Man found not guilty of groping girls at West Edmonton Mall waterpark
On Friday in a packed Edmonton courtroom, a judge dismissed all of the charges against a man accused of sexually assaulting six teenage girls at the West Edmonton Mall waterpark because of insufficient evidence.
Two visibly upset girls left the room as the judge was reading her decision, while supporters of Soleiman Hajj Soleiman could be heard saying “It’s over” and “Oh, that’s a relief.”
Soleiman was arrested in February 2017 and charged with six counts of sexual assault and six counts of sexual interference after several teenagers reported being touched by a man in the wave pool.
Before announcing her decision, Justice Joyce Lester talked about how eyewitness accounts can sometimes be unreliable and explained how it affected her decision.
She said the girls gave a range of descriptions of the suspect: some said he had no facial hair, while others said he had a big beard. Some said he was bald; others said he had dark hair.
Lester said she had concerns about cross-contamination of witness testimony and possible unintentional collusion among the complainants.
All the girls were under 16 at the time and were at the waterpark for an evening event Feb. 4, 2017.
When Soleiman’s trial began early this year, one of the witnesses, who was 14 at the time of the incident, said she was in the wave pool with friends when she was touched twice from behind, once on the breast and once on the butt. She testified she turned around and saw a man walking away and saw his face for a brief moment.
The girls approached lifeguards at the wave pool. Lester said there was no evidence to confirm the person pointed out by the girls was the one responsible for the alleged touching, and no evidence he was the same person later followed by pool staff.
The judge said court heard about multi-coloured goggles on the offender but noted Soleiman wasn’t seen wearing goggles, and goggles were not recovered by police at the waterpark or on Soleiman.
Lester said she believes something untoward happened on that day, but she was not convinced Soleiman was the man responsible. She said the court accepted the testimony of many of the girls and their age did not weaken it. But she also said evidence must be reliable and it would be an injustice to convict due to inconsistencies.
There were audible sighs in the courtroom at that point, when she dismissed the charges.
The trial, which was standing room only, was translated into Arabic for Soleiman, who is originally from Syria and a father of six children. After the decision, Soleiman put his head in his hands and fell to his knees, appearing to be overcome with emotion.
Dave Trautman spoke to the media on behalf of a group that sponsored the Soleiman family to come to Canada. He was pleased with the decision.
“I can’t speak to how he feels but I know what I tell him is the court system here is fair. He can trust it,” he said.
Crown prosecutor Laurie Trahan said she was disappointed.
“What’s important, I think, to take away from this verdict — all of these complainants were believed, there’s no doubt all six of them were sexually assaulted,” she said.
“The issue was whether or not the Crown could prove it and the court today decided that we did not.”
Trahan disagreed with one aspect of the judge’s decision: cross contamination of testimony between the alleged victims.
“It’s regrettable that the logical, rational reaction to being sexually assaulted is not something that the court appreciates.
“It’s not at all unusual for a woman or a girl who gets sexually assaulted to talk to her friends,” she said.
Trahan said it is too early to say whether she will file an appeal.
Three different biker groups showed up at the Edmonton courtroom Friday to support the complainants. The groups said they appear at court a few times a year to provide comfort and support to kids who are abused.
“It’s a nasty situation going through the court process and we’re just here to try and help ease it and keep them calm,” said Vinny Wilcox, president of the Urban Bulldogs Against Kids Abuse, prior to the decision.
Outside the courthouse after the charges were dismissed, Wilcox said the group will still be available to the young woman anytime they want.
“We just have to be strong for them right now,” he said.
“We have to be ready to accept any verdict.
“It’s our justice system, we have to accept it. Of course we’re not happy what’s happened, because the girls we’re supporting are very hurt.”
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