On July 19, 2019, Dennis Oland was found not guilty in the bloody, bludgeoning death of his father, New Brunswick multimillionaire Richard Oland. Proceedings spanned eight years — including a conviction, successful appeal, retrial, mistrial, and ultimately, an acquittal.

In the wake of Oland’s acquittal, much has, and will continue to be written, and discussed about the decision. However, there is one question that has occupied the public mind, and continues to attract the most attention: did Oland kill his father?

Many people believe that he did in fact commit the heinous crime alleged.

After that, many often quickly turn attention to a very different question. The question, as it is sometimes put, is whether, in Oland’s case, “justice was served.”

These are distinct questions. And they must remain so. The key to understanding why these questions are different, and in turn, the significance of the verdict in the Oland case, is understanding the importance of the presumption of innocence.

The Presumption of Innocence

When a person is charged with a crime, they are presumed to be innocent. They do not need to prove anything. The Crown must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

The notion of “reasonable doubt” entails that a court may be satisfied that an individual is probably guilty. It may even be satisfied that an individual is likely guilty. However, this is not sufficient. An acquittal must follow.

The presumption of innocence was first articulated in the commonwealth in the House of Lords case, Woolmington v DPP.

It is now protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Supreme Court of Canada has described it as “a hallowed principle lying at the very heart of criminal law that confirms our faith in humankind.” The principle is deeply rooted in our collective belief in the importance of human liberty. Liberty lost, even for a day, can never be fully compensated.

The most important role that the presumption of innocence plays in our criminal justice system, is to protect against the punishment of the morally innocent. Our strict adherence to this principle reflects a sober acknowledgement of our shortcomings. Within our criminal institutions, the system by which we investigate, prosecute and pass judgment, is a human process. It is imperfect. We are reminded of this, in tragic cases of wrongful conviction, reflected in cases such as Steven Truscott and David Milgaard.

Hard cases

This is all well and good. But notions such as “presumed innocent” and “reasonable doubt” do not exist in the abstract. They must be applied in real cases.

These abstract notions take on new meaning, in the face of the most heinous crimes — crimes that shock our conscience. These are hard cases. And often they arise in a climate of public hostility and accompanying clamour for a conviction.

Herein, lies the significance of the case of Dennis Oland. The case involved the gruesome murder of a 69-year-old businessman, killed in his Saint John, N.B., office by 45 blows with a hammer-like weapon. He was a public figure, and the case garnered significant public and media attention.

To compound matters, before Oland’s successful appeal, a jury of his peers had convicted him of the crime alleged.

As part of a 146-page decision, Justice Terrence Morrison’s analysis reflects a rigid adherence to the presumption of innocence. As he emphasizes throughout his judgment “more than suspicion is needed to convict someone of murder” and “probable guilt is not enough.”

Justice Morrison identified that the case against Oland was circumstantial. He found that there was “much to implicate Oland,” in the death of his father, including evidence that was “troublesome.”

However, through a rigid application of the criminal burden of proof, he ultimately determined that there were too many gaps in the evidence. Whether the Crown had established that Oland was probably, or even likely guilty, was not relevant. It had not proven its case reasonable doubt.

Identifying correct question

Returning to the question posed above, in the wake of the decision in Oland, many will continue to ask the first question: whether Oland was, in fact, the killer. But in the criminal justice system, as Justice Morrison’s decision confirms, this is not the correct question.

Instead, the correct question is much closer to the second posed above: whether, in the Oland case, justice was served. This is the question that is most important. But it is also the most complex. And often, it is the most difficult to understand.

True adherence to the presumption of innocence requires us to accept that in some cases, and perhaps many cases, we will see an individual walk free in the face of a serious crime. This will often arise in the face of evidence that they possibly, and even probably committed the crime for which they had been charged.

In these cases, an acquittal may, not surprisingly, be met with public outcry. Such is a natural visceral reaction. Many will be unwilling to accept such an outcome as a reflection of justice served. References to principles, such as the presumption of innocence — that purport to “confirm our faith in humankind” — may well ring hollow, for some, in the face of senseless criminal acts, which threaten that very same faith in the deepest and most profound ways.

In the face of such acts, a finding of guilt may well bring comfort and a degree of closure. But absent more than probable guilt, such closure cannot be provided in the form of a conviction. To find otherwise, would be to risk the tragedy of a crime, being compounded by the further tragedy of an unsafe conviction.

Because the presumption of innocence lies at the heart of our criminal law, the question of whether justice is served is a direct function of the extent to which a verdict adheres to this principle. For this reason, an abrogation of this principle, resulting in an unsafe conviction, does not serve justice. In fact, the opposite is the case.

For while it may seem counterintuitive, in the moment, an acquittal in an immediate case, which vindicates the presumption of innocence, serves to promote the long-term functionality of the justice system. This is particularly the case in a contemporary political climate where we observe a proclivity to pander to law and order demands. In such a climate, it bears repeating, as Canadian politician and jurist Thomas Berger once stated, “our freedoms are fragile.”

In closing, in the case of Dennis Oland, the question of whether justice was served may remain contentious. But Justice Morrison’s reasons for judgment, commendable in their rigour and clarity, exhibit an application of the presumption of innocence that is at once dispassionate and courageous.

For one fully appraised of the importance of the values at stake, and their place within the normative structures of our society, the decision offers reason, and good reason, to maintain belief and confidence in the judicial process.

This article was originally published in Lawyer’s Daily, on August 1, 2019 – https://www.thelawyersdaily.ca/articles/14189/oland-trial-highlights-presumption-of-innocence