(Linda Oakes, whose niece Connie Oakes is fighting a murder conviction, tells reporters outside the Calgary courthouse that there was a miscarriage of justice. APTN/Photo)
APTN National News
CALGARY—Connie Oakes, a Cree woman currently fighting a murder conviction, would likely be acquitted if she were granted a new trial, a Court of Appeal of Alberta justice suggested Tuesday.
Justice Myra Bielby made the statement during Oakes’ appeal hearing while questioning Crown Brian Graff as to why he kept insisting that if the Court of Appeal determined there was a miscarriage of justice it should not acquit but grant a new trial. Oakes’ hearing was held in a 14th floor courtroom at the Calgary Court Centre.
“Isn’t the inevitable result of a new trial acquittal? So why have it?” said Bielby.
The Court of Appeal’s three judge panel—Bielby, Justice J.D. Bruce McDonald and Justice F.L. Schutz—pushed and prodded both Oakes’ defence lawyers and the Crown throughout the hearing. Their focus, which was revealed in a letter sent by the court to both sides early last week, was on whether Oakes’ guilty verdict should be set aside on grounds there was not enough evidence to support it.
The three justices reserved judgement on the appeal and a ruling is expected within one to six months.
Oakes, who is from the Nekaneet First Nation in southern Saskatchewan, sat in the prisoner’s box like stone throughout the hearing. She wore dark-rimmed eyeglasses and a dark Neechie Gear shirt.
“I was nervous as hell,” said Oakes, in a phone call with APTN National News from the Calgary jail following the hearing. “I needed to know how good of a fight (my lawyers) were going to put up…I think they fought well.”
The murder case against Oakes was built solely on the confession and testimony of her co-accused, Wendy Scott, a woman with an intellectual disability who has been assessed as having an IQ of 50. Scott told police she constantly lied and admitted the same while testifying under oath.
Oakes said Tuesday evening that Scott was also being held at the Calgary jail and, despite being in a different zones, they had seen each other. Oakes said some of the inmates told her Scott was talking about the case.
“Wendy is here, she is telling people I caused her all this chaos,” said Oakes.
Oakes was found guilty of second-degree murder by a jury in November 2013 of the 2011 slaying of a Medicine Hat, Alta., man named Casey Armstrong. She was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 14 years.
With no DNA evidence, fingerprints or murder weapon, the Medicine Hat police and Crown built their case on Scott who told police she was involved in the murder and saw Oakes kill Armstrong with a knife.
Scott pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentence to life with no chance of parole for 10 years.
There was no forensic evidence introduced during trial indicating puncture wound through the neck that killed Armstrong was caused by a knife blade. Police also failed to trace the source of a size 11 bloody boot print discovered on the floor when Armstrong’s body was found in the bathtub of his trailer.
Scott accused three other people—two men and a woman—of the murder before implicating herself and Oakes.
In October, the Court of Appeal struck Scott’s guilty plea, quashed her conviction of second degree murder and ordered a new trial. The trial date for Scott’s trial is expected to be set on Feb. 12. Scott last appeared before the Court of Queen’s Bench in Medicine Hat on Friday and told the presiding judge she was being transferred to the jail in Lethbridge, Alta. As of Tuesday evening, Scott was still being held in Calgary.
Part of Oakes’ appeal is based on a fresh evidence application in the form of an affidavit sworn by Scott.
The affidavit is still sealed until the Court of Appeal rules on its admissibility. Justice McDonald said the court would deliver their decision on the fresh evidence at the same time they issue the final verdict.
According to the affidavit, Scott states that she doesn’t believe Oakes was at the crime scene, according to sections of the document which were discussed during the hearing Tuesday.
Scott also stated in the affidavit that police interrogators pointed out the vehicle to her that they believed was used in the murder. She also claimed to have confessed to her and Oakes’ involvement because she was “very afraid” and “wanted to be safe,” according to sections of the affidavit mentioned during the hearing.
Scott’s affidavit also stated that she was interrogated by police from June 2011 to December 2011, six months longer than disclosed to Oakes’ defence during trial.
Graff said Scott’s affidavit did not meet the bar required for a true recantation to qualify as fresh evidence. The affidavit did not provide enough details beyond Scott’s belief Oakes wasn’t at the crime scene, said Graff. He also said Scott’s allegations against the police were challenged by Medicine Hat officers through their own affidavits.
Graff stated that that despite some problems with Scott’s testimony, the 12 members of the jury chosen for Oakes’ trial determined that it was enough to convict her on second-degree murder.
He said the Appeal Court judges should let the jury verdict stand.
“My position is we don’t have a miscarriage of justice at all,” said Graff.
Oakes’ lawyer Aleksandra Simic said much of Scott’s credibility during the trial came from her guilty plea for second-degree murder in connection with the Armstrong killing. With the guilty plea now struck, part of the case presented to the jury at trial was based on a “legal fiction.”
“We were asking (the jury) to perform an impossible task,” said Simic.
After the Crown wrapped up submissions by dissecting some of the action of Oakes’ trial defence lawyer, Bielby offered another observation.
“Sometimes a miscarriage of justice just happens, they are not the fault of anyone at the time,” said Bielby.
Nine members of Oakes’ family attended the hearing and they sat together to the right of the judges.
On the other side of the gallery sat Armstrong’s two children, Karli and Tanner Armstrong.
Outside the courtroom, Oakes’ aunt Linda Oakes became emotional when asked by several reporters about how she felt following the hearing.
“I want to see her set free,” she said. “We all know she didn’t do it.”
As for Armstrong’s children, they said the now five year-long ordeal was taking its toll on their emotions.
“I am sure you can all imagine that it’s not that great. We lost our father, it sucks, that is all I can really say about that,” said Tanner Armstrong.