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Sunday, December 10, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

DNA Murder Case Charts New Ground in Canada

In a murder case involving “uncharted territory” in Canadian law, a British Columbia man convicted of killing his family in 1995 claims that prosecutors are denying his legal team access to evidence for DNA testing that may prove his innocence.

VANCOUVER, B.C. (CN) — In a murder case involving “uncharted territory” in Canadian law, a British Columbia man convicted of killing his family in 1995 claims that prosecutors are denying his legal team access to evidence for DNA testing that may prove his innocence.

Dean Christopher Roberts was convicted in 1995 of the July 1994 murders of his wife and infant sons in the small community of Cranbrook in Southeastern British Columbia.

In his March 17 petition to the British Columbia Supreme Court, Roberts asks the court to order the province's attorney general to make exhibits from his case available for testing, including a cigarette butt found near the body of his son Josiah, fingernail clippings from the body of his wife Susan, ropes found on the necks of Josiah and Susan, and bags near where their bodies were found.

Roberts' conviction rested upon a confession made to undercover police officers in a controversial "Mr. Big" sting, where police pose as high-level underworld crime figures who goad suspects into admitting past criminal conduct, according to the 6-page petition.

Roberts’ attorney Jeffrey Campbell told Courthouse News in a phone interview that case law involving post-conviction testing of evidence is scant in Canada.

“In other countries, there is authority, there are statutes or policies about post-conviction disclosure and DNA testing,” Campbell said. “In Canada, we don't have very much legal authority in this area, so that's why this case is so interesting. It’s kind of uncharted territory in this country.”

Use of the Mr. Big sting and scanty physical evidence puts the conviction on shaky ground, Campbell said. Though Roberts appealed unsuccessfully in 1997, Campbell added. Mr. Big stings can produce dubious confessions.

“Because of the tactics and the very strong incentives that are offered during these Mr. Big investigations, it can lead to confessions that may be unreliable, so that's why they're controversial. And this was one of the early Mr. Big cases in British Columbia, so it's one of the first of its kind, and I think they do things differently now than they did back in those days,” Campbell added.

“In this case, the conviction was based mainly on a Mr. Big confession. There was very little evidence other than the Mr. Big confession.”

The British Columbian Criminal Justice Branch did not respond to requests for comment on the case.

Bringing the case to court, Campbell said, was the culmination of a lengthy process involving the Innocence Project at the University of British Columbia and discussions with Crown prosecutors that were unsuccessful.

“We were hoping to do this by some kind of an agreement based on a principled approach where we are simply trying to uncover the truth or uncover relevant evidence that may not have been known at the time of the trial,” the attorney said.

“The good thing about a court application is that it may provide guidance not only for this case, but for other cases about when should exhibits be permitted to be tested after a conviction. ... All those are important questions for the criminal justice system as a whole, and at this point, we don't know the answers to those questions.”

Categories / Civil Rights, Criminal

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