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Jian Ghomeshi makes his way through a mob of media with his lawyer Marie Henein at a Toronto court on Nov. 26, 2014. Ghomeshi faces four counts of sexual assault and one of choking. More than a year since the allegations against Ghomeshi sent shock waves across the country, his highly anticipated trial is set to begin in Toronto on Monday.

Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

On a chilly afternoon in late November, 2014, a lightning storm of flashbulbs lit up the faces of Jian Ghomeshi and his lawyer, Marie Henein, as they tried to push their way through a crush of cameras at College Park in downtown Toronto. It was Mr. Ghomeshi's first time in public after being fired by CBC the previous month, and he had just been charged at the courthouse upstairs with numerous counts of sexual assault. But as the media zoomed in on the disgraced host and his glamorous legal team, another key player in the unfolding drama slipped away unnoticed.

On Monday, though, Crown counsel Michael Callaghan will be thrown into the spotlight with unusual force as he begins the prosecution of Regina v. Jian Ghomeshi before Justice William B. Horkins of the Ontario Court of Justice in courtroom 125 of Old City Hall. Mr. Callaghan will carry not just the burden of proving the state's case on the biggest stage of his career, but also the expectations of many who hope the trial will reinforce rather than undermine the growing impetus for sexual assault victims to come forward.

"His reputation could be made on this case," noted Constance Backhouse, a legal historian and professor of law at the University of Ottawa. "It's an opportunity, and it's pressure."

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Jian Ghomeshi wtach: What you've missed so far

Mr. Ghomeshi is facing four counts of sexual assault and one of choking. The incidents, which involve three complainants, are alleged to have taken place between December, 2002, and July, 2003, when Mr. Ghomeshi was the host of the arts show play on CBC-TV's Newsworld channel. He will face trial in June on an additional charge of sexual assault stemming from an alleged workplace incident in January, 2008, when he was host of Q on CBC Radio One.

Mr. Ghomeshi's high-priced lawyer, Ms. Henein, has been extensively chronicled as a brilliant strategist, a sharkish defence counsel in stiletto heels who will stop at nothing – within the confines of the law – to advance her client's case.

Much less is known of Mr. Callaghan.

From interviews with Mr. Callaghan's colleagues conducted by The Globe and Mail, he emerges as Ms. Henein's modal opposite: a low-profile career prosecutor who is respected by the courts, considered to be firm but fair, and who displayed impressive sensitivity and compassion in his dealings with the mentally ill defendants he frequently prosecuted. (Mr. Callaghan declined an interview request by The Globe.)

Born in Sarnia, Ont., to a father who was a teacher and a mother who was a nurse, Mr. Callaghan, 43, is the third of four children in a household that his brother Joseph, who is also a Crown prosecutor, characterized as academically inclined. "We read the paper from a very early age," Joseph Callaghan said. "We always discussed news, issues." Michael Callaghan attended the University of Ottawa for a degree in political science, then went to Dalhousie University's Schulich School of Law. He graduated in 1996 and went straight into the civil service, articling for the Crown.

For a number of years, Mr. Callaghan was the head crown at College Park, where he oversaw the prosecutorial activities at the courthouse.

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"He's a very capable prosecutor, but he combines that with a real sense of fairness," said Mark Sandler, a well-known defence counsel who faced off against Mr. Callaghan in the so-called "crossbow killer case" in 2012, in which Mr. Sandler's client, Zhou (Peter) Fang, admitted killing his father after years of being abused by him.

Mr. Callaghan "showed real sensitivity to the particular mitigating circumstances, and he worked very co-operatively in securing not only the conventional disclosure but also additional information that was relevant to the defence in the case, including medical records that came to the accused family, and the abuse that he had suffered in that case," Mr. Sandler said. "So I have a lot of respect for him and I know the court has a lot of respect for Michael, as well." (At the trial's conclusion, Justice John McMahon praised both Mr. Callaghan and Mr. Sandler for their behaviour in what he termed "an exceptionally difficult case.")

Mr. Sandler and Mr. Callaghan are both members of the Attorney-General's Justice Roundtable, which is exploring issues of mentally ill individuals who come into contact with the criminal justice system. Colleagues say Mr. Callaghan is especially sensitive in this area, having served for many years as a prosecutor in the province's mental-health court at College Park.

"He has a lot of empathy," Joseph Callaghan said. "Working in the business, especially at College Park, the population they serve, I just think the day-to-day reality brought home to him the issues. In the criminal justice system, we're left to pick up the pieces after the rest of the social fabric, the safety net, has failed. So, those who haven't gotten treatment or have refused treatment or whatever, are now in our court."

Another lawyer who has faced Mr. Callaghan noted that he took seriously his responsibility to strive for a fair outcome. "The Crown's role is not to simply get a conviction at all costs," said Alison Mackay, whose client, a Peterborough hockey coach, pleaded guilty in 2013 to child pornography charges and received a short sentence on Mr. Callaghan's recommendation, which took into account several mitigating factors.

Still, she warned against underestimating Mr. Callaghan. "He's not going to be a pushover. Don't let the fact he's kind and reasonable be mistaken for someone who will not be a strong advocate" for justice.

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Other cases prosecuted by Mr. Callaghan include those of a mother who had abducted her daughter and raised her under an assumed name for almost 20 years, and an arsonist with the mental capacity of a child who torched Toronto's Empress Hotel.

While Mr. Callaghan's highest-profile cases resulted in convictions, those defendants pleaded guilty: The Ghomeshi charges are expected to be contested in court.

(Asked about Mr. Callaghan's track record as a prosecutor of sexual assault cases, a spokesman for the Ministry of the Attorney-General wrote in an e-mail, "Mr. Callaghan is an experienced prosecutor who has been with the Ministry for many years and has prosecuted a wide variety of cases, including sexual assault offences in both the Ontario Court of Justice and the Superior Court of Justice." The spokesman did not respond to repeated requests for details on those sexual assault cases.)

Ms. Backhouse suggested that a track record prosecuting sexual assaults may not actually be necessary. "Lots of experience is really helpful, but so is preparation, intelligence and perseverance, and those qualities do not only belong to people with experience."

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