where he kept cash. He was then bound and blindfolded before the intruders drove off in his truck.

The truck was found about 11 hours later outside a bar in Red Deer, Alta. DNA testing on a cigarette butt under the driver’s seat led the police to Metzger. In addition, the victim testified that he may have heard Metzger’s last name spoken by one of the intruders during the robbery, but his defence counsel argued that recollection could not be trusted.

‘Evidence was fraught with frailties’

The SCC agreed, ruling, “that evidence was fraught with frailties. [The resident] was struck on the head with a baseball bat at the outset of the robbery and was fading in and out of consciousness. In his testimony, he actively questioned his own recollection of what he had heard.”

The ruling adds, “He did not mention to the police during his initial interviews that he had overheard the name ‘Metzger,’ rather, an investigating officer first mentioned the name during a telephone interview, months or possibly years after the robbery.”

When the case went to trial Metzger did not testify. His defence counsel put forward various scenarios as to why his DNA would be found on the cigarette butt in the man’s stolen truck, but the trial judge rejected the arguments. Metzger was convicted of offences including breaking and entering to steal a firearm and two counts of robbery.

He unsuccessfully challenged that outcome in the Alberta Court of Appeal, leading to the SCC setting aside his convictions.

DNA by itself does not establish guilt

As their judgment notes, “The DNA evidence, standing alone, would not be sufficient to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt … the DNA evidence at best permitted an inference that the appellant was in the vehicle at some point in time prior to its recovery by the police. There was no evidence indicating when and why the appellant may have been in the vehicle, which was unaccounted for during the 11 hours between the robbery and its recovery.”

The judgment adds, “there were also pieces of clothing and other items in the vehicle that the forensic identification officer acknowledged were not sent for DNA analysis. In these circumstances, the DNA evidence alone could not have established a case to meet against the appellant with respect to participation in the robbery.”

After considering all the evidence, the court surmised that “no trier of fact, acting judicially, could reasonably be satisfied that the accused’s guilt was the only reasonable conclusion available.”

The SCC also addressed Metzger’s choice not to give testimony on his own behalf. The court noted, “In light of the evidentiary weaknesses of both the DNA evidence and [the complainant’s] recollection, I respectfully disagree with the view that this is an instance in which the appellant’s decision not to testify at trial can be raised against him.”

‘A very weak Crown case’

In addition, the judgment references another SCC judgment, noting: “This was not a case in which the evidence cried out for an explanation that only the appellant’s testimony could have provided, such that he must accept the consequences of having remained silent. It was a very weak Crown case built on identification. The failure of the accused to testify does not undermine his argument that the verdict was unreasonable.”

This is a sound decision by our nation’s highest court. Keep in mind that two important principles are at the root of every criminal trial. The first is that the burden of proof is entirely on the Crown, meaning that the accused does not have to prove they are innocent.

The second is the presumption of innocence that anyone accused of a crime enjoys, as guaranteed by s.11(d) of Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Both of these fundamental principles are regularly echoed by the SCC. For example, this judgment notes that “the expression ‘reasonable doubt’ … has a specific meaning in the legal context. The trial judge must explain to the jury that the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is inextricably intertwined with the presumption of innocence, the basic premise which is fundamental to all criminal trials, and that the burden of proof rests on the prosecution throughout the trial and never shifts to the accused. The jury should be instructed that a reasonable doubt is not an imaginary or frivolous doubt, nor is it based upon sympathy or prejudice. A reasonable doubt is a doubt based on reason and common sense which must logically be derived from the evidence or absence of evidence.”

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