Ontario’s highest court has overturned the verdict in a four-month murder trial because prosecutors obtained masses of private information about potential jurors in contravention of a Crown directive instructing them not to do so.
The decision means that a Barrie, Ont., man, Clare Alexander Spiers, will get a new trial for the abduction and murder of a woman and the abduction of her infant grandchild.
Released Wednesday, the judgment is the most devastating to the Crown in a series of cases that stretch back several years and deal with secret police probes into the background of potential jurors – a process known as jury vetting.
Referring to Mr. Spiers’s 2007 conviction as a miscarriage of justice, Court of Appeal judges Paul Rouleau, Stephen Goudge and Harry LaForme said the Crown’s inside information meant that the jury selection process ended up being a mismatch between Crown and defence.
“This mismatch came about in large measure because of breaches by the Crown of its own policies, misuse of police databases and breaches of privacy legislation,” the court said. “There can be no doubt that the public and an accused would view with grave suspicion a jury selection process that unfairly favours the Crown.”
Mr. Spiers was accused of kidnapping a woman and her 11-month-old grandchild from their home in May, 2004. Police found the distraught child unharmed, but her grandmother had been stabbed and strangled to death.
After six days of deliberation, a jury found Mr. Spiers – who had been selling roof-and-window repairs in the victims’ neighbourhood on the day of the slaying – guilty of first-degree murder and two counts of kidnapping. He is in his fifth year of a life sentence.
It later emerged that, prior to trial, prosecutors had sent jury-panel lists to seven police detachments. Police were asked to provide details or comments that might help the Crown determine whether a potential juror was pro-law enforcement or held negative attitudes toward police.
Police assembled hundreds of pages of material by consulting criminal records, highway traffic-act violations and databases that contain information about incidental encounters with police. The jury-panel lists were returned with comments such as, “has mental issues,” “complaint in domestic assault,” or “hates police.”
On appeal, the Crown conceded that the information ought to have been disclosed to the defence at Mr. Spiers’s trial, but wasn’t.
In their defence, the prosecutors said they had been unaware of a Ministry of the Attorney-General directive forbidding any jury vetting that goes beyond criminal-record checks.
Anthony Moustacalis, a lawyer for Mr. Spiers, said the fiasco was costly for his client and the court system.
“It was a four-month trial with two months of motions, three Crowns, two police officers and two defence counsel,” he said. “You are looking at a few million dollars.”
Mr. Moustacalis said there is no way of knowing how many past convictions are tainted because jurors were secretly investigated.
“The Crown broke the law and misused privacy databases,” he said. “From a public point of view, many jurors have had their privacy invaded very deeply – and they wouldn’t have any idea this was done to them.”
One of the prosecutors on the Spiers case – Elizabeth Quinlan – has since been appointed a judge of the Superior Court of Ontario.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court of Canada heard several test cases involving the practice of jury vetting. It has reserved judgment, but Mr. Moustacalis said he expects the court to study the Spiers ruling.
“This one is clearly the worst case,” Mr. Moustacalis said. “I’m sure the Supreme Court will look at it because … it relates to the other cases under reserve.”