Dennis Oland didn’t receive special favours before the courts in his murder re-trial, but the case shows how money can make a difference in mounting a successful defence, say legal experts.
Last week, a judge found Oland not guilty of the bloody 2011 murder of his wealthy father in Saint John – the culmination of six years of legal wrangling.
Oland, 51, was charged with the killing of Richard Oland in 2013.
He waged an exhausting legal battle after he was convicted by a jury in 2015 and spent close to a year in prison. That verdict was overturned on appeal in 2016 and the new trial ordered, this time before judge alone.
The Crown has 30 days to decide if it will appeal the not guilty verdict in the re-trial.
READ MORE: Commentary: Innocent but imprisoned
Nicole O’Byrne, a law professor at the University of New Brunswick, said Oland had the resources to pay a defence team to follow up on every aspect of the case by hiring experts and by taking portions of the case to the Supreme Court of Canada for determination.
“All citizens enjoy the same constitutional rights such as the right to be presumed innocent; however, not all citizens have equal access to resources that may be needed to mount a successful defence,” O’Byrne said in an interview.
“In an era when legal aid services are being cut and the costs of legal representation are continually rising, this case reminds us that access to justice needs to be for everyone and not just for people of means.”
Kirk Makin, co-president of Innocence Canada – a non-profit organization dedicated to identifying and advocating for individuals who may have been wrongfully convicted – says many of the people wrongfully convicted of crimes and later exonerated are poor people who can’t afford the best defence.
“Dennis Oland is a very fortunate man. The difference is profound between someone who has the means to get the best defence and pursue every avenue of appeal vigorously. The vast majority of people don’t,” he said Monday in a telephone interview.
“What we find is a great many of the people who are wrongfully convicted and later exonerated were people who were people of very poor means. They were people who were homeless or otherwise rejected by society or have fallen through the cracks,” he said.
WATCH: Global News coverage of the Dennis Oland murder trial
Makin said lower income people can’t afford the best lawyer, or a team of lawyers, and may have to rely on the legal-aid system for help.
There have been complaints for years that more funding is needed for legal-aid services, but the Ontario government recently slashed spending on Legal Aid Ontario by 30 per cent.
Makin said someone who is able to hire the best lawyers will get better treatment before the courts.
“When a top lawyer such as an Eddie Greenspan walks into court they are taken very seriously. There’s a deference that’s shown to them because of their reputation and skill,” he said.
Makin points to the example of the case of Glen Assoun who spent almost 17 years in prison for his 1999 conviction in the killing of Brenda Way in Halifax in November 1995.
Assoun, who has a Grade 6 education, was forced to defend himself after firing a lawyer who had been appointed by Nova Scotia Legal Aid. He attempted to find a replacement, but when that failed, Justice Suzanne Hood said he’d have to act as his own lawyer.
“There are lawyers who come before the courts who are doing their first trial. Everybody has to start somewhere,” she told Assoun.
Sean MacDonald, the lawyer who was successful in having Assoun’s wrongful conviction overturned in March of this year, said a lack of money played a major role in Assoun’s original conviction.
“In Glen’s case he most certainly did not have access to justice. Everybody deserves a defence. A proper defence costs money and takes resources. When you are on the fringes of society, you don’t have the resources,” MacDonald said.
“Legal aid across the country deserves more money,” he said.
MacDonald said he doesn’t think legal aid services can function adequately without the funds necessary to be able to protect the clients that need protection.
Makin said the United Kingdom has a better system that includes a branch of government that acts like Innocence Canada to look out for the rights of people who may have been wrongfully convicted.