A Nova Scotia provincial court judge on Tuesday acquitted a man charged in a 2018 sexual assault, setting the stage for a review of whether Halifax police failed to gather key evidence in the case.
Judge Jill Hartlen told the court she found Carrie Low’s account of being sexually assaulted by two men on May 18, 2018, to be disturbing and credible.
Drawing from evidence heard at trial, the judge said Low was driven in a car from a Halifax bar to a trailer on the outskirts of the city as she drifted in and out of consciousness. Low awoke the next morning bruised and on a bare mattress, wearing only a bra and tank top.
“The last two fragments of memory (of that night) are horrific,” Hartlen said. “She briefly regained her memory twice to find unknown men having penetrative sex with her.” Low had testified that she recalled crying out that she was being hurt and asking for the assault to stop.
However, Hartlen said the flashbacks Low described from that night didn’t prove that Brent Alexander Julien was among her attackers, adding that there was no DNA evidence implicating the accused.
The judge concluded that a third man — seen in video footage from inside the bar where Low was socializing — had been wearing clothing that more closely fit the victim’s description of one of her two attackers.
“Based on all the evidence, and lack of evidence … I’m not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the second man who had sex with Ms. Low was Mr. Julien and he is acquitted,” Hartlen said.
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The judge noted that Low had described her second assailant as having either worn a light-coloured shirt or as having a bare top with some form of tattoos, while Julien had been wearing a dark T-shirt.
The sexual assault charge against Julien is the second criminal prosecution in the five-year-old case.
In 2021, Halifax police charged Alexander Thomas of East Preston, N.S., with sexual assault, but before his trial began Thomas was found dead in what police said was a homicide.
The judge said a third man, whom she referred to as “T,” was seen socializing at the bar with Thomas and Julien but left at approximately the same time as the two others, and was inside the trailer when Low woke up.
Low — who sought and received a court order permitting her name to be made public — has alleged that police mishandled key evidence in her case by not visiting the scene after the sexual assault.
On Tuesday, she said outside court she could now pursue a civil action against the police, as well as a long-delayed case before the Nova Scotia Police Review Board. The review board hearing is set to begin on July 10.
Low’s lawyer, Emma Halpern, the director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, said Tuesday that police missed a key opportunity to collect DNA evidence.
“They didn’t go to the crime scene,” Halpern said. “They never collected (Low’s) underwear. We know there was a DNA issue in this case. There was a second (person’s) DNA but it was not enough to be able to match with anybody.”
“We know there were other people in that trailer. We know (Lowe’s) shoe was there. We know she was on a mattress. All of that could have provided us with samples of DNA that we don’t have,” Halpern added.
Low said she was mentally prepared for an acquittal but found it “shocking to hear.”
“When I reported (the sexual assault), if police had taken it seriously and investigated within a matter of hours and days, I don’t think we would be standing here with the same conclusion,” she said.
Outside court, Crown prosecutor Alicia Kennedy said there was strong DNA evidence against Thomas, adding that the specimen would have assisted in his prosecution had his case gone to trial.
Asked about whether there would be a case against the man referred to as “T,” Kennedy said police were never able to identify him.
“It’s for police to continue those efforts,” she said.
Halifax police said in an email they would review the case in detail and determine their next steps.
Meanwhile, defence lawyer Jonathan Hughes said his client was relieved by the verdict.
“In terms of what came out in evidence, it was absolutely the right decision,” he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 23, 2023.