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The longest and most costly criminal trial in Canadian history was thrown out of court yesterday when a Superior Court of Ontario judge ruled that enormous trial delays, undisclosed Crown evidence and a cast of stunningly untrustworthy Crown witnesses drawn from the Eastern Ontario underworld had rendered the entire proceeding unconstitutional.

Referring to the entire case as being "without precedent" in Canadian legal history, Mr. Justice Colin McKinnon said that he was "compellingly justified" in freeing Richard Trudel and James Sauvé after more than a dozen years spent behind bars.

"It is apparent to me, based on common sense and experience, that the memories of the key witnesses in this case have been ravaged over time and the prejudice arising from this fact is manifest now," he said.

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Mr. Sauvé, whose 14 years in prison ended yesterday, and Mr. Trudel, who was granted bail under condition of house arrest in 2005, appeared stunned as Judge McKinnon rendered his decision to stay their first-degree murder charges. They had steeled themselves to commence a retrial that was expected to last a year.

It would have elevated the cost of the entire case well above the almost $30-million it is already estimated to have cost.

In interviews late yesterday at their lawyers' office, the two men said they refused earlier offers to plead guilty to reduced charges, which would have led to their release before yesterday's ruling. "I had faith that the truth was on my side and that it would eventually come out," Mr. Trudel said. "That gave me the strength to fight it out."

Judge McKinnon said in his ruling that two unreliable underworld informants had already been dropped from the Crown's case, and that, given the remarkably unwholesome reputation and behaviour of remaining informant Denis Gaudreault, it would "violate the fundamental principles of justice which underlie the community's sense of fair play and decency" to allow the trial to proceed.

Unfortunately, the judge said, "the case depends on informer witnesses who, experience shows, constitute a decidedly grave threat to the due administration of justice. . . . Almost all of [them]were unsavoury, possessing checkered careers and suspected ill motives to testify against the applicants. Some were in witness protection programs receiving payments to testify."

Judge McKinnon noted that the case included a 2½-year preliminary inquiry, an 18-month trial and that it apparently took a "crippling" toll on the Ontario Legal Aid plan. He said the massive length of the preliminary inquiry was caused "almost entirely" by problems related to Crown disclosure and that evidence was often handed to the defence literally at the last moment.

Judge McKinnon condemned a four-year delay in the production of court transcripts needed for the defendants' appeal of their convictions. Worse still, he said, much of the transcript was ready after a year or two but was not delivered to the defence by court reporters.

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The Crown also "needlessly prolonged" the case by fighting a request from Mr. Sauvé and Mr. Trudel to have computers in prison to work on their case -- a necessary element of their defence that Judge McKinnon said they had a right to demand. The Crown wasted still more months by pursuing an appeal of the Court of Appeal's retrial ruling, which had almost no chance of succeeding, he said.

The total of unreasonable delay attributable to the Crown was 3½ years, Judge MacKinnon said: "In the present case, the delay is so inordinately long that the prejudice to the applicants is manifest."

Mr. Sauvé and Mr. Trudel appeared shell-shocked as they heard the ruling yesterday. Sitting in the prisoner's box, Mr. Sauvé appeared to wipe tears from his eyes and then shielded his head with one hand. Mr. Trudel fought to contain his elation until Judge McKinnon left the room. The two men immediately began hugging and clasping their lawyers, Matthew Webber, Lorne Goldstein, Neil Weinstein and Anne Weinstein.

Convictions against two other co-accused, Robert Stewart and Richard Mallory, who were tried and convicted separately for the Jan. 16, 1990, execution murders of drug dealers Michel Giroux and Manon Bourdeau, are also considered highly likely to fall. The Ontario Court of Appeal reserved judgment on their appeal last month in a case that closely mirrored that of Mr. Trudel and Mr. Sauvé.

"The calculation of the delays in their case is arguably worse than in this case," Mr. Goldstein said yesterday. In addition, he said, the problems with unreliable witnesses were "at least as strong" in the Stewart and Mallory case.

"We will certainly be considering Justice McKinnon's ruling to reach a decision on whether or not to pursue an appeal during the 30-day appeal period," Crown counsel Julia Scott said in an interview yesterday.

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Tasting freedom for the first time in 14 years, Mr. Trudel said that he and Mr. Sauvé intend to devote their energies to two vital causes: freeing their co-accused as soon as possible and winning a full exoneration.

In regard to the possibility that both men could have pleaded guilty to lesser offences in return for sharply reduced sentences, Mr. Goldstein said: "Had they been prepared to admit guilt, they probably would have been out 10 years ago."

Mr. Webber expressed amazement yesterday that a case that was so thin was allowed to go on for so long.

"This brings to an end a dark chapter in Canadian criminal jurisprudence," he said. "This case is an object lesson in how very, very dangerous it is to prosecute individuals on the backs of jailhouse informants and witnesses of their ilk."

It is about time the criminal justice system begins to pay attention to the findings of several commissions of inquiry into wrongful convictions that have denounced the use of unsavoury informant witnesses, Mr. Webber said.

Mr. Trudel and Mr. Sauvé said it is too early to comment on whether they will attempt to sue authorities or win compensation for their ordeal.

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