An Acquittal is not a Fundamental Miscarriage of Justice (a law student perspective)
With the recent high-profile cases regarding the deaths Tina Fontaine and Colton Boushie, there is a popular misconception equating a conviction with justice and an acquittal with a fundamental miscarriage of justice. There is no doubt that Tina Fontaine was murdered, and there is no doubt that Tina Fontaine led a tragic and difficult life. However, the acquittal of Raymond Joseph Cormier was not a miscarriage of justice, and a wrongful conviction should not be regarded as “hope” to Tina’s family or the greater community.
Jody Ostapiw, president of the Manitoba Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Association noted that there was no forensic evidence to use in the conviction of Cormier. There was limited circumstantial evidence, a police sting operation that did not gain a confession, and no forensic evidence to link Cormier to Fontaine’s death. Furthermore, there was DNA evidence of another individual on the duvet covers 1 and none of Cormier’s DNA. A conviction requires evidence to lead to a verdict that is “beyond reasonable doubt”. For the defense to have a successful case, all they needed was a sliver of reasonable doubt. In this trial, the defense provided a significant wedge rather than a sliver. A conviction of Cormier on the evidence provided would have been a miscarriage of justice, and set a dangerous tone for Canadian society moving forward.
Despite the lack of evidence, the public rallied and claimed the acquittal was wrong and that it was due to systematic racial tensions that Cormier was not convicted. The Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Arlen Dumas, commented; “we can no longer maintain these mechanisms that are prescribed to us. If we want reconciliation and truly protect our children and families, we can no longer allow the status quo to exist.” The status quo found Cormier not guilty, not that Tina Fontaine was not murdered. The justice system simply found that the police had charged the wrong individual.
Further polarizing statements such as “Tina’s is a tragic story that demonstrates the failures of all the systems for Indigenous children and youth on every level” were stated by Federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett.2 On every level? Undoubtedly there are issues in governmental systems that are supposed to help protect children, and likewise many social programs in place are insufficient and improperly funded, but in regard to the trial and the conviction, where was the failure? The failure would have to lie with either how the police conducted their investigation or how the court reached its verdict. It would be difficult to contend that the police failed in their investigation. It was not through a failure of resources or efforts of the police that there was no conviction. With the media and the public so engaged over the case, the police were working diligently to create a suspect list and to narrow down this list and lay charges on an individual.
Furthermore, the police conducted a six-month sting operation in an attempt to illicit a confession from Cormier. That leaves the failure in the court system. It was not a lack of justice that prevented a conviction, rather the absence of evidence. With such little evidence to support a conviction many individuals in the legal community expressed surprise that the case was brought before the court. Some would contend that it was due to justice that this case did not result in a conviction. This case is not representative of a failure in the court system, rather it highlights the fact that “beyond reasonable doubt” is taken seriously in the court system and that juries and judges will not convict individuals who may be innocent. The public is quick to draw inferences between Tina Fontaine’s case and other cases of missing or murdered Indigenous individuals. With the recent decision regarding Colten Boushie’s case, it seems that now more than ever the public is demanding guilty verdicts. It is important to remember though that Tina Fontaine was not Colten Boushie and Raymond Cormier was not Gerald Stanley.
The similarities between the two cases on the facts are almost non-existent. The legal parallels highlight how society is attempting to base what it believes to be justice on racial and sociopolitical markers rather than having justice decided by fact and evidence. Society demands justice, and wrongful convictions will not provide justice.
Symbolic prosecutions do nothing to benefit society or help move society towards reconciliation or the truth. While it can be difficult to accept, acquittals can be the right decision for the juries or judges to make when an individual is being tried without sufficient evidence or motive. It is easy to get swept up in the media’s portrayal of a crooked and unjust legal system, but the reality is that the legal system is the best equipped to decide guilt or innocence. It is a long, thorough and sometimes tedious process that looks into details of the case that are not published in the media. In many cases, those writing about the case or reflecting their thoughts have biased perspectives or are not aware of all the evidence presented in the trial.
Many reporters, bloggers, and websites have their own sociopolitical agenda that they are trying to advance through biased and pointed articles. It is naive to believe that all reporting is done without prejudice. While it is easy to claim that the lack of a conviction for Cormier was due to systematic oppression, and undoubtedly this dramatic headline will draw readers in. However, the reality of the situation was not systematic failure that led to an acquittal, but rather a lack of evidence and reasonable doubt. This case highlights that the legal systems requirement for “beyond reasonable doubt” works. Unequivocally it is a tragedy that Tina Fontaine died, and Tina Fontaine’s life was fraught with tragedy, however the acquittal of Cormier is not a tragedy and does not deserve to be treated as such.