Robert Nuttall had few illusions about his client. Brian Dickson's actions had been "despicable," "disturbing" and "blameworthy," Mr. Nuttall conceded, and "I'm not trying to excuse them. He's not walking away."
Mr. Dickson had pleaded not guilty to the first-degree murder of Qian Liu, a 23-year-old student from Beijing studying at Toronto's York University. In the now famous "webcam murder," Ms. Liu had been chatting, by computer hook-up, with her ex-boyfriend in China in the early hours of April 15, 2011, when the ex-boyfriend saw a man enter Ms. Liu's room and knock her down.
The friend heard Ms. Liu's cries of "no" and heavy breathing off-camera. Moments later, the man appeared naked in front of the webcam and turned off the computer.
The Crown argued that Mr. Dickson, who was a tenant in the same building, sexually assaulted Ms. Liu, then killed her by mechanical asphyxiation to cover it up.
But, Mr. Nuttall wondered at trial, did Mr. Dickson think, "I'm going to commit murder because I don't want anyone to know I was fooling around with her without her consent? There's a lot of difference between getting caught for trying to steal some sex and getting caught for murder."
What Mr. Nuttall suggested to the jury was that his client's conduct, while abhorrent, did not support "the necessary inference beyond a reasonable doubt … that Mr. Dickson had murderous intent." He argued for a finding of manslaughter.
The jury wasn't convinced, and following a headline-generating trial in 2014, convicted Mr. Dickson of first-degree murder. "It was a very tough case," Mr. Nuttall said after the verdict. "A very, very tragic case."
It was one of many infamous murder trials for the well-known and well-regarded Toronto criminal-defence lawyer. Some were just as tragic – and stomach-churning – as Ms. Liu's. He defended Kevin Madden, who was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment for savagely butchering his little brother, Johnathon, who was discovered stuffed into a crawl space in his family's Toronto home in November, 2003. He'd been stabbed 71 times, severing his voice box and carotid artery.
Mr. Nuttall had argued that the sheer brutality of the attack showed that the teenaged Mr. Madden was not in control of his faculties. "He is not a bad person," his lawyer would later reflect, "He is a sick person."
Mr. Madden's first trial ended in a mistrial, and Mr. Nuttall pointed out how hard that can be for a defence lawyer. "Retrials are one of the hardest things to do," he said. "You're awfully stale the second time around. Don't forget that when you first present a case, it's a lot of theatre. The danger is you can really lose your edge."
Mr. Nuttall, who died July 30 at his farm near Cobourg, Ont., at the age of 67 following a short but as yet unknown neurological illness, also defended a member of the "Toronto 18," a group that plotted bombing attacks in Ottawa and Toronto in 2006.
Toronto criminal-defence lawyer Brian Greenspan recalled "a very easy and effective working relationship" with Mr. Nuttall. "He was someone who had very effectively mastered and understood the human aspects of a jury trial," Mr. Greenspan said. "He would always approach the jury with great skill and strategic insight."
And he made it look easy. "He approached the most challenging homicide trial the way most criminal trial lawyers approach [a case of] impaired driving," Mr. Greenspan said.
"It appeared to be natural for him. He was the consummate advocate."
Robert Charles Nuttall was born on May 10, 1950, in Port Arthur, Ont. (now Thunder Bay), the oldest of four boys of Jim, an accountant for the federal government, and Mabel, who worked for the local school board. While his three brothers all became engineers, Robert graduated from the University of Windsor's law school and was called to the bar in 1977.
He worked as a Crown prosecutor for 12 years before switching to the defence side in 1988, when he joined his wife, Judyth Rekai, whom he'd met in law school, in private practice.
While prosecuting one high-profile case, Mr. Nuttall produced evidence that helped convict the accused of murder. In 1985, Wade Thomas Wright denied raping and choking to death his co-worker, Maureen Fiaschetti, 23, on her waterbed. Through the police, Mr. Nuttall learned that Mr. Wright had paid prostitutes to come to his home. One of them, Jaimie, testified that Mr. Wright had choked her during intercourse. Mr. Wright insisted he had never seen Jaimie before.
The next day, Mr. Nuttall produced a cheque for $350, signed by Mr. Wright and drawn on his bank account, payable to Jaimie. It was damning evidence that proved the accused's behaviour and helped deliver a life sentence for Mr. Wright.
Mr. Nuttall also introduced as evidence at that trial the actual waterbed on which the murder was committed. It was brought to the courtroom and set up to show how Mr. Wright's telltale palm print was left while he was raping his victim.
"He was a very fair guy as a prosecutor, very diligent and hard-working," recalled Toronto criminal lawyer John Rosen, who defended Mr. Wright and recalled that Mr. Nuttall allowed time for him to confer with his client after the cheque's appearance. "He also brought some degree of success to the defence side. He was easy to deal with. He'll be missed."
On the defence side, Mr. Nuttall won an acquittal for one of the three men charged in the murder of university student Paul Semple, a Good Samaritan who was beaten and stabbed to death when he came to the aid of a woman who was being attacked by some thugs. Another client who faced a murder rap in a stabbing at a Toronto nightclub saw the charge dropped. His nickname was "Lucky."
Ali Mohamed Dirie, one of the Toronto 18, pleaded guilty to importing and possession of firearms and ammunition and was sentenced to seven years. Mr. Nuttall was surprised and saddened to learn that in 2013 his former client had been killed while fighting in Syria.
Like many criminal lawyers, Mr. Nuttall didn't keep a tally of wins and losses. "Giving a client the best defence he could was his idea of a win," his wife of nearly 40 years said.
His passion for justice and its application was seen in 1987, when, while an assistant Crown attorney, he prosecuted the case of a disbarred lawyer who was sentenced to 15 months for stealing $75,000 from a widow's bequest to the Canadian Cancer Society. It was a sad case in every way, but Mr. Nuttall saw a bigger picture. "It was a breach of the sanctity of a death wish," he said. "It is part of our duty to protect the integrity of the bar. The public must have faith in the court system."
Mr. Nuttall leaves his wife, Judyth; his parents; his children, Sean, James, Megan and Teddy; three grandchildren; and three brothers.