A Crown attorney's "misunderstanding of the law" stalled a police investigation into the alleged rape of Rehtaeh Parsons and doused any possibility of early charges in the case of the bullied Nova Scotia teen who died after attempting suicide in 2013.
The finding emerged on Thursday from a 157-page report by Murray Segal, former chief prosecutor of Ontario, that highlights human errors in the case while largely clearing the province's criminal justice system of larger systemic problems.
The errors were "made in good faith," Mr. Segal said in an afternoon news conference. "It was human error. It was not an error of sloth of someone with an agenda … someone got it wrong."
Ms. Parsons's death drew international condemnation of the Nova Scotia criminal justice system for a perceived lack of willingness to investigate and prosecute the events leading to her death.
The Segal review offers a far more nuanced sequence of events.
That timeline traces back to November, 2011, when a photo of Ms. Parsons, who was 15 at the time, began circulating among students at her school via Blackberry Messenger and other electronic means. The image captured Ms. Parsons vomiting while engaged in an act of non-consensual sex, she would later tell investigators.
After an initial interview by RCMP Constable Kim Murphy, the case fell to Detective Constable Patricia Snair of the Halifax police's Sexual Assault Investigation Unit (SAIT), who immediately identified possible child pornography and sexual assault offences.
After a one-year investigation, Det. Constable Snair and her superiors at Halifax Regional Police were confident they could lay child pornography distribution charges against two teens, and a child pornography possession charge against a third. They were less sure about a sexual assault charge, and consulted the Nova Scotia Prosecution Service, where they received some galling advice. Not only was a sexual assault charge not advisable, but, according to junior Crown prosecutor Peter Dostal, who had consulted with Craig Botterill, the senior Crown responsible for child pornography and child cyberoffences, the prosecution service was not willing to proceed with child pornography charges, either.
The file was effectively closed. Five months after receiving the news that police would not lay charges against her alleged rapists, Ms. Parsons attempted suicide. She died three days later.
A day after her daughter's death, Leah Parsons received a Facebook message from one of the teens involved in the alleged rape. She passed it along to police and the case was reopened.
"The Crown's advice related to the child pornography offences was incorrect," Mr. Segal states in the review. "It reflected a misunderstanding of the law as it relates to child pornography."
The province eventually brought in a prosecutor from Ontario who recommended two child pornography charges, which led to guilty pleas.
That was not the sole error in the case, Mr. Segal found.
From the outset, he said, police erred in having the responding officer, Constable Murphy, conduct a two-hour interview with Ms. Parsons in the presence of her mother that was neither recorded nor videotaped, although the officer took notes. Federal police policy states children should be interviewed alone. Because there was no recording and the interviewer was not a designated SAIT investigator, Ms. Parsons had to be subjected to another lengthy interview, causing "an unavoidable negative impact," the report said.
"I do acknowledge there were some shortcomings upon the initial receipt of the complaint," Halifax police chief Jean-Michel Blais said.
Other errors arose from trying to apply old-fashioned investigative techniques to the blink-of-an-eye pace of information exchanges among teens with smartphones, including waiting to interview alleged perpetrators until a persuasive body of evidence could be assembled from other sources.
"It's a traditional way of policing to not rush and speak to the accused right off the bat," Mr. Segal said. "It's a tried and true method to get all your ducks in a row."
The lack of overt police scrutiny on the alleged attackers meant that bullying continued. While the investigation was going on, Ms. Parsons routinely received text messages soliciting sex and calling her a "slut."
"In the circumstances, a year-long investigation was simply unacceptable," Mr. Segal wrote.
In 17 recommendations, Mr. Segal called for a revision of protocols on interviewing children, a greater prioritization of cases involving children and a more formalized approach to the way Crowns provide advice to police.
"In terms of those mistakes and shortcomings directly related to police, we apologize and remain committed to addressing the issues and recommendations so that we continue to progress," said Chief Superintendent Dennis Daley, acting officer in charge of Halifax District RCMP.
Martin Herschorn, Nova Scotia director of public prosecutions, called the review "a very thoughtful and constructive report" and said the prosecution service accepts all Mr. Segal's recommendations.
The prosecution service has already launched more intensive training for Crowns on the impact of sexual assault and the legal parameters of consent.