Wrongful Convictions

Canada’s legal history is replete with many examples of wrongful convictions. Some wrongful convictions have been overturned or otherwise rectified later by appeals or by commissions struck by the government to examine the circumstances of possible wrongful convictions. Sadly, wrongful convictions have happened far more than anyone in the legal system likes to admit. Some of these cases will be referred to in the Chapters ahead. Continue reading “Wrongful Convictions”

The Onerous Duty (Part 1)

It should first be noted that section 215 reverses the onus of proof from the prosecution to the accused. The section provides specifically, “fails without lawful excuse, the proof of which lies on him.” In specific terms the section requires the accused person to prove that at the material time he had a lawful excuse not to perform a duty imposed upon him by law. Stephen Jurkus fortunately was able to do so at least to the satisfaction of the jury who decided his fate.

Stephen Jurkus met his onus of proof by demonstrating with evidence that despite overseeing the EMDC at the time of the murder, that a whole series of incidents witnessed by other prison guards under his authority were not shared with him.
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The Tale of Stephen Jurkus: Senior Official in Charge of the EMDC

An inmate was murdered by another inmate in their shared jail cell late at night while the accused, Stephen Jurkus, was the senior officer in charge of the prison at the time of the murder. Stephen Jurkus was charged with failing to provide necessaries of life for the inmate who was murdered. Stephen Jurkus was acquitted by a jury in London Ontario. His case describes how treacherous it may be when our law provides for crime upon an allegation that a person has failed to perform a duty, and in doing so, endangers the life of a person to whom that duty is owed.

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Duty to Act (Part 2)

While it is not generally the function of the criminal law to impose positive duties upon people, in some, albeit relatively rare circumstances, our law punishes those who fail to act and in failing to act their failure may be enough to warrant punishment for that failure to meet a lawful requirement.

Example of a Crime Based Upon a Failure to Act

The warden of a large federal prison in London Ontario, the Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre (the “EMDC)”, was charged with failing to provide the ‘necessaries of life’ to an inmate contrary to section 215 of the Code. Section 215 of the Criminal Code creates an explicit duty on the part of persons in authority, such as a parent or guardian or jailer, to provide the necessaries of life to those that they are under a legal duty to protect. The offence is committed when a person under a legal duty to protect another person, and, while under that duty to protect another, fails without lawful excuse, the proof of which lies upon the person with the duty and only if the person with the duty fails to perform that duty thereby endangering the life of the person to whom the duty is owed.

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The Physical Element of Crime May Include a Duty to Act

Generally, there cannot be a crime without a criminal act. This fact is almost always true. The ‘criminal act’ in criminal law is referred to as the actus reus. This Latin phrase translates literally into a “guilty act.” It is an essential element of almost every criminal offence.
It requires a willing mind having the capacity to make a choice and choosing to commit a criminal act.

Therefore, the elements of most crimes require a physical element and a mental element.

The physical element requires only a movement or act on the part of the accused. The mental element has two components, namely, a conscious awareness of the movement or act, and a conscious awareness or desire to achieve the consequences of the act. It is when the two elements combine in the doing of a criminal act that criminal responsibility attaches to the actions of an accused.

The combining of a criminal act with the mental element of wishing to achieve the consequences of the act is the necessary combination to establish both mens rea and actus reus fulfilling the classic definition of crime. Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple.

Sometimes our law includes a ‘duty to act.’ And, where our law imposes a duty to act, a criminal offence may be committed for failure to act as required by law.

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Reasonable Doubt (part 2)

Reasonable Doubt

(continued from part 1)

The problem with attempting to define reasonable doubt is that many jurors still struggle with understanding the instructions they receive from the Judge concerning its meaning. Most Judges will tell a jury that proof beyond a reasonable doubt falls much closer to absolute certainty than to proof on a balance of probabilities. In this writer’s experience when the trial Judge attempts to explain reasonable doubt as a doubt that falls much closer to absolute certainty than to proof on a balance of probabilities, juries often deliberate for a while, then return to the courtroom and ask the presiding Judge to explain the concept more clearly or in greater detail.
We have become accustomed to jurors asking questions such as:
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Reasonable Doubt (part 1)

Reasonable Doubt

The phrase “reasonable doubt” is central to our criminal justice system. Judges will instruct a jury that a reasonable doubt is not an imaginary, far-fetched or frivolous doubt. It is, instead, a doubt based on reason and common sense. It is not a doubt based on sympathy for or prejudice against anyone, including the accused. Reasonable doubt usually arises naturally from the evidence, or the absence of evidence. Proof of the commission of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt does not extend to proof to an absolute certainty. In non-legalistic terms, proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt requires that the Judge or jury making the decision must be satisfied that the guilt of the accused has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Consequently, if the Judge or jury are not sure that the accused is guilty, they are required to find the accused not guilty of the crime alleged.

(see part 2)

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Presumption of Innocence and Burden of Proof

Every trial court acts upon the principle that the accused is presumed innocent until the prosecution proves his or her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. All courts accept that this obligation to presume a person’s innocence may, sometimes make proof of guilt so difficult that there may be an acquittal even in circumstances where the accused is, in fact, guilty.

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