Alberta's top prosecutor has launched an investigation after a judge dismissed a sexual assault case – one dating back to where the victim was just nine years old – because it took too long to go to trial.
The case was stayed Oct. 3, effectively killing it. The accused man, who can't be identified due to a publication ban, cannot be charged again and is now free.
It left the victim's family devastated, unable to publicly name the alleged abuser and without any legal recourse.
"[I feel] sick. Absolutely sick," said the victim's mother, who also can't be identified. She had hoped "obviously that he would be found guilty and be put in prison, but just to actually get to court and tell her 'I'm sorry' – to actually have him be in court and realize what he did was not acceptable."
The case has left Alberta's Crown attorneys frustrated, says Greg Lepp, the associate deputy minister at Alberta's Ministry of Justice and the Attorney General. Mr. Lepp oversees the province's prosecutors.
"It's extremely frustrating, even within the department, when something like this happens. It's not what we want to have happen. It's not why we come to work every day," Mr. Lepp told The Globe and Mail, saying he sympathizes with the frustration of the victim's family.
"She wanted this case to go to court, and her family wanted this case to go to court and be resolved. And so did we in Alberta Justice. We wanted this case to go to court and be resolved. We understand her frustration, we sympathize with her, we share it, but obviously she's more acutely touched by this than we are, so our thoughts are with her."
The accused was charged after the alleged victim came forward in 2009, six years after the alleged abuse ended. The man was charged with sexual assault, sexual interference, invitation to sexual touching and sexual exploitation, all dating back over eight years when the alleged victim was between nine and 17 years old. The accused man's relationship with the victim is also covered by a publication ban.
The family was told that an unrelated murder case tied up the court system in their community of Airdrie, a fast-growing suburb of Calgary. The local MLA, Rob Anderson, believes a shortage of Crown attorneys caused this.
Mr. Lepp refuted that, saying the availability of Crown prosecutors "categorically" was not a factor. Instead, he said, it was a combination of factors that led this case to drag on and eventually fall apart. "There were all kinds of things that would happen," Mr. Lepp said, adding: "When cases are complicated, there's lots of issues."
In this case, a storm delayed testimony. Illness caused another delay. Eventually, after just over three years, the defence asked for the charges to be stayed. The judge agreed.
"It comes as no comfort obviously to the family in the case, but in Alberta this is a very, very rare and unfortunate occurrence," Mr. Lepp said. "It happens almost never in Alberta. And it did happen in this case, and one case is one too many."
The victim's family blames the Crown attorney in the case – saying it took 18 months for him to interview the victim. "I think he dropped the ball, and I wasn't aware that this could even be thrown out. I kept phoning him and phoning him, saying, 'What's going on, what's going on?' And he said. 'Oh, don't worry, it's normal. It takes this long to do things,' " the victim's mother said in an interview.
Mr. Lepp, who spoke this week with the Crown attorney who handled the case, said he doesn't think the Crown is to blame, saying police would have interviewed her before recommending charges be laid. Instead, the Crown would customarily meet with a witness to prepare them before a case went to trial.
"I'm satisfied that [a delay by the Crown] would not have been the determining factor," Mr. Lepp said. "Obviously time will tell when I take a look, as a comprehensive review is being done, but the witness would have been interviewed long before charges would have been laid."
Mr. Lepp estimates his investigation will take at least two months.
Mr. Anderson raised the issue in the Alberta legislature Thursday, saying it's a sign that the justice system is broken.
"What's important here is this. You have someone that was allegedly violated in the worst possible way for eight years, and will not have a chance to face her alleged perpetrator in court," Mr. Anderson, an lawyer by training, said in an interview. "A justice system that would allow for something like this to happen is not a justice system. It's a joke."