APTN National News
The Court of Appeal of Alberta, citing “frailties in the evidence,” overturned on Wednesday the murder conviction of a Cree woman from Nekaneet First Nation and ordered a new trial after a finding a “miscarriage of justice” occurred in her case.
The three judges on the Alberta Appeal Court split on the decision, with Justice Bruce McDonald penning a dissenting opinion.
The other two judges, Justice Myra Bielby and Justice J.A. Schutz, concluded in the majority ruling that recent related developments in the case against Connie Oakes, which relied almost exclusively on the testimony of the co-accused Wendy Scott who was described as an “unsavoury witness,” warranted her conviction of second degree murder be overturned and a new trial ordered.
Oakes, who is from the southern Saskatchewan Cree community of Nekaneet, was serving a life sentence in the Edmonton Institution for Women with no change of parole for 14 years after a Medicine Hat, Alta., jury found her guilty in the 2011 murder of Casey Armstrong, 48. Armstrong was found dead in his bathtub with a puncture wound through the neck from a blow that nearly decapitated him.
It’s expected she will now be moved to the provincial remand centre in Medicine Hat.
Oakes has maintained her innocence of the murder from the moment she was first interviewed by Medicine Hat police.
The judges determined that last October’s Court of Appeal ruling striking Scott’s guilty plea in and order of a new trial further weakened the testimony on which the Crown built its case against Oakes. The ruling highlighted the trial Crown’s emphasis on Scott’s guilty plea to buttress her problematic testimony during trial which was replete with contradictions and inconsistencies. Scott was assessed as having an IQ of 50.
“The emphasis thus put on Ms. Scott’s apparent admission of personal responsibility as an aid in assessing credibility, an admission now set aside and thus irrelevant, was repeatedly highlighted to the jury,” said the ruling. “Given the frailties in Ms. Scott’s testimony and also the purported independent confirmatory evidence, the jury may well not have been able to get to a guilty verdict without the ‘finding of guilt’ by another judge in relation to Ms. Scott, a finding which has now been set aside in favour of retrial…The fresh evidence places the reliability of Ms. Oakes’ conviction in serious doubt.”
Scott’s trial is scheduled to begin next February.
Scott also swore in an affidavit that she “did not believe Connie Oakes was at Casey Armstrong’s trailer and I wanted to help her.”
The judges also listed the litany of problems in the case built against Oakes.
“No forensic evidence, evidence of motive or other evidence linked Ms. Oakes, or any other particular perpetrator, to the murder,” said the ruling, which also highlighted Medicine Hat police failed to identify a bloody boot print found in Armstrong’s bathroom. “Rather, the only evidence identifying Ms. Oakes as the murderer was the testimony of Ms. Scott, who admitted she herself was present when the murder was committed and, during cross-examination, agreed that she had earlier identified three other individuals as the murderer to the police…Ms. Scott testified that she had lied to the police when she accused each of these three other people.”
One of Oakes’ lawyers Alexandra Seaman said she was “thrilled” the majority on the Appeal Court overturned the murder conviction.
“The majority of the Court of Appeal was quite clear a miscarriage of justice has occurred in this case,” said Seaman.
Seaman said the focus will now turn to the Court of Queen’s Bench in Medicine Hat which will again be the scene of Oakes’ retrial.
No court date has yet been set to being that process, but Seaman said she will be working on getting Oakes a bail hearing and a trial date as early as possible.
The Crown has the opportunity to take Wednesday’s decision to the Supreme Court because of the dissenting opinion.
The Crown’s office issued a statement saying there would be no comment because the matter is still before the courts.
Oakes was a “little disappointed” with the ruling because she was hoping for an acquittal, said her aunt Linda Oakes.
“She sounded a little disappointed,” said Oakes, who spoke with Connie Oakes Wednesday morning. “She said she needed to get out because her mom is not doing good.”
Linda Oakes said the family is now hoping Connie Oakes will soon get on bail.
“With the new trial, how are they going to do that, they never had any evidence to begin with,” said Linda Oakes. “We were hoping she’d get out, mom is not doing so good, she needs to be out here.”
Connie Oakes’ aging mother Margaret Oakes has been dealing with health issues related to diabetes.
The ruling left Armstrong’s daughter, Karli Armstrong confused and saddened.
“I don’t know what to think,” she said. “My heart is broken.”
The ruling also suggested another woman, nicknamed Ginger, may have been involved in the killing. Scott initially accused Ginger of the murder during police interrogations before settling on Oakes. The ruling said the only supporting evidence submitted during trial on the possible identity of Armstrong’s murder came from an eye witness who saw two women, one with red hair, standing by a red car outside Armstrong’s residence.
“The neighbour’s evidence more strongly supports the identification of the person earlier identified by Ms. Scott as being the killer, Ginger, as that independent witness testified that one of the two women she saw had reddish hair as did Ginger, who also owned a red car at the time,” said the ruling.
APTN independently confirmed that the red car Medicine Hat police believed was used in the murder was bought with cash and crack by a drug dealer named Ginger who has red hair. APTN knows the identity of Ginger.
The ruling also highlighted that Scott only accused Oakes of the murder after police interrogators told her they had found her DNA in the trailer and that Oakes had implicated her in the crime.
“We now know both those statements were false, but suggests that Ms. Scott then named various parties as the killer to deflect attention from her own involvement,” said the ruling. “Ms. Scott’s evidence was exceedingly frail as to her implication of Ms. Oakes, and the evidence which purported to be independent and confirmatory was evidence which did not unequivocally or reliably identify her as the murderer.”
In his dissent, McDonald determined Oakes’ appeal had no merit.
“The subsequent overturning of Ms. Scott’s conviction, her so-called ‘recantation,’ and her disputed and implausible allegations of police impropriety do not demonstrate a miscarriage of justice,” wrote McDonald.