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Political commentary on court verdicts hurts views of justice system: lawyers

VANCOUVER — The public perception of political interference in criminal trials places the independence of Canada’s judiciary system at risk, lawyers say.

Concerns have been raised following federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould’s comments on the acquittal of a white farmer charged in the death of an Indigenous man in Saskatchewan.

Edmonton-based criminal lawyer Tom Engel said when politicians, especially the justice minister, appear to criticize verdicts, the public may believe that future decisions by the courts are influenced by the remarks.

 

Wilson-Raybould said in a tweet that Canada “can and must do better,” after a jury found Gerald Stanley not guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Colten Boushie.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also weighed in at a news conference Saturday, saying Canada has “come to this point as a country far too many times.”

Engel said if the case is appealed, he doesn’t believe the politicians’ comments would colour the decisions made by the appeal courts or Supreme Court of Canada.

The problem, he said, is that the public may perceive that there is an influence.

“You can’t have even that kind of appearance in our justice system,” he said.

Michael Lacy, a partner in the criminal law group Brauti Thorning Zibarras LLP in Toronto, also said politicians “have no business at all” in commenting on the outcome of a trial.

“It undermines the independence of the judicial branch,” he said in an email.

“Saying anything that amounts to commenting on the correctness of the verdict, to improve your public image or ensure an appropriate approval rating, should be criticized in Canada,” Lacy said, adding public figures should stick to offering sympathies over the tragic loss of life.

Rallies were held across the country Saturday to show support for, and solidarity with, the Boushie family.

The trial heard that Boushie was shot in the head while he was sitting in an SUV that had been driven onto Stanley’s farm near Biggar, Sask. Stanley testified that he was trying to scare off Boushie and the others in the vehicle. He said the fatal shot occurred when he reached into the SUV to grab the keys out of the ignition and his gun “just went off.”

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations and Boushie’s family have raised concerns about the trial because there were no visibly Indigenous jurors selected.

Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said Saturday that the courts are rife with systemic racism and the justice system is in need of an overhaul.

Engel said the case does raise questions about the diversity of a jury and how members are selected. He said politicians could use this an opportunity to look at how legislative changes can improve those processes, while steering clear of discussing the verdict.

The use of peremptory challenges to eliminate certain people from juries is a procedure that needs to be reconsidered, he said, adding it’s understandable that people are questioning the apparent whiteness of the jury in this case.

“You can’t go from that fact to say the verdict was wrong. Nobody knows that,” Engel said. “I think the perception that’s been created here is just awful in terms of the integrity of that trial and whether racism played a part.”

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