On Thursday, the day after her last living son’s birthday, Connie Oakes—a Cree woman wrongfully convicted of a brutal murder—walked out of prison free.
A Court of Queen’s Bench judge in Medicine Hat, Alta., set Oakes free after the Crown requested a stay of proceedings in her case.
Oakes was initially found guilty on Nov. 15, 2013, by a Medicine Hat jury of second degree murder in the May 2011 killing of Casey Armstrong.
Armstrong was found dead in the bathtub of his trailer with a puncture wound through the neck that nearly decapitated him. A size 11 bloody boot print found on the bathroom floor was never identified by police investigators.
Two years after she was sentenced to life, with no chance of parole for 14 years, Oakes was facing the prospect of another drawn-out courtroom process following an Alberta Court of Appeal ruling earlier this month that quashed her initial conviction on second degree murder and ordered a new trial.
Her first appearance in the new trial process was initially scheduled for May 13, but the Crown’s office suddenly called for a hearing to speak to the case Thursday.
Oakes, from the Nekaneet First Nation in southern Saskatchewan, appeared before the Court of Queen’s Bench via video link. She wore glasses and a yellow T-shirt. Her Edmonton-based lawyer, Alexandra Seaman, appeared via teleconference.
Oakes’ adoptive mother, her biological mother, cousin and aunt attended the hearing. There were balled up tissues in their hands. They stood by the left wall near the doorway to courtroom one so they could see Oakes on the video screen. The screen was angled toward Justice K. M. Eidsvik who presided over the hearing.
The hearing lasted mere moments and featured one simple request from Crown prosecutor Orest Yerenluk, Alberta’s executive director for regional prosecutions.
“The Crown is requesting a stay of proceedings in this matter,” said Yerenluk.
Eidsvik didn’t take long to consider the request. She said this month’s Court of Appeal ruling on Oakes’ case was widely read by her peers.
“A lot of us were reading it when it came out,” said Eidsvik.
Then, she addressed Yerenluk’s decision to request the stay of proceedings on the murder charge against Oakes saying it “seems like it was the right thing to do.”
Then Eidsvik turned to the screen displaying Oakes, who sat about 500 kilometres away at the Edmonton remand centre.
“This long ordeal is over for you,” said Eidsvik.
Oakes was free.
Her charge was put in “abeyance,” said Yerenluk, in an interview, meaning it will remain in limbo until new, compelling evidence surfaces.
In a telephone interview with APTN National News from the Edmonton jail, Oakes said she wept at Eidsvik’s words.
“I still can’t believe it,” said Oakes. “I had no sleep and I had no idea what to expect.”
Oakes was serving her time at the federal Edmonton Institution for Women. While behind prison bars, her second oldest son Joseph Carry, 22, died from cancer. She was denied the chance to see him before he died and she was denied a trip to his funeral. Oakes’ oldest son, Jameson John, died on Halloween night in 2002.
Oakes’ family also shed tears.
“It is a long time that we waited for this day. We knew it was coming, but when? Today is that day. She is going to walk,” said cousin Linda Oakes.
Margaret Oakes, Connie Oakes’ adoptive mother, said she knew the truth would come out.
“That’s why I said, ‘The truth will come out.’ Today is the day…I felt joy, I just felt so happy,” said Margaret Oakes.
She said Connie Oakes’ son, Jared, celebrated his 14th birthday the day before.
“The two things he wanted was to have a special day for his birthday and to have his mom,” she said.
Marion St. Dennis, Connie Oakes’ biological mother, could barely speak through her emotions.
“I am just happy, happy for her to come home,” said St. Dennis, weeping. “I can’t believe it, she’s out. I’m happy, that is all I can say right now.”
The result of Thursday’s hearing was predicted during Oakes’ January Court of Appeal hearing before a panel of three judges. During arguments, Justice Myra Bielby questioned the Crown as to why it kept insisting the court grant Oakes a new trial if it found a miscarriage of justice occurred in the case.
“Isn’t the inevitable result of a new trial acquittal? So why have it?” said Bielby.
In the end, the Appeal Court split on the final ruling three months later, with Bielby and Justice J.A. Schutz concluding that “frailties in evidence” led to the wrongful conviction of Oakes. Justice Bruce McDonald penned the dissenting opinion.
The frailties in evidence emanated from Oakes’ co-accused in the murder, a woman with an IQ 50 named Wendy Scott. With no murder weapon, DNA or fingerprints, Scott’s often contradictory and scattered testimony formed the sole basis for the Medicine Hat police and trial Crown’s case against Oakes. Scott also accused three other people, two men and a woman, of the murder before pinning the killing on Oakes.
Scott pleaded guilty to second degree murder before Oakes’ trial and was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 10 years.
Last October, the Court of Appeal struck Scott’s guilty plea and quashed her conviction after the Crown admitted there was a “serious” error in the case.
This proved pivotal in undercutting the case against Oakes and played a major role in the Appeal Court’s decision handed down April 6.
Scott is facing trial beginning Jan. 30, 2017.
Yerenluk said he couldn’t comment on why the Crown decided to request a stay on Oakes’ charges while continuing with a new trial against Scott.
“With that trial occurring Jan. 30 it would be inappropriate for me to comment more,” he said.
Yerenluk also wouldn’t comment on the seeming uniqueness of this case where two women who were charged and convicted for the same murder both had their cases overturned and one is now walking free.
Medicine Hat police also used Scott’s upcoming trial as the main reason why the force wouldn’t comment on Thursday’s outcome.
“It wouldn’t be prudent for me to comment,” said Insp. Tim McGough.
When pressed on whether he still had faith in the original investigation that led to murder charges against Oakes and Scott, McGough again demurred, citing Scott’s upcoming trial.
Armstrong’s daughter Karli Armstrong said she was aware of Thursday’s ruling, but did not provide any comment. Armstrong also has a son named Tanner Armstrong.